Orlando isn’t exactly the first place that comes to mind when you think of trendy. But beyond the water rides, roller coasters, and mouse ears that put Orlando on the map, the city has a personality all its own -- apart from the theme parks. Here’s what to do, see, and eat if you’re looking to discover the city’s authentic food, drink, and entertainment offerings.
Named for the dairy processing plant that’s been a neighborhood fixture for decades, Orlando’s Milk District -- a few minutes northeast of downtown -- has become a small enclave of shops, busy bars, food trucks, and restaurants. Among them, you’ll find Etoile, which sells vintage and handmade clothing and housewares, and Retro Records, the go-to spot to buy, sell, and trade music since 1980. If you’re passing through in the evening, check who's playing at The Plaza Live, a venue that hosts musicians, comedians, and burlesque shows. If you arrive in the morning or midday, make like a local and join the brunch crowd at Se7en Bites. Pick up one of chef-owner Trina Gregory Propst’s specialties, including hazelnut brown butter coffee cake, chocolate chip coconut shortbread, or a pimento cheese, egg, and bacon-loaded biscuit -- with a side of cheddar chive grits, of course. Note that the bakery is moving to a new location three blocks away later this year.
There is more to see in downtown Orlando than a Magic game. Step away from the skyscrapers and start your wandering on historic Church Street, where you'll see Church Street Station. Built in 1889 and de-commissioned in 1926, the building has had more than a dozen different uses. Today, it’s part restaurant complex, part working train station again, thanks to investment by the commuter SunRail system. Next door, stop for dinner at The Rusty Spoon, where James Beard nominee and Florida farm-to-table pioneer Kathleen Blake has set up shop. Dishes like hand-cut paprika noodles with lamb merguez, olives, and feta; osso buco on a bed of creamy grits; and a signature onion soup come at an exceptional value. The most expensive item on offer -- a culotte steak entree -- is just $27. And though the menu requests that patrons not ask for substitutions or modifications, the welcoming waitstaff was especially accommodating with a vegetarian guest. After dinner, turn the corner onto Orange Ave and stop in for a drink at The Courtesy, a craft cocktail bar with an impressive absinthe menu. If you’re looking to lay your head nearby, you can’t do better than the Grand Bohemian Hotel Orlando for either location or ambiance. Part of the Autograph Collection, this property exudes a sense of easy southern cool. Done in dark wood and rich textured fabrics, you’re likely to find an interesting original painting -- or three -- in your room.
A fact that may surprise you: Florida’s largest Vietnamese-American community is in Orlando. In the Mills 50 neighborhood, just north of downtown, you’ll find decades-old Vietnamese and other Asian-owned businesses, from grocery shops and restaurants to nail salons and dentist offices. In recent years, younger generations have opened new businesses, and murals and street art have brought a renewed sense of vitality. One new addition is Hawkers, which serves food inspired by Asia’s street markets, including grilled meat skewers and buns, along with rice and noodle dishes. Pho 88, known for the eponymous dish, is family-owned and regularly makes local best-of lists. You’ll find other kinds of food here as well, including barbecue at Pig Floyd’s, though you’ll still find the occasional splash of Asian-inspired flavor. Highlights include a to-die-for butter chicken taco with chicken tikka, jasmine rice, jalapeños, and greek yogurt; and the Barbakoa Banh Mi with pulled pork, Lucky Dragon Sauce, ginger-garlic aioli, and pickled vegetables.
If you’re heading out to the resorts, you can find some truly excellent meals -- you just have to know where to look. The J.W. Marriott Grande Lakes, which is near both the Walt Disney World Resort and Universal Orlando Resort, is home to Whisper Creek Farm, a 7,000-square-foot vegetable garden and a sprawling outdoor event space. For those who aren’t throwing or attending a gala or wedding on site, the hotel has created Whisper Creek Farm: The Kitchen. Order impeccably prepared entrees like the seared diver scallops with sweet pepper coulis and bacon vinaigrette, or just saddle up to the bar for a pint from the on site brewery. Sharing the neighborhood -- and the vegetable garden -- is Highball & Harvest at The Ritz-Carlton Orlando. The restaurant’s sophisticated take on southern food means that a braised beef rib is accompanied by a cauliflower gremolata and easter egg radish. The deviled eggs are done with garlic confit and pickled mustard seed, while the kale salad gets a kick from bourbon-smoked raisins.
And of course, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention our favorite, and the most sophisticated, theme-park experience in Florida: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort. Crawling with as many adult literary nerds as grade-schoolers, even the most basic food and beverage options here manage to feel sophisticated and suitably magical. The Butterbeer brings a genuine sense of complexity -- and a whipped cream topping -- to basic cream soda, and the customized, true-to-the-books roster of sweets in Honeydukes will have you both cheating on your diet and stocking up on gifts. Even the Harry Potter-specific brews served throughout the park are thoroughly drinkable, including the dark Wizard’s Brew, and the Dragon Scale ale, which has the character of an IPA.