It may not have the lineup or caliber of restaurants of, say, New York or San Francisco, but Orlando's diverse dining scene offers an array of eateries that will please the palate of even finicky foodies. That said, keep in mind that for the most part Orlando is a family destination first and foremost -- and therefore caters mostly to the masses. Here are my picks for the best eating in town.
- Best for Kids: Kids adore the meals served up with Disney characters bounding about, and there are plenty to choose from throughout the Walt Disney World resorts and theme parks. They also love the eclectic atmosphere, sounds, and visuals of the jungle-themed Rainforest Cafe (tel. 407/827-8500) and the T-Rex Cafe (tel. 407/828-8739), its prehistoric-themed sibling -- both located at the Downtown Disney Marketplace (a second Rainforest Cafe can be found at Disney's Animal Kingdom; tel. 407/938-9100). If horsing around is more your style, try dining at the Whispering Canyon Café (tel. 407/939-3463), inside Disney's Wilderness Lodge, for some foot-stomping fun.
- Best Character Meal: It doesn't get any better than Chef Mickey's breakfasts and dinners at the Contemporary Resort (tel. 407/939-3463). These "events" have their respective namesake and other characters, but a word of warning: They also attract up to 1,600 guests each morning. A close second is a meal at the Crystal Palace Buffet (tel. 407/939-3463), located in the Magic Kingdom. You will not see Mickey and Minnie, but your kids will be greeted at your table by Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, and some of their pals.
- Best Spot for a Romantic Dinner: Victoria & Albert's (tel. 407/939-3463) will spoil you with superior service and lavish surroundings. Dinner in the main dining room is an intimate seven-course meal offering some of the finest food around, the experience topped only by the 10-course meal offered in the new and very intimate Queen Victoria's Room, with only four tables.
- Best View: The California Grill (tel. 407/939-3463), high atop Disney's Contemporary Resort, offers a spectacular view of the Magic Kingdom, as well as a front-row seat for the park's nightly fireworks display through its immense floor-to-ceiling windows.
- Best Wine List: For something a bit out of the ordinary, try Jiko -- The Cooking Place (tel. 407/939-3463), at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge; it features one of the most extensive collections (65 vintages) of South African wines in the country.
- Best Italian Cuisine: It's a toss-up between Bice (tel. 407/503-1415), at Universal's Portofino Bay Hotel, with its chic yet elegant atmosphere, and the more casual Portobello, in Downtown Disney's Marketplace (tel. 407/934-8888).
- Best Seafood: Of the area's many seafood restaurants, the best around is Ocean Prime (tel. 407/781-4880), which combines a lively Sinatra-inspired supper-club atmosphere with a menu filled with fresh ocean fare and service that is simply unsurpassed. Fulton's Crab House (tel. 407/934-2628) offers a creative menu and a rich wine list. Todd English's bluezoo (tel. 407/934-1111) blends a unique atmosphere with creative seafood dishes to great success.
- Best Tapas: Café Tu Tu Tango (tel. 407/248-2222) takes the tapas concept to another dimension, serving items ranging from Cajun egg rolls with blackened chicken to alligator bites in a fabulous artist-loft atmosphere.
- Best Steakhouse: The Capital Grille (tel. 407/370-4392) serves up a menu of dry-aged steaks, chops, and seafood (all prepared to perfection) combined with an award-winning collection of over 400 wines in an elegant upscale atmosphere. Dining at Texas de Brazil Churrascaria (tel. 407/355-0355) is an experience not to be missed, as melt-in-your-mouth cuts of beef, pork, lamb, and chicken are served up tableside at this upscale eatery.
- Best Outdoor Dining: The terrace at Artist Point (tel. 407/939-3463), the premier restaurant at Disney's Wilderness Lodge, overlooks a lake, waterfall, and scenery evocative of America's national parks. The Rose & Crown Pub & Dining Room (tel. 407/939-3463) and La Cantina de San Angel (tel. 407/939-3463) deliver a front-row seat for Epcot's IllumiNations fireworks display.
- Best Sunday Brunch: The champagne brunch at La Coquina (tel. 407/239-3853), at the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress Resort, is served in a sun-drenched atmosphere overlooking a lake. The menu usually features such treats as quail, duck, lamb chops, Cornish hen, clams, mussels, snapper, sea bass, sushi, a selection of breakfast favorites, and much more. For a themed brunch, the House of Blues (tel. 407/934-2583), at Disney's West Side, has a down-home gospel brunch featuring live foot-stomping music and an array of Southern/Creole vittles. The food is so-so -- the same quality as at a dinner show, which this is, morning style -- but the entertainment makes it a certifiable winner.
Best Theme Restaurants
Orlando has elevated themed dining to an art form. The food at these restaurants may not be the best in town (though it won't be terrible either), but you can't beat the atmosphere.
- World Showcase Restaurants (Epcot; tel. 407/939-3463): Epcot's World Showcase is home to Orlando's best collection of theme restaurants in one setting. Dine in Italy, chow down in China, or watch a belly dancer do her thing as you eat couscous in Morocco. You'll have a blast no matter which spot you choose.
- Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater Restaurant (Disney's Hollywood Studios; tel. 407/939-3463): Your table is set inside a 1950s-era convertible, your carhop (umm . . . waitress) serves you popcorn as an appetizer, and you can zone out on sci-fi flicks on a giant movie screen while you eat. It's an out-of-this-world experience.
- 50's Prime Time Café (Disney's Hollywood Studios; tel. 407/939-3463): Ozzie and Harriet would feel right at home inside this replica of Mom's kitchen (ca. 1950), where classic TV shows play on black-and-white screens. Servers may threaten to withhold dessert (choices include s'mores!) if you don't finish your meatloaf, so clean that plate.
- T-Rex Cafe (Downtown Disney Marketplace; tel. 407/828-8739): Set some million or so years in the past, this paleontologist's playground is waiting to be explored -- especially if you're dining with the kids. Bubbling geysers, a fossil dig site, life-sized animatronic dinosaurs, an hourly meteorite shower, eerily glowing rooms, and themes of fire and ice -- it's all here. It's definitely one of the most creative dining spots at Disney.