Dining at Universal Orlando

There are four major dining areas within the Universal Orlando resort: inside the Universal Studios Florida theme park; inside the Islands of Adventure theme park; the CityWalk retail, entertainment and dining district; and at the Universal Orlando resort hotels. We'll discuss each of these separately.

Universal Studios Florida restaurants are not as good as their Disney theme park peers. Most Studios counter service restaurants serve unappetizing versions of tired theme park staples such as hamburgers, chicken strips, pizza and pasta. Universal has started making some strides by closing down the park’s worst counter service location – the International Food & Film Festival – and in its place put up the fantastically themed Fast Food Boulevard. Besides the hilarious menus themselves (taste-tested by writers of the Simpsons television show), Fast Food Boulevard contains items you can’t get anywhere else in the park including a pulled pork sandwich, a chicken & waffle sandwich, along with tater tots and seasoned curly fries instead of the normal French fries served everywhere else. Thanks in large part to Lisa’s Teahouse of Horror, Fast Food Boulevard also has several options for the vegetarians and vegans in your party outside of the ubiquitous garden salad. Springfield USA also has the new Bumblebee Man’s Taco Truck, Lard Lad Donuts, and Duff Brewery, all great additions to the park.

Sandwiches at the Beverly Hills Boulangerie and San Francisco Pastry Company are often as cold and damp as a fall morning off the California coast. Universal offers a pre-paid quick service Universal Dining Plan for both theme parks, but it's not worth the money. Richter's serves decent upscale burgers, and Lombard's Seafood Grille is our recommendation for sit-down meals. Our advice is eat at Fast Food Boulevard, but if the lines are too long, stick to simple snacks such as a hot dog, which doesn't take much time or money, or leave the Studios for lunch at either CityWalk or a resort hotel.

Dining at Islands of Adventure is better. The Three Broomsticks, a counter-service restaurant in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, serves Boston Market-style rotisserie chicken, plus fish & chips, shepherd's pie, and barbecued ribs. The Hog's Head Pub, attached to Broomsticks, serves beer, wine, mixed drinks and more. The most popular drink in IOA is surely Butterbeer, though. While the outdoor Butterbeer carts regularly have long lines, consider going into the Hog’s Head where they also serve Butterbeer and there is generally little-to-no wait (it’s also indoors, which you'll appreciate even more after spending some time under the Florida sun).

We also like the gyros at Fire-Eater's Grill and the ribs at Thunder Falls Terrace. Almost all of the other IOA counter-service places serve some variation of burgers, chicken, pizza or pasta, and while your superhero-loving kids are going to be drawn towards Marvel Island’s Café 4, and Captain America Diner as if the Pied Piper himself was leading them to it, avoid both as there are much better places to eat. Finally, we wouldn't be doing our job unless we told you to avoid eating the green eggs at the Green Eggs & Ham Cafe. They make a much better photo opportunity than meal.

Islands of Adventure has two sit-down restaurants: Confisco Grille in the Port of Entry and Mythos Restaurant in The Lost Continent. Confiscos is fine for pizza and drinks. Some of the spices used in the appetizers, such as the hummus, are unusual. Not bad, just different. Mythos is not a Greek restaurant, despite its name. Rather, like a typical Applebee's or Chili's, it serves a something-for-everyone menu including Italian risotto, Asian noodles, and Mexican fish tacos. Basic American steaks and burgers are also available and the pad thai seems to be a big hit with everyone who has tried it.

Diners with dietary restrictions will be happy to see that Mythos has more options for vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free diners than almost any other Universal restaurant.

CityWalk is Universal's dining, shopping and entertainment district, the equivalent of Disney's Downtown Disney. Many of the restaurants' menus are, again, similar to Applebee's or Chili's. Given the average entree from the Hard Rock Cafe Orlando, NASCAR Sports Grille, Pastamore, Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville, or NBA City, it would be difficult for a blindfolded diner to be certain from which restaurant it came. That blindfolded diner would probably guess that any plate with shrimp on it had a decent chance of coming from the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, but there's little else of note on its menu. Sports fans will be glad to know that the NASCAR Sports Grille is loaded with TVs covering every sport, similar to the ESPN Club at Disney’s Boardwalk.

The best choice for non-ethnic food at CityWalk is Emeril's Restaurant Orlando. We also like the Bob Marley and Pat O'Brien's restaurants for drinks and music. While reservations are generally not needed at Universal, you can use OpenTable.com to book a table at most of the sit down restaurants in CityWalk and at theme parks (including Mythos and Lombard’s Seafood Grille).

The best of the sit-down restaurants at Universal's resort hotels is The Palm Restaurant, an upscale steakhouse in the Hard Rock Hotel. If you're in the mood for Italian, try BiCE at the Portofino (expensive) or Mama Della's Ristorante (moderate), also at the Portofino. Asian food is the specialty at Universal's Royal Pacific, where Emeril Lagasse's Tchoup Chop is the top destination. Probably because they handle a lot of convention traffic, menu prices at Universal's resort hotels tend to be higher than you might expect.

Dress

Dress is informal at all theme park restaurants and in CityWalk's restaurants. At upscale resort restaurants such as Hard Rock's Palm Restaurant or Emeril's Tchoup Chop, “resort casual” wear is appropriate (but not required) for dinner: khakis, dress slacks, jeans or dress shorts with a collared shirt for men and capris, skirts, dresses, jeans and dress shorts for women.

Food Allergies and Special Requests

For sit-down meals, if you have food allergies or observe some kind of specific diet like eating kosher, make your needs known when you make your dining reservation and again when your waiter introduces himself at your table. The waitstaff or chef will be able to tell you the kinds of accommodations the kitchen is prepared to make for your meal.

Accommodating dietary needs is more difficult at fast food places, since the staff may not be as familiar with the menu's ingredients or preparation. When our vegetarians and vegans have doubts about menu descriptions, their strategy is usually to default to the simplest, most-likely-to-be-acceptable item.

Character Meals

Universal offers one character breakfast, held from 8:30 to 10:30 am at Cafe La Bamba in Universal Studios. Nickelodeon characters as well as characters from the film Despicable Me are usually present, and diners are admitted into the park up to an hour before regular park guests. Cost is $27 for adults and $11 for children, plus tax. You'll also need park admission.

Universal characters show up for dinner at the resort hotels on select nights each week. The cast of characters changes frequently and it's possible to see the same characters in different restaurants during the same week. It's common to see Scooby Doo and Shaggy from the Scooby Doo cartoons, Shrek, Woody Woodpecker or characters from The Simpsons at these evening meals.

You'll find characters at the Portofino Bay Hotel on Friday nights from 6:30 to 9:30 pm. Characters also make appearances at The Kitchen at Hard Rock Hotel on Saturdays from 6 to 9 pm and at the Islands Dining Room at the Royal Pacific Resort on Monday and Wednesday nights from 6:30 to 9:30 pm.