At this time of year, you can be sure of one thing – we’ll be out and about around Orlando trying new restaurants, and getting great value for our dining dollars!
That’s because the Visit Orlando Magical Dining season is an essential part of our September landscape, offering prix fixe dining at more than 100 of the city’s best restaurants, and it is the perfect opportunity to try something new at a modest price (now through October 2, 2022).
Just to back up for a moment, Magical Dining is the special annual programme organised by Orlando’s main tourist authority that encourages locals and visitors alike to spread their culinary wings and literally make a meal out of their vacation or stay-cation time.
For just $40 per person, all the restaurants on the programme offer a three-course meal featuring highlights taken from their regular menu, and the Magical Dining selection usually represents a significant saving on the full a la carte choice.
Now in its 17th year, this wonderful prospect to eat your way around Orlando is a genuine success story, as it has grown with each annual outing and also supports a range of local charities.
With $1 from every single Magical Dining meal going towards the selected charity, it provides a significant financial bonanza for each worthy cause. Last year raised fully $290,000 for two charities, while this year’s beneficiary will be The Able Trust, which supports job opportunities for people with disabilities.
Perhaps the real benefit for most people, though, is the chance to sample restaurants that might otherwise be out of their wallet’s reach.
For example, dinner at the fancy Todd English’s Bluezoo at the Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort could be $70 (or more) per person, which could easily break your holiday budget. But, at $40/person, it’s far more realistic.
For locals, it’s the time when we typically make regular dinner plans with friends and colleagues, happy to try out half a dozen (or more!) in the course of the 39-day dining jamboree.
Thanks to Visit Orlando, we are also given a preview opportunity each year to sample somewhere new, and this year we were offered a selection of downtown restaurants that have been on our radar for a while but which we just haven’t been able to cram into our schedule.
However, with September being a quieter-than-average month in tourist terms, we make sure to clear our diaries for a Magical Dining extravaganza, and this year is no exception.
Our Visit Orlando dining invitation duly arrived at Veness Towers this week, and there was one name that immediately jumped to the top of our list as somewhere we’d been meaning to try.
RusTeak opened its Thornton Park location in September 2021 and quickly developed quite the reputation as the locals’ new hotspot, an indoor/outdoor venue on fast-developing Eola Drive, just south-east of iconic Lake Eola Park, with its signature fountain and swan boats.
Offering “rustic New American cuisine,” it has consistently earned four and five-star reviews on Yelp and TripAdvisor, and we were keen to see if it lived up to the glowing recommendations we heard from the local foodie bloggers.
Sure enough, it lives up to that rustic rep with a nicely eclectic interior design, backed up by friendly, efficient service and a kicking Magical Dining menu.
Just to start with, RusTeak is located in an ideal spot on the corner of Eola Drive and E. Pine Street, opposite sister restaurant The Stubborn Mule and on an avenue that is positively hopping at weekends (hint: advance booking is advisable here).
It features an attractive Happy Hour from 4-7pm (Tue-Sat), and there is an extremely tempting weekend brunch (11am-2.30pm Sat and Sun) that also highlights their New American style.
For our purposes, we had already scoped out RusTeak’s Magical Dining menu online, hence we knew before we even sat down what we’d be ordering. That choice was quickly written down by our waitress while we waded into a couple of their highly tempting signature cocktails.
We enjoyed the view from the patio as we sipped our Black Cherry Old Fashioned and Blueberry Gin Sling (at a bargain $8 each – thanks, Happy Hour!), with the afternoon’s thunderstorm having taken the edge off the stifling summer heat.
As a quick aside, we much prefer dining al fresco where possible, as we find that many restaurants crank their air-conditioning up to Arctic levels in the summer, and we don’t want to break out the long trousers again until November!
Our starters arrived promptly within 10 minutes of ordering and we were immediately impressed by the presentation and plating of our two dishes, which looked immaculate.
We could easily have chosen any of the three appetiser options, but had settled firmly on the Ahi Tuna – complete with wontons, ponzu sauce, cilantro slaw and pickled ginger – and Burrata, both of which were big on flavour and provided extremely healthy portions.
As another aside, neither of us are particularly big eaters, hence we often split a starter or entrée (which is perfectly acceptable at most restaurants here, so don’t hesitate to ask if you’re finding portions just TOO hefty), but we’re prepared to unbuckle our belts a little for Magical Dining.
As it turned out, we needed to unbuckle several notches for the main courses. Susan’s Steak Pomme Filet was a whopping filet of beef atop a small mountain of garlic mash potatoes, spinach and crimini mushrooms. Simon’s grilled salmon (or Keto, Keto, Keto, as it is on the menu) was only marginally smaller, with the highlight of a loaded cheddar and pancetta cauliflower casserole.
The supporting cast of both dishes was absolutely heavenly, but the steak was dubbed the Dish of the Night thanks to its gorgeous soft, buttery texture and cooked-to-perfection style at a tad-under-medium.
Sadly, after all this plethora of protein, we were struggling to make any real impression on our desserts, but, seeing as were able to take them home with us (another essential Orlando dining tip – always ask for the leftovers ‘To go,’ as restaurants are happy to provide a takeaway container or two), we can definitely proclaim that the Key Lime Bar and Coquito Bread Pudding are divinely decadent, a superbly sweet finale.
You WILL want to save some calories for the bread pudding in particular, as it is topped with coquito cream, ice cream and cinnamon caramel sauce, a mixture Simon described as “MmmmmmMMMMM!!!!!”
And that’s our Magic Dining preview. We heartily recommend RusTeak as a great place for dinner, in a pleasant location that’s a bit off the beaten tourist track, but we sincerely hope you’ll give any of the 104 restaurants a try. They truly are magical.