It all started with a Mouse. Yes, we know that. And we know that you know it, too. But, in the last 10-15 years, the House of Mouse, aka Walt Disney World, has helped to raise the bar for restaurant offerings in Orlando that are now a great reason to visit in their own right.
Now, as well as good theme park food – and even better dining options in the resorts and at Disney Springs – we have high-quality choices by the dozens, including along what is known locally as Restaurant Row, the section of Sand Lake Road west of motorway I-4.
Last week, Restaurant Row teamed up with the Arnold Palmer Invitational golf event (Central Florida’s biggest tournament, attracting the world’s top players) to create a memorable showcase for this veritable cornucopia of dining delectation.
The concept was simple – a one-off event during the tournament as a specially ticketed ‘extra’ offering the signature tastes of 17 – count them, seventeen! –restaurants, plus wine and beer, all set alongside the Ninth Hole at the beautiful Bay Hill Golf Club, hence Wine & Dine On Nine. Neat, hey?
The annual six-day tournament each March is big enough in its own right, but the addition of the Wine & Dine event on the Friday, from 2-5pm, has quickly become a highlight for foodies, and we were invited along this year to sample it for ourselves, as well as to take a close-up look at the Mastercard-sponsored golf on offer (more of that later).
Just to start with, this is a magnificent dining showcase. Each of the 17 outlets had its own kiosk, all under one huge marquee-style roof, serving small-bite samples of their dishes and also handing out coupons and special offers to visit the restaurants themselves.
Many of them we already know well, but several (such as Slate, Mama Louise’s and Stefano’s Grill) were new to us and provided a great taste of what they do. Most were on Restaurant Row (barely a mile from the Bay Hill club), but several were on International Drive. Just as importantly, all were worth sampling – and we tried to sample as many as possible!
Having wined and dined, we were struck most of all by just how much good dining is on offer in such a concentrated area these days, so we thought it was a good idea to detail how you’d go about doing your own ‘foodie tour’ if you’re not here during the Arnold Palmer tournament.
Here’s what you do: starting at the western end of Sand Lake Road, travel east and you’ll encounter 10 of the magnificent 17 in a straight-line progression. The first restaurant you’ll encounter (very quickly) is Slate, the most recent arrival on this stretch. Their essential style is wood-fired American fare, pizzas and cocktails, and, at Wine & Dine, they were serving a slow-smoked chili-rub brisket with a green apple jalapeno puree and baby carrots. Truly delish.
Continue east and you reach the Dellagio complex, and Dragonfly Robata Grill & Sushi, a true discovery in fine Japanese cuisine, who offered a three-sushi sampler, including a spicy salmon roll featuring Loch Duart salmon. A great showcase for their restaurant. Next door to the Dellagio is Dr Phillips Marketplace, home of Morton’s (an upmarket steakhouse) and the two new Italian stylings of Mama Louise’s and Stefano’s Grill. Judging by their offerings, Mama Louise’s is great for traditional comfort food like rigatoni, penne and spaghetti, while Stefano’s is a touch more upscale, as they went for filet tips in a sweet wine and mushroom sauce.
Returning to Sand Lake Road, the Plaza Venezia features two of our all-time local favourites in Roy’s (beautiful Hawaiian fusion cuisine – don’t miss their Szechuan-spiced pork ribs in a Mongolian sauce!) and Rocco’s Tacos (lively and inventive Mexican). Then cross over the road to the Fountains Plaza for Vines Grille & Wine Bar. Despite the name, it bills itself as a ‘high-end steakhouse,’ and judging by their platter of grilled octopus and spicy lamb meatball, it is highly quality-conscious and definitely on our to-do list for our next evening out.
Back on Sand Lake Road and continuing east, the next dining delight is provided by Ocean Prime, in the plaza on the left as you approach the I-4 intersection. Seafood lovers should definitely make a note of this, and their offering of Ahi Tuna tartare with avocado and ginger ponzu was a real hit with Simon. Across the road and a few doors down from the big Whole Foods supermarket is Anthony’s Coal-Fired Pizza, of which there are actually three similar restaurants in town (also in Thornton Park and Winter Park) and the pizza is truly divine.
Just beyond I-4, at the junction with International Drive (next to the big new Walgreens store and Starbucks) is Cooper’s Hawk, a winery and restaurant of no small style judging by their array of four house wines, including an excellent pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon. We’re told the food is as good as the wine, so this is another we’re keen to re-visit sometime soon!
From this point in your Grand Foodie Tour, you’ll need to decide whether to go north or south on I-Drive. South brings you to Pointe Orlando, and a chance for some great Cuban food at Cuba Libre (they served up a gorgeous shrimp appetiser and a ground beef and potato ball, breaded and deep-fried that was one of tastes of the day). Just south of Pointe Orlando (past the big Convention Centre) is the Hilton Orlando hotel and the spiffy Spencer’s restaurant, a steak and chophouse that truly lives up to its high-end reputation.
Go north on I-Drive (and turn left into Universal Orlando), and there is the double-edge choice of Emeril’s restaurant (in CityWalk) and Emeril’s Tchoup Chop (in the Royal Pacific Resort). Either one is a guaranteed adventure in five-star dining, but we tend to gravitate towards Tchoup Chop for their brilliant Asian-fusion cuisine which never fails to delight our tastebuds.
For the last main venue on the tour, you will need to travel a bit further afield. Capa is the superb rooftop restaurant at the fabulous Four Seasons Resort inside Walt Disney World. It sounds glamorous because it is, and their beer-brined pork belly in apple butter with pistachio jazz was another Wine & Dine highlight. We’re huge fans of the Four Seasons and, while it is a high-priced option, it delivers great value for money.
Finally, dessert. After all that savoury delight, you’ll need to finish with a real sweet-tooth extravaganza and, for that, you must back-track to Restaurant Row (next to Ocean Prime), or head up to their outlet in Winter Park. Nothing Bundt Cakes is a specialist bundt cake bakery of delectable dimensions, serving up large cakes and ‘bundtlets’ (individual portions) in a wide variety of flavours that can also be bought in gift boxes. Different? You bet. Tasty? Even better!
If that was Wine & Dine On Nine in a nutshell, you might want to make a note of it in advance if you’re planning a visit next March (and you’ll need to, because it always sells out before the week itself). This year’s event cost $95 per person, and $130 for the VIP experience (early entry and with table service and premium wines). Handily, the price includes admission to the tournament and car parking (which usually costs $60 on its own), so it is quite a deal for a day’s entertainment and a great dining opportunity, especially suited to ages 21 and up. Be sure to check out more on the website.
And, as we promised, a quick word on the tournament itself – go! This is one of Florida’s most prestigious events but it is totally fan-friendly, with a chance to enjoy a genuinely entertaining setting that doesn’t require much (if any) understanding of golf to get the benefit of a wonderful day out in glorious surroundings, and with a great sense of style. It’s easy to roam around, there are plenty of food and beverage outlets (besides the Wine & Dine), and there are additional perks for Mastercard holders. There is even an App for ordering drinks in advance (Qkr! By Mastercard). Just remember to say ‘Hello’ to Rory McIlroy for us!
If you have questions on the Orlando golf scene – or anything else about the wonders of Florida – be sure to go online and ask Susan and Simon on the ATD forums.
Liked this post? You may also like...