Visit Orlando’s Magical Dining, the annual restaurant promotion now in its 17th year, officially begins Friday, Aug. 26 and continues through Oct. 2. That gives you 38 days to try as many of the 104 participating restaurants as you can.
You can’t do them all – we’ve had this talk before; no, you can’t – so you’ll need to do some research and homework to narrow your choices. I’ll explain my strategy in a moment.
For those new to town, or the otherwise uninitiated, Magical Dining, MagDin for short, first began as Magical Dining Month (MagDinMo) and was confined to the month of September. That was the time of year that Visit Orlando had determined was the slowest month for restaurants, and MagDinMo was initiated to generate business for the organization’s member restaurants.
The promotion has always operated the same, with a few tweaks here and there. Restaurants, which pay a fee to Visit Orlando to be a part of the marketing initiative, agree to offer a special prix fixe three-course table d’hote comprised of a soup, salad or appetizer, a main course, and dessert, usually with three or four choices in each category. This year’s cost is $40, which is a new high but in line with general inflation costs.
A philanthropic component was added in 2009 wherein the restaurants pledge to donate $1 from each MagDin meal to a charity chosen by Visit Orlando. This year’s funds will go to The Able Trust’s High School High Tech program in Orange County.
A three-course dinner for 40 bucks can be a good deal, but not for everyone and not at every restaurant. This would be a good place to add that the cost for a MagDin meal does not include tax or gratuity, and it’s considered appropriate to tip on the amount the food would cost if purchased off the rack, if you will. Drinks are additional, as well. So know going in that a couple will not leave the restaurant for under $100.
Another point to consider: If you don’t usually order three courses, you may be better off ordering a la carte rather than, say, having a dessert you wouldn’t normally order.
So then, back to my strategy. When I consider MagDin restaurants I might like to try, I look first at newcomers, then really high-ticket restaurants (but only those I might need to visit for a review), and then I consider other restaurants that I haven’t been to in a while that might need an updated review.
Then I do my research. Here’s another thing that’s changed from the early days of MagDinMo: Visit Orlando’s dedicated website has improved vastly. It even finally now includes College Park restaurants in the Downtown category rather than in the one for “Surrounding Areas.”
And each restaurant’s listing includes the full MagDin menu and clickable links to the restaurant’s own website. That’s needed because you’ll want to cross-reference the special menu with the a la carte menu to make sure you’re getting that legendary best bang-to-buck ratio.
This is where things can get tricky. And here is where I’ll mention another departure from the early days of Magical Dining. Originally, restaurants were encouraged to offer only items from their regular menus. Which made sense (and still does) – Magical Dining is an opportunity for a restaurant to welcome in new customers and to show them what the restaurant can do and hopefully turn them into regulars. However, more and more the restaurants are creating completely new menus for the promotion. One assumes the restaurant wants to offer items with a lower food cost to minimize profit losses (and make no mistake; most of the restaurants that participate in MagDin make little or no profit).
Let’s take a look at Artisan’s Table in downtown Orlando. Of the four items listed on its MagDin menu, I could find none on the menu posted on its website. Of the four entrees offered, only the Crispy Half Chicken ($27) is listed.
But at least Artisan’s Table’s online menu lists prices.
Z Asian Vietnamese Kitchen on Colonial Drive, which was recently named a Bib Gourmand selection in the Michelin Guide, does not have prices on its online menu – unless you dig a little deeper. If you click on the restaurant’s online ordering form, prices are revealed. But again, the two menus are almost completely different. The Crispy Quails on the MagDin appetizer list is on the online ordering form for $9.99 but none of the others are there that I could see. And only Marinated Duck Noodle Soup from the list of main courses appears. And its online ordering price is $17.95. So I’m just not seeing the value in paying for a $40 prix fixe menu here.
Other restaurants make the choice simple, such as Russell’s on Lake Ivanhoe, which has its Shrimp Cocktail, regularly $17, and Parmesan Crusted Shrimp Linguine, usually priced at $31. You’re in Big Bargain territory without even factoring in the dessert.
You’ll find other such deals, and I’ll share more of my research in the coming weeks.
One other thing to keep in mind. Not all restaurants will automatically offer you the Magical Dining menu when you’re seated; you may have to ask for it specifically. You can’t just go into Russell’s and order those two dishes from the main menu and expect to pay only $40++; that’s not the way it works.
What restaurants are you anxious to try for Magical Dining this year?