Seven years ago, on the almost-annual trip to New York, we wandered into an unassuming little Italian restaurant on the Lower East Side called Sauce. It was late – we’d been to see a show – and there were few places still serving dinner at the hour. We found two seats at the tiny bar and had a really delightful meal. The food was good and the bartender who serve it was delightful and engaging. We had decided we would go back on the next trip to the city.
In most cities, you’d expect the downtown area to be the most stable for businesses. That doesn’t seem to be the case for downtown Orlando, especially for its restaurants. Longevity just isn’t a quality many restaurants enjoy. Kres Chophouse, which, amazingly, opened 20 years ago, appears to be an exception.
Perhaps it’s because it fills a void, offering an upscale dining experience amid a glut of bars, casual eateries and more bars. And it does it with panache, quality food expertly prepared and served with poise.
Jack & Honey’s, the new tenant in the space that most recently was Hawaiian themed The 808 but for decades before that was Dexter’s of Thornton Park, bills itself as an “upscale diner.” What does that mean? Instead of grits they serve polenta? Does the waitress Flo have a French accent?
As near as I can tell, an upscale diner means restaurant. And in the case of Jack & Honey’s, a pleasant one at that.
East Orlando has a new upscale-casual restaurants from the same team that brought you downtown’s Delaney’s Tavern. Pine & Oak, a “modern American tavern,” is in the newly renovated clubhouse at Rio Pinar golf course, which was once, apparently, the area’s premier golf club where links legends played before Bay Hill and other courses appeared. The new owners of the club want to restore some of that cache by reinvigorating the facilities and creating a new, open-to-the-public restaurant.
To that end, they partnered with Delaney’s Tavern principal Greg Allowe, who has created Pine & Oak, bringing with him Delaney’s executive chef, Anthony Albino.
I’ll admit that my heart sank a bit when I learned that Bull & Bear, the signature fine dining restaurant at the Waldorf Astoria Orlando, would undergo a major renovation. I feared it would succumb, as so many other upscale restaurants had before it – Dux, Atlantis, Arthur’s 27, Manuel’s on the 28th – to the changing preferences of today’s diners, who say, some believe, that they no longer want the posh, white glove dining experience those restaurants provided.
Bull & Bear, when it opened with the Orlando resort in 2009, the first Waldorf Astoria outside of Manhattan, was the epitome of a fine dining restaurant. Its decor was so sumptuous and elegant that I even used a photograph of its dining room on the guidebooks I used to publish.
The Ravenous Pig wasn’t the first high quality restaurant in Central Florida, but when it opened in 2007, it seemed to be harbingering a new era. It was, I’m pretty sure, the first in the area to call itself an American gastropub, which gave it a certain mystique with the dining public, even if technically it wasn’t really a gastropub.
The heart of Ravenous Pig was the husband and wife team of James and Julie Petrakis, Central Florida natives who met while attending the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. Both were fans of Manhattan’s Spotted Pig, which may have influenced the name of their first restaurant.
The thing I remember most about my first visits to Ravenous Pig – which was originally located down Orange Avenue from its current location in the space now occupied by Reel Fish Coastal Kitchen – was the enthusiasm of the staff for the food they were serving. They seemed happy to be working there. That sort of attitude almost always trickled down from the top.
The latest edition of Scott Joseph’s Dinner Party was held in conjunction with Hemisphere, the classy restaurant at the top of the Hyatt Regency Orlando International Airport overlooking the MCO runways.
Guests arrived via the hotel’s private entrance on the airport’s Terminal B, availing of the complimentary valet parking (a feature always available to Hemisphere diners) and taking the elevator a few steps away to the ninth floor.
As we gathered – the restaurant was closed to the public for our event so we had the entire place to ourselves – we sipped on sparkling wine, then found our places at the elegantly appointed tables.
I finally got out to the Hyatt Regency Orlando to check out Descend 21, which opened earlier this year after an extensive renovation. This is the space that previously was Urban Tide and, before that, Napa, when the hotel was the Peabody Orlando.
The name of the restaurant derives not from an age restriction but rather from the number of steps it takes to reach it down a curving staircase from the lobby level. (Yes, I counted; it’s 21 steps. In both directions.)
What a thorough transformation. Descend 21 is part restaurant, part lounge and part interactive entertainment space. It’s sort of like a high-scale rumpus room, with large-format tiled flooring and comfortable couches and chairs. For entertainment, besides a plethora of televisions, there are full-scale golf-swing suites, electronic darts, and more analog choices like pool tables.
White Wolf Cafe & Bar recently marked its 32nd year and is now firmly enshrined as an Orlando Classic.
Located in the Ivanhoe District, which in 1991, the year White Wolf opened, was more commonly known as Antique Row because of the abundance of antique shops along that stretch of Orange Avenue. In fact, White Wolf Cafe started out as an antique shop that added a coffee shop-like nook in one corner. The corner began to expand and take over the shop. Pretty soon, the owners, Michael and Anne Marie Hennessey, were out of the antiques business and full-time restaurateurs.
For those who don’t know the provenance of the name, there actually was a white wolf that roamed the store. Well, technically Casper was a German shepherd, but I’m sure he’d argue that his lineage linked back to canis lupus. He had full run of the antique store, and for a time, the restaurant as well – decades before there would be legislation allowing dogs on outdoor patios. He was a well-behaved and friendly dog, and all the customers wanted to pet him, which saved on napkins.
Having just returned from Spain, I thought this would be a good time to tell you about Spanish River Grill, the New Smyrna restaurant and wine bar owned by Henry Salgado, who is also the chef, and his wife, Michele.
Of course, this isn’t the first time I’ve reviewed Spanish River Grill, though technically it is.