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On this week’s WMFE dining segment, I speak with 90.7’s Judith Smelser about the up and down history of Winter Park’s Park Avenue, which is currently on one of the up cycles. You can listen in Friday at 5:44 p.m. or Saturday morning at 9:35. If you don’t want to wait — or if you missed it — you can listen here. Below are some details of Park Avenue and some of the things we talked about.
A couple of decades ago, the closest thing Central Florida had to a Restaurant Row was Park Avenue in Winter Park. And even then, it was only dotted with restaurants. They were some of the area’s best, but twenty years ago we are talking in relative terms for the most part.
Then, as the area started to grow and restaurants started popping up in other parts of town, including Winter Park Village, the restaurants on Park Avenue started to disappear. Some that stayed were diminished by flagging quality. For a while, Park Avenue was not a place one thought of for a good dinner. But the Avenue is back and arguably better than it has ever been. Now, folks strolling the boulevard have myriad choices depending on their whim — from French to Thai to Italian to vegan to Tex-Mex to creative American — and the majority of places I can heartily recommend. Come take a walk along Park Avenue with me.
Let’s start down on the Fairbanks Avenue end and stroll north. You have some good immediate choices on either side of the street. Cafe de France, 526 Park Ave. S., is one of the longtime survivors. Owner Dominique Gutierrez is also the small eatery’s gracious and charming host. The menu does not focus only on traditional French, but that is certainly its forte.
Across the street is Thai Thai V, 525 Park Ave. S., which, despite its name, does a better job with sushi. TTV is in the spot that was once occupied by one of the area’s first and longest running sushi restaurants, so maybe that’s the reason. A couple of doors north is one of the Avenue’s newer tenants, Trattoria Toscana, 521 Park Ave. S., although its owner, Armando Martorelli, is a veteran of good Central Florida restaurants. The sauteed calamari is a wonderful starter, and so is the pasta e fagioli soup. Heck, just have those two things for a really terrific meal.
Park Plaza Gardens, 319 Park Ave. S., is the grande dame of Park Avenue. It’s gone through a variety of ownership (if I’m not mistaken, Planet Hollywood founder Robert Earl was the proprietor at one point) and has had a roller-coaster ride of quality. It’s definitely on a high, with owner Mary Demetree and chef John Tan, whoch crab-stuffed grouper is a must-have.
Directly across the street is Spice Modern, 326 Park Ave., S., and 310 Park South, whose name is also its address. Spice does a nice job with steaks, although it has added a line of sushi; 310 has a casual menu of steak, pasta dishes and sandwiches.
On the corner of Park and New England Avenue is one of the area’s top restaurants, Luma on Park, 290 Park Ave., S. Here chef Brandon McGlamery serves a modern American menu to match the stylish decor. McGlamery has a knack for fish, but he has recently started featuring fun and creative pasta dishes, too. More on that in a bit.
Just a block off of the main thoroughfare you’ll find Cocina 214, 151, Welbourne Ave. The numbers in its name are a nod to the area code of Dallas, which should be an indication that this is a Tex-Mex restaurant. But don’t expect a lot of sombreros and mariachi bands. This is appropriately tony for Winter Park, and the food, which includes such favorites as carne asada and carnitas tacos, is very good. Back on the Avenue, Eola Wine Co., 136 Park Ave., S., is a dandy place to stop for a glass of vino and maybe a nibble or nosh. The by-the-glass selection is as impressive as the staff’s knowledge. And on the corner of of Morse Boulevard you’ll find fine Turkish cuisine at Bosphorous, 108 Park Ave., S. You’ll want to try the hunkar begendi, which is seasoned beef with onions and tomatoes surrounded by a creamy puree of smoked eggplant. Besides, it’s just fun saying hunkar begendi.
Just around the corner you’ll find Cafe 118 Degrees, 153 Morse Blvd. The name is not an homage to a Florida summer day but rather an indication that this is a raw food restaurant. That is, nothing is rendered over 118 degrees. It’s also completely vegan, which means that no animal products of any kind are used. You’ll be surprised at how wonderful a cheese-filled ravioli is even though it isn’t really pasta and isn’t filled with cheese but rather a substance made of nuts.
Paris Bistro, 216 Park Ave., N., is hidden from the street a bit, but it is a charming little cafe with such dishes as beef Burgundy and classic quiches. Up the Avenue and across the street is Orchid Thai, 305 Park Ave., N. I like the sidewalk tables here, and the menu features a wonderful short rib massamam. Bistro on Park, 348 Park Ave., N., can’t be seen from Park, it’s hidden in one of the fun little alleys off the street. Old timers will remember this as the Maison des Crepes location. The menu doesn’t focus on crepes any longer, but you’ll find delicious soups, salads and fuller entrees.
And at the top of the Avenue is Circa 1926. The tamarind braised short ribs are a knockout. And it’s fun to visit here when there’s entertainment at the piano bar.
These aren’t all the restaurants along the way, just the highlights, the ones I enjoy the most. There others worth trying, and there are more coming, including a new Italian restaurant from McGlamery and the crew at Luma where he can put that pasta machine through its paces.