Updated 3 months ago
After a decade living and working in Orlando, Laurie and Kevin Tarter found the perfect place to live: Winter Garden, a small farm town with a train station, quaint downtown and booming developments 25 miles west of the city center.
One problem: It lacked a good restaurant. “If we wanted to go out for dinner, we had to get back in the car and drive into Winter Park.’’
The Tarters, both culinary pros from Disney’s top venues, Victoria & Albert’s and California Grill, set about fixing that.
They created the Chef’s Table at the old Edgewater hotel — a prix-fixe restaurant where their neighbors could go for special occasions.
As the Chef’s Table heads toward its 10th anniversary, it has become a “destination restaurant.” The city crowd now drives an hour or more to join the lucky locals. They pay $58.90 for a grand meal of perhaps low country perloo, porcini filet mignon and butterscotch creme brulee. (Reservations are a must.)
The Tarters added The Tasting Room for everyday small plates of shrimp fritters, duck fat fries and lobster mac and cheese.
- Winter Garden has become a prime example of smart chefs, savvy diners and food entrepreneurs untethering themselves from hip enclaves in city centers. The town has blossomed into what may be the most food-forward small community in Florida. “It’s amazing what’s happened, says Tarter. “You can get almost anything somewhere on the street.”
Along with Chef’s Table, there’s a French pastry cafe, a small plates wine bar, barbecue, dog biscuits, chocolatier, juice bar, Thai and more. At the west end is Plant Street Market, a food hall with a dozen vendors: Gourmet chocolates, doughnuts, a German baker, a full-service butcher, tea shop, sushi, natural foods and the Crooked Can Brewing Co. On Saturdays, there’s a toprated farmers market.
- The old winter home of New Englanders, Mount Dora now has more restaurants than antique shops, and the food is diverse and up-to-date. A big addition is 1921 by Norman Van Aken, where the celebrity chef has cooked up dishes like rice-crusted bluenose bass, lamb-stuffed dates and cookie shooters as contemporary as the Modernism Museum next door. There’s also Pisces Rising, a fish and farm-happy spot where steaks and seafood are joined by heaps of vegetables with chermoula, curry cream and fig glaze.
Old main street buildings and bungalows are now occupied by Peruvian, Japanese, Spanish, Italian and British restaurants and two breweries.
- Sanford’s lakeside brick downtown now boasts the Tennessee Truffle, five-star Southern breakfast and lunch only. Stay for home-made popcorn ice cream or biscuits and chocolate gravy.
At District Eatery Tap & Barrel, there’s updated classics from tuna tacos to bourbon pork chops, cocktails and always green eggs and ham (heavy on the avo).
- If Five Points, Riverside and San Marco are at the center of Jacksonville buzz, Fernandina Beach and Amelia Island to the north also brim with good dining. There’s barbecued Cobb salad, doughnut bread pudding and foie gras burgers with country ham at 29 South, and duck breast, scallops and porchetta at Burlingame from Chad Livingston, home town chef made good at the Ritz-Carlton’s Salt.
- To the south, Ponte Vedra has attracted some of the area’s best chefs. Ben and Liza Groshell of Marker 32 built their first hit, Palm Valley Fish Camp, with blackened mahi and ham gravy and $20 fried combos with sides of collards and turnip slaw. Ponte Vedra was also the first showplace of chef David Medure’s handcrafted food and exquisite design at Restaurant Medure.
- Cast your eyes to the west and southwest, and you’ll find some of the area’s most creative spots are arising outside the high-rent district.
- Ghee, the brilliant modern take on Indian cuisine, opened first in Dadeland before venturing into the city with a location in downtown Brickell. Also in Dadeland: a Pubbelly Sushi as well as farm-to-table Brick American Kitchen & Bar with pizzas of Homestead vegetables, local seafood and a truffled hanger steak and eggs on cast iron for brunch.
- One of the area’s wildest fusions, the Korean/Peruvian/ Cuban flavors of Finka Tavern and Tap found its home in Kendall. Last year, Eileen and Jonathan Andrade added a second operation, a hip retro Cuban diner, also in Kendall. Amelia’s 1931 is cozy with counter service and ’30s glam, yet the cooking is 21st-century fusion: Croquetas and Cuban sandwiches, maduros, plus bulgogi Brussels sprouts, steamed buns and General Tso’s alligator fried rice.
Kendall has an abundance of Latin flavors from all of Central and South America, like sleek Pisco y Nazca Gastrobar, with an exceptional range of ceviches and anticucho skewers plus $2 shots of leche de tigre and shrimp.
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