Fall has arrived. School is back in session. And the tourist season is settling down. This makes it the perfect time to visit Orlando, theme park capital of the world? Actually there is more going on in Orlando than just the Mouse or the movie studio and their giant lands of fun. The dining scene has started to develop its own culture, with a combination of creativity and energy. The bar scene is embracing the mixology trend head on. And some shops focus on fun once you walk through the door.
Here are some of our favorite places in Orlando. Check them out the next time you visit and bypass the lines at the parks.
Prato: Taking brick-oven pizzas to the next level, this bar and restaurant have the energy of a place where you want to be seen, but the service of a solid restaurant with creative food choices. A garden wall is full of plants and shrubs, and a glowing bar seems to run the length of this modern yet rustic restaurant (think exposed brick paired with warm wooden tables). When you enter, the music is pumping and the crowd is festive — not overly dressed, but looking sharp. The menu of house-made Italian cuisine has favorites like the Widowmaker pizza (which features a cooked egg in the center) or black pepper tagliatelle pasta, house-cured meats like the carpaccio. Nightly specials are listed on the oversized chalkboards.
Details: 124 N. Park Ave., Winter Park; 407-262-0050; www.prato-wp.com
4 Rivers Smokehouse: Any restaurant that carries a selection of classic, hard-to-find sodas has to be good. But it doesn’t stop there for this Texas-style barbecue joint that started out three years ago in a small, undersized location that could be spotted by the line of patrons waiting for hours outside the door. From the signature angus brisket to the southern short ribs, it’s no wonder it’s been voted the best place for barbecue in Central Florida. And leave room for the flavored cupcakes (like Coca-Cola or peanut butter) made in-house at the Sweet Shop. Soon to open more locations in Florida, as well as a chicken-based concept called The Coop, 4 Rivers is named after Chef John Rivers and his family. The dining room features indoor and outdoor picnic tables, as well as booth seating, and your serving tray is actually your plate, so expect portions to be large.
Details: 1600 W. Fairbanks Ave., Winter Park; 321-972-4398; 4rsmokehouse.com.
Christner’s Prime Steak and Lobster: Red leather booths. Tiffany lamps. Dark wood walls with paintings you would find in a cigar room. Vintage scotch, whiskey and wine bottles on display in glass cases. Oversized cocktails and large pours of wine by the glass. A nightly piano player at the Piano Lounge bar taking requests. Table-side magician on Saturdays who performs between courses. This is definitely old school. But the intimacy (despite its massive size) and top-class service are what keep people coming back to what was formerly known as Del Frisco’s. (The Christner family kept everything the same but changed the name when the contract with Del Frisco’s recently expired.) Otherwise diners are coming back for the prime aged steaks, which have been voted the best two years running by Orlando Magazine.
Details: 729 Lee Rd., Orlando; 407-645-4443; www.christnersprimesteakandlobster.com
Cask & Larder: Sister restaurant to the famed Ravenous Pig, this Southern cookery features a bar heavy on bourbon and whiskey as well as a microbrewery. The bar is a late-night favorite for locals and a good spot to eat small dishes like their fresh-shucked oysters, melon salad or fritters. The restaurant decor is plantation-light and mixes an open kitchen concept with a mix of tables and booths for seating. Among the favorites on the menu are the potted pimento cheese, topped with a thin layer of ham jam. A true Southern Public House.
Details: 565 W. Fairbanks Ave., Winter Park; 321-280-4200; www.caskandlarder.com
Hanson’s Shoe Repair: This could be the ultimate speakeasy in the Southeast. It’s located behind a secure door on the second floor of NV bar, and you must have that night’s password to enter. (Get that password by following Hanson’s on Facebook.) Once you are through that door, you head up a flight of steps to the third floor bar, which seats only 35 people. The names of the bartenders are written on a chalkboard, and you must address them by name to be served. Each night the menu of drinks changes, and those are the only drinks that will be served. There are no televisions, just very dim lighting and nostalgic music that the Gatsby himself would enjoy.
Details: 27 E. Pine St., Orlando; 407-476-9446; Facebook.com/hansonsshoerepair
The Courtesy: Smack in the middle of downtown is a small, friendly bar that feels like it should be in Colorado instead of Orlando. Having recently celebrated its first anniversary, it was one of the first Orlando bars to bring mixology to the nightlife scene. Explain what your taste buds prefer, and the bartender will come up with just the right drink. Or you can choose from the menu, which changes but features plenty of gin- or bourbon-based drinks, classic daiquiris and even shots of absinthe. Behind the bar is a large, multi-drawer cabinet where pharmacists would have kept key ingredients. Here it houses all of the spirits as well as the house-made tonics and bitters. Tip: make sure to get there early, as the place doesn’t take much to fill up, and the velvet rope outside is more to handle the overflow than to create a VIP vibe. The bar also offers mixology classes twice a month.
Details: 114 N. Orange Ave., Orlando; 407-450-2041; www.thecourtesybar.com
The Woods: Tucked above the The Lodge bar is this lounge and bar space with a rustic yet preppy feel. What you can’t help but notice is the very long bar itself, made from one piece of a very, very large tree. Owner Jason Anderson found the tree and he and his team cut it into several pieces before reassembling it for the bar. Even the shelving behind the bar is made from this same tree. Behind the bar is a massive collection of craft beers, solid Moscow mules, and plenty of whiskeys and ryes. There are occasional themed nights with live music or shoe shine happy hour or ladies’ night where the cocktails are $5.
Details: 49 N. Orange Ave., Orlando; 407-203-1114; www.thewoodsorlando.com
The Pharmacy: You may not be able to find this bar right away. With what looks like elevators on either side of you, press the button and, woosh, the “elevator” doors open to the bar inside. Once again mixology leads the way, with cocktails featuring hand-crafted bitters and sodas and plenty of retro glassware. If you are hungry you can choose from a menu that includes burgers, rock shrimp, clams or pizzas, depending on the night.
Details: 8060 Via Delagio Way, Orlando; 407-985-2972; thepharmacyorlando.com
Rocket Fizz: This boutique chain soda pop and candy store originated in California and has only one outpost on the East Coast. The space is like walking into a time capsule complete with vintage sodas, candy and record album and movie posters. Need a pack of pop rocks? Looking for candy from Japan? What about an original Cheerwine or Gene Autry Root Beer? Look no further, but it may take you a while to find what you want considering the hundreds of candies and sodas to choose from.
Details: 520 S. Park Ave., Winter Park; 407-645-3499; www.rocketfizz.com
Peterbooke Chocolatier: Looking for chocolate-dipped Twinkies? Chocolate-covered popcorn? Maybe chocolate salt water taffy or bacon? If you want it covered in chocolate, this is the place that can make it happen. The Winter Park locale is one of the few in this chain that are locally owned and operated. The staff, mostly local culinary-school students, gets creative with chocolate they make on-site. They have wrapped wine bottles in chocolate for weddings and were the first to offer custom women’s shoes made of chocolate — perfect for a special gift.
Details: 300 S. Park Ave., Winter Park; 407-644-3200; peterbrookewp.com