Judson’s Live, a music venue, officially opened this week at the Dr. Phillips Center, another world-class performance space for the jewel of downtown Orlando.
It’s a stellar room. Think of any of the well-known clubs in New York – 54 Below, Birdland, Cafe Carlyle, Blue Note – and it blows them all away, with the possible exception of Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center, which served as the inspiration for the design of Judson’s. (The only thing missing is a vast window overlooking Columbus Circle.)
Judson’s Live bests the others I mentioned because it has better sight lines, isn’t cramped, has a more spacious stage platform that isn’t raised too high, creating a more intimate experience between audience and musicians, and its acoustics are pristine. They obviously took a cue from the sound designers of the amazing Steinmetz Hall.
Another arguable difference: You’re probably going to find better food at Judson’s than in any of those New York clubs. And I’ve eaten in most of them.
But let me tell you a little more about Judson’s Live first. It was the project of Judson and Joyce Green and originally was to be called the Green Room. (When you go, find the place on the north end of the room where the Green’s handprints were preserved in the concrete on the floor back when the project first began.) Judson was probably better known to Central Floridians as past president of Walt Disney World Theme Parks and Resorts, but he was also an accomplished jazz musician. I can attest to that; I once heard him play on the nine-foot Steinway concert grand piano in his Orlando home. Judson died in 2020 at the age of 68. Joyce personally saw the project through, renaming the room Judson’s Live as a tribute to her husband.
The room, which sits behind Steinmetz Hall, was meant to serve as a rehearsal space for musicians and dancers. It’s a large cube with a ceiling almost as high as the room is wide. Acoustical panels, some decoratively lit, hang from the ceiling. The decor features warm wood tones (the walls are etimoe) and low lighting from wall sconces. Seating is at cafe-style round tables with luminescent tops. Comfortable barrel chairs are covered in blue velvet and match the curtain backdrop of the performance stage. A bar at the far end of the room features an glowing top and a multi-tiered backbar that highlights the brown liquors that were a favorite of Judson Green’s. (The array of aged Macallan scotches had me drooling.) A massive mirror hangs over the bar, tilted to reflect the band and audience.
As an indication of how serious it is about the food, Dr. Phillips Center hired Jason Klingensmith as the executive chef. Klingensmith, you may recall, was previously exec chef at Alfond Inn and Orlando Country Club. His menu features a few charcuterie boards and a couple of flatbreads as well as an extensive list of small plates. I was invited to attend a practice session as well as a pre-opening concert and sampled several of the dishes.
The pepperoni and basil flatbread was a favorite. I thought at first the crust was too doughy for a flatbread, which is generally thin, but I changed me mind. The crust was just right and the toppings were plentiful. (Just wondering: Can I order a flatbread to go to take into the Walt Disney Theater when I go see “Moulin Rouge” in a couple of weeks?)
I liked the pork belly bites a lot. Tasty little bites of fatty pork – what’s not to love? And the compressed pineapple added a nice tropical note.
Greek tuna was really a salad of romaine lettuce with feta cheese and sundried tomatoes topped with seared slices of tuna. The greens were dressed lightly in a lemon vinaigrette. And kudos for not naming one of the salads Judson’s greens.
The only cheekily named item is one called truffalo meatballs, which is meant to be a riff on a Buffalo sauce-style presentation. Instead of wings, the dish features meatballs fashioned out of chicken, with a touch of truffle in the traditional spicy sauce.
My go-to order whenever I attend Judson’s will probably be the charcuterie tasting board just so I can have the pork rillette that comes on it. It also had speck and sopressata as well as olives, grain mustard, cornichons and toasted focaccia.
For dessert, there is creme brûlée and “waffles” & cream.
I was glad to see both Stig Jacobsen and Boris Perev in the front of the house. They were both longtime Disney professionals, including at Citricos and Victoria & Albert’s, and know their stuff. Jacobsen oversees the bar program and has curated a fine list of cocktails, including a delicious smoky negroni.
Their knowledge is also helping to guide the young serving staff, who were already operating smoothly prior to opening.
Judson’s Live is a wonderful addition to Orlando’s entertainment scene and is sure to attract world-renown artists. (Thursday and Friday of opening week features four sold-out shows with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.)
When you visit, take notice of the piano on the stage. It’s a Yamaha grand that has traveled the world with Joyce and Judson, including to Paris when he was overseeing the opening of Disneyland Paris. It has finally found a permanent home as the house piano at Judson’s Live.