September 23, 2017


Best Quaint Florida Restaurants

Chris Sherman | 3/1/2010

Looking for new dining energy from independent restaurants away from Orlando’s grandest hotels, sizzling downtown Thornton Park or Winter Park’s posh Park Avenue? Head west of town, 15 miles to the little grove town of Winter Garden (population 30,000 and growing) to the Edgewater Hotel, where chef Kevin Tarter, formerly of Disney Victoria & Albert’s, now hangs his toque at the Chef’s Table.

Soyka restaurant
Soyka restaurant at 55th Street Station on Miami’s Biscayne Boulevard
Fifty dollars will buy three courses the likes of wild mushroom and Gruyere cheese tart, tuna on black bean slaw, glass noodles and a soufflé with peanut butter creme anglaise.

If you are in Orlando proper itself, turn away from the bright light districts and head for the quiet streets of College Park. The old 1920s retail strip, where the hardware store sells pastel Adirondack chairs in kid sizes, is studded with restaurants, wine bars and foodie markets. Restaurants like Kevin Fonzo’s K Restaurant and Wine Bar are among the city’s most innovative.

The two Kevins highlight a trend in restauranting: Chef-smart, food-savvy restaurants moving to the new frontiers of small places, small towns that were never on the gourmet map and modest midtown Andy Hardy neighborhoods that for years had only soda fountains and coffee shops. This direction is fueled by a spread of food sophistication and aimed at upper-middle-class consumers. It puts an emphasis on comfort, modest goals serving locals, not tourists, and a strong sense of place, small places.

Red Thai curry
Red Thai curry shrimp at Mad Dogs and Englishmen in Tampa

For the smart independent, the small locales offer refuge from high-rent malls, beach-strip restaurant rows and downtown festival marketplaces. True to urbanist Jane Jacobs’ vision, they’re going where rents are low and creativity is welcomed. It’s still tough; costs keep rising and dining budgets keep dropping, but on a small scale, restaurateurs have a fighting chance.

Leaving the big city for a small pond is still a challenge. The most successful are chefs like Tarter who find cities with proud little downtowns and sufficient locals to patronize a food savvy spot with more than steak and seafood pasta. Those that depend heavily on tourist money can die in the off-season.

There are many small-town gems throughout Florida:

  • Ocala: The French chefs who started La Cuisine are not alone in downtown Ocala; there’s Primary Oven bakery, a baking and cooking school, a wine show and gourmet ingredients.
  • DeLand: Besides high-style Cress downtown, there’s regional Mexican at Penachos, a world of craft beer at the Abbey, plus independent coffee bars.
  • Punta Gorda: The southwest Florida city has award-winning Perfect Caper, Pies & Plates cook store, wine bars and more.

Tags: Dining & Travel

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