What started as a 24-hour transport café (the UK version of America’s truck stop) with a clientele mainly comprised of truckers, bikers, and the occasional family traveller, has now morphed into a funky, trendy eatery that has just opened its doors in downtown Orlando.
The first Ace Café in the U.S. falls back on its roots, with a thematic emphasis on cars, motorcycles and Rock ʼn Roll, but Orlando’s version won’t have working petrol pumps or a service station, as the London original did, and it has long since shed its post-War reputation as the sort of place Americans would call a ‘dive’. But the hip, edgy atmosphere persists, and there are three full service bars to ensure no-one goes home thirsty.
We attended their VIP pre-opening event and spoke with Mark McKee, CEO of Ace Café U.S.A., who filled us in on the London restaurant’s return to glory, and his vision for the newest incarnation. “Kids would listen to American rock-n-roll and at that time they rode motorcycles because that’s all they could afford, and they’d work on them outside the Ace Café. Then they’d race them, and the term Café Racer was born from kids racing from café to café in the time it took for a record to play. How cool is that?”
Pretty cool, we admitted, and Mark went on: “In World War II the Germans were aiming for a bomb factory and they missed and hit the Ace,” Mark said. “The owners rebuilt, and went through a Mods and Rockers stage, and in the late 1960s it closed for over 30 years. Then Mark Rosemore wanted to do a tribute ride in the parking lot of the Ace Tire Store, which is what it was at the time, so he put flyers out trying to get people there on a Sunday. He expected 800, but 8,000 showed up. The lightbulb went off for him. Now it draws as many as 200,000 people from 40 countries.”
How did Mark decide to open a branch in the U.S.? “I learned about the Ace Café through a friend of mine who was at a motorcycle rally,” he told us. “The Ace folks were hosting a custom motorcycle show there and my friend said, ‘You should check this Ace Café out’. I saw an opportunity with an authentic brand that I thought might resonate in the U.S., even with people who hadn’t heard of the Café. It wasn’t a themed restaurant, it was real. I went to London and saw the interaction with the vehicles, and I’d never seen anything like it. That’s what made me think it could work here. Americans, like most people, crave authenticity. When you see the relationship with the people at Ace, and the vehicles, and the friendships, it’s really a beautiful thing.”
Orlando loves its themed dining, but Ace Café isn’t really themed, it’s more like a passionate tribute. So why here? Mark answered, “I looked at a lot of cities. L.A., Seattle, Phoenix, Austin, and I kept coming back to Orlando. I wanted a large tourist base even though I don’t look at us as a tourist thing, I look at us as a local’s place. But I love the fact 60-plus million people come here, and there’s a huge contingency of British and European people here. Maybe they’ll go, ‘Ah, a little piece of home.’ That resonated with me.”
Long-time visitors to the city remember Church Street in its heyday, but after a major decline it’s beginning to pull itself up by its bootstraps. Still, the building it now occupies was derelict for quite a while, having been a boiler plant, a warehouse, and a rock-n-roll club before falling into near ruin. So again, why here? Mark had an answer for that, too. “We looked at 150 properties and I just wasn’t getting it. On the last day we pulled into this parking lot and the building wasn’t even on our realtor’s list, but he said, ‘This one’s for lease’. It was like the old dog at the dog pound that nobody wanted, and we went, ‘This is it.’ We knew right away.”
The fan base wasn’t convinced. “We got some pushback from core motorcycle and car enthusiasts when we announced we’re coming to Orlando,” Mark admitted. “They thought, ‘Oh no! Ace Café is going to sell out and become a Disneyland,’ but it wasn’t that at all. When we announced what we were doing with these 100-year-old buildings and were resurrecting this part of Orlando history, it resonated with people and they were on board with it. Now we’re on this mission to bring engagement and content, and we want people to think as much about our food and beverage offerings as our motorcycles and cars because we’re not a themed restaurant. We share that passion, but we truly are as passionate about our food.”
The menu reflects the Café’s British traditions through Bangers and Mash, Shepherd’s Pie and Fish and Chips, and its American roadside diner connection with quirky ‘bacon of the week’, barbeque, and an upmarket cucumber-infused gin. There are also 101 beer taps, many with local brews. By September, an outdoor beer garden will be added, award-winning Oklahoma Joe’s barbeque joint will come on board, and there will be live music at garage-style Blue Cap Shack every night.
In addition, there is a motorcycle or car event each evening, with programming around it. “We might have Camaro night and invite in somebody who wrote a book about Camaros,” Mark explained. “You can learn something you didn’t know, and you may even strike up a friendship.” Visit during Happy Hour (4pm-7pm) and that’s almost a guarantee!
Orlando’s Ace Café is located at 100 West Livingston Street in a historic downtown building that has been carefully renovated to maintain the characteristics of the original structure, which dates back to the 1920s. It’s just off I-4, and close enough to walk to Camping World Stadium (formerly the Citrus Bowl), Amway Center, and Orlando City Soccer Club’s brand new stadium.
Have you been to the Ace Café in London? Would you visit in Orlando? Share your thoughts on this cross-cultural connection with us on Attraction Tickets Direct’s discussion forums!
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