Foodie Awards: Where Locals Eat (Part 1)

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Every major area has their town’s “best of” competition, and Orlando is no exception. Each year, the Orlando Sentinel runs an extensive foodie competition where readers and critics weigh in on the best of various cuisines throughout the Orlando metro area. A surprising (or not so surprising, depending on your view) number of these restaurants are located near the Walt Disney World resort, and make great options for times when you want to drive off property for a little something different than “normal” Walt Disney World dining.

I’ve gone through the restaurants and compiled all of the restaurants that are less than 10 miles from Walt Disney World here. And yes, I’ve eaten at many of them. (It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.) So if you’re looking for a change of pace, here’s some places to try.

Boma (Readers’ Choice: Best African). Animal Kingdom Lodge.
Jiko (Runner-Up: Readers’ Choice: Best African). Animal Kingdom Lodge.

Both Boma and Jiko are perennial favorites in The Unofficial Guide, so it is no surprise they rate highly in this award as well. The African-inspired cuisine is not only delicious, but very approachable, even for cautious eaters.

Boma Restaurant at Animal Kingdom Lodge
Boma Restaurant at Animal Kingdom Lodge

Publix Super Market (Runner-Up: Readers’ Choice: Best Bakery). Various locations near Walt Disney World.

It may come as a surprise for people outside of Florida that Publix was a winner for best bakery, but the Publix bakery has a pretty devoted following within the Sunshine State. Insider tip: Kids get a free cookie just by stopping by.

Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville (Readers’ Choice: Best Bar Menu; Runner-Up: Readers’ Choice: Best Burger). 6000 Universal Boulevard at Universal CityWalk.

Parrotheads, rejoice! Although I personally find Margaritaville to have all the “charm” of Rainforest Café or T-Rex (just for adults), you can’t argue with the appetizers—and the drinks to wash them down. My personal favorite is the white cheddar cheese curds with the Landshark Lager BBQ and a Lime Daiquiri.

Ruth’s Chris (Runner-Up: Readers’ Choice: Best Bar Menu; Runner-Up: Readers’ Choice: Best Steakhouse). 7501 West Sand Lake Road, Orlando.

Grab a blueberry mojito and a crab BLT to start unwinding from the day–just make sure to save room for dinner and dessert!

Marlow’s Tavern (Runner-Up: Readers’ Choice: Best Bar Menu; Runner-Up: Readers’ Choice: Best Chain). 9101 International Drive, Orlando.

There are quite a few restaurants hidden back in Pointe Orlando on I-Drive. This is one that I found by happy accident. Quiet, with attentive service and wonderful burgers, I highly recommend Royale with Cheese burger with a side of truffled parmesan fries and some asparagus fries (because you can never have too many fries!).

The Pharmacy (Critic’s Choice: Best Bar Menu). 8060 Via Dellagio Way, Orlando.

This is very much an in-the-know place with a Club 33 vibe. There is no storefront signage. You can’t find the menu online easily. Just go to the area of the address, take the unmarked elevator up, and be prepared for a unique bar experience. And whatever you do, don’t tell anyone about this place.

Keke’s Breakfast Café (Readers’ Choice: Best Breakfast). 7512 Dr. Phillips Boulevard, Orlando.

Keke’s can have quite a crowd during the breakfast hours on the weekend, and with good reason—fresh ingredients and a huge variety of offerings makes this place one of my go-to breakfast spots. The Turtle Stuffed French Toast (pecans, caramel, chocolate, and cream cheese) is a nice splurge, or you can go healthy with a design-your-own fresh veggie omelet.

Peach Valley Café (Runner-Up: Readers’ Choice: Best Breakfast). 5072 Dr. Phillips Boulevard, Orlando.

Apple fritters at Peach Valley Cafe, with pumpkin spice dipping sauce. (Photo by Julia Mascardo)
Apple fritters at Peach Valley Cafe, with pumpkin spice dipping sauce. (Photo by Julia Mascardo)

Three words: Fresh Apple Fritters (shaken in cinnamon and sugar tableside). If that isn’t enough to get you through the door, try their Onion and Peach Pepper Sauce on any of their savory dishes.

First Watch (Readers’ Choice: Best Brunch). 7500 W. Sand Lake Road, Orlando. 

This was the first “new to us” place we found in Florida. Like Keke’s and Peach Valley, First Watch is open only for breakfast and lunch, and offers fresh squeezed juice, a huge variety of pancakes, and even some unique specialty items like quinoa bowls. My favorite: the Key West Crepeggs (a crepe with eggs, turkey, avocado, bacon, tomatoes, and Monterey Jack cheese topped with sour cream).

Golden Corral (Readers’ Choice: Best Buffet). Various Locations.

Truth told, I don’t get it. I think this one made the list simply because of quantity of restaurants, not quality of food in my opinion. But, it must have its fans out there…somewhere.

Sweet Tomatoes (Runner-Up: Readers’ Choice: Best Buffet). Various locations.

Sweet Tomatoes has a salad bar, pasta and potato offerings, and a half dozen soups every day. (Photo by Julia Mascardo)
Sweet Tomatoes has a salad bar, pasta and potato offerings, and a half dozen soups every day. (Photo by Julia Mascardo)

Dinner at the Kissimmee location of Sweet Tomatoes is a weekly tradition for my family. With salad, soup, breads, and pastas, this meal can be a healthy option for a quick meal. (And a special shout out to Jonathan over at the Kissimmee location—the hardest-working server I’ve ever seen at any restaurant!)

Texas De Brazil (Runner-Up: Readers’ Choice: Best Buffet). 5259 International Drive, Orlando.

Now THIS is what I think of when I think buffet. A huge buffet area with appetizers, vegetables, salad, and soup, and then the carving station foods are brought to you. No question, this is ALL you can eat.

Villa de Flora (Critics’ Choice: Best Buffet). Gaylord Palms Resort, 6000 West Osceola Parkway, Kissimmee.

The Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center doesn’t get as much love as it should. It is a beautiful hotel with excellent service, wonderful entertainment, and fantastic restaurants. Villa de Flora is one of these wonderful restaurants. Located off the main atrium, so it looks like you’re eating outside (but without the whims of the Florida climate), this buffet has seasonal offerings with Mediterranean flair.

Burger Fi (Readers’ Choice: Best Burger). 4750 The Grove Drive, Windermere.

Yes, I’ve never met a burger I don’t like. But there’s more to this place than the burgers to love. How about a Red Velvet Frozen Custard Shake. If you’re walking 10 miles a day at Disney, there’s no problem burning off the calories you can consume here, yes? Just don’t try to eat their big bucket of fries by yourself.

Bahama Breeze (Readers’ Choice: Best Caribbean). Various locations.

Yes, I know, another chain restaurant. But when the food quality is as exceptional as it is at Bahama Breeze, it is easy to see why it makes the list. Their ropa vieja is a thing of beauty, and don’t knock the coconut-crusted onion rings until you try them! If you’re not getting an umbrella-type drink, though, you’re truly missing out.

Seasons 52 (Reader’s Choice: Best Chain; Runner-Up: Readers’ Choice: Best Power Lunch). 7700 Sand Lake Road, Orlando.

This is not what you may be thinking of when you think of chain restaurant. Fresh in-season ingredients and an extensive wine menu really take this a notch above typical chain food. That is probably why it also gets nods for Best Power Lunch.

Miller’s Ale House (Runner-Up: Readers’ Choice: Best Chain). Various locations.

Miller’s Ale House has a devoted local following, and once you try Zinger Mountain Melt, you will likely be a convert as well. Garlic boneless chicken tenders served over cheese fries: What’s not to love? But they do have good steaks and seafood as well, if you want to pretend that you care about eating healthy.

Wendy’s and Chipotle (Runners-Up: Readers’ Choice: Best Cheap Eats). Various locations.

Well, both are cheap. And both have eats. So…. yeah.

Starbucks (Readers’ Choice: Best Coffee Shop). Various locations, including new locations in Walt Disney World theme parks.

The Trolley Car Cafe is one of the new Starbucks locations at Walt Disney World. (Photo by Julia Mascardo)
The Trolley Car Cafe is one of the new Starbucks locations at Walt Disney World. (Photo by Julia Mascardo)

People who love Starbucks love it. People who hate it will flock to the Internet to say how Starbucks single-handedly destroyed Main Street USA and are bringing ruin to all of Walt Disney World. I’ll just say they serve coffee and leave it at that.

Padrino’s Cuban Bistro (Critic’s Choice: Best Cuban), 13586 Village Park Drive, Orlando.

So many Cuban restaurants I’ve been to tend to be hole-in-the-wall and cheap looking, and Padrino’s thankfully bucks that trend. Quality food in a good setting. There is nothing on the menu that you can go wrong with.

YumYum Cupcake Truck (Runner-Up: Readers’ Choice: Best Food Truck).

A food truck that serves cupcakes—how can you go wrong with that? The YumYum Cupcake Truck shows up all over the Orlando area, but sometimes even on Disney property. Most recently, I saw it at Wide World of Sports offering some pre-race carb loading for Marathon Weekend. (At least that’s what I was telling myself as I looked over the amazing variety of confectionary delights.)

BREAKING NEWS: Just announced, the YumYum Cupcake Truck is shutting down, effective immediately.

And with that, I must go into a mandatory mourning period. Stay tuned for the next part of this series, with more local spots to try, including what the locals feel are the best Theme Park restaurants. Got any guesses?

Julia Mascardo

Freelance writer and editor, living the dream in Central Florida with my husband, cats, and spirited nine-year-old daughter.

32 thoughts on “Foodie Awards: Where Locals Eat (Part 1)

  • February 23, 2015 at 9:50 am
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    Some great choices but I cannot agree every with Golden Corral – sorry – no, never, ever. Place is #1 horrid.

    Others I do like are Longhorn, Sante Fe (in Clermont), Carrabba’s (yes i know they are chains BUT we have to educate fellow Brits and not go to Golden Corral or Sizler!

    Also – there is Taco Bell in Florida – a few of them… Just sayin’

    Reply
    • February 23, 2015 at 10:21 am
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      The day Taco Bell wins for best Tex-Mex is the day when I refuse to write about the Foodie Awards ever again. 😉

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      • February 23, 2015 at 10:51 am
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        Sorry – but I say again Golden Corral – you can’t exclude Len’s Taco Bell dream and have that hovel of a place in there. They are surely as bad as each other!

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        • February 23, 2015 at 10:54 am
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          I was sorely tempted to “forget” to mention Golden Corral even made the readers’ list. I scoured the Internet to see if maybe there was another place called “Golden Choral”, which is a buffet with a live chorus during meals that was really the winner. Alas, no such luck. I’m absolutely in favor of pretending that Golden Corral on the list was a bad dream.

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          • February 23, 2015 at 9:01 pm
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            I don’t know most of these non-chain places but doesn’t Golden Corral call the whole list into question? I’m having a hard time thinking of a worse place.

        • February 25, 2015 at 10:03 pm
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          With you on this one….Really….Won’t even pull into parking lots up here in Indiana!

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  • February 23, 2015 at 10:54 am
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    Hi Julia

    Ignore my Dad (I love him really and he does love Taco bell) but he has never taken my to GC and gets angry when we pass the posters for it on the 192…

    I would love to try some of these though please hint hint Grumps Craig xx

    Great review as well!

    Alex x

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    • February 23, 2015 at 10:59 am
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      Just as long as your must-try list from this list isn’t limited to Chipotle and Wendy’s, you can’t go wrong! 🙂

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      • February 23, 2015 at 11:39 am
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        Haha I only go to Wendy’s at the Airport 🙂 For burgers we love Steak n Shake as we eat free at weekends! I am told Culvers is coming to Orlando so looking forward to them.

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  • February 23, 2015 at 11:38 am
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    Perfect timing! In three weeks I will be staying off property for the first time and am looking forward to eating at some good local spots. I hope Part 2 is coming soon! Thanks for the article!

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  • February 23, 2015 at 7:18 pm
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    Lot of mediocre & generic joints on this list…evidently the locals have pretty low expectations.

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    • February 23, 2015 at 10:02 pm
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      Having lived there, I can vouch for this. The Foodie awards made me laugh every year. Part of the issue is that tourists prefer to eat what they know, so chains rule in the Orlando area. I don’t know if this is why the locals don’t seek out other places or not. After living there for 10 years, I’ve been blown away by how people in Dallas are devoted to local places.

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    • February 24, 2015 at 8:06 am
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      Another thing to keep in mind is that I’m only covering the ones within 10 miles of WDW. On the full list, when you look at the ones that are in places like downtown Orlando and Winter Park, you get a lot more snooty specialty-type places. (And the first part of the list are the more dull categories in my view anyhow. The higher-end stuff and a lot of the non-American-style foods will be in the next parts.)

      Reply
  • February 23, 2015 at 7:54 pm
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    When we go down BJ’s Brewhouse is one of our “must do’s”. Great food and beer at a reasonable price. I know it is a chain in Florida and California but since I am not in one of those states we make sure to visit.

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    • February 24, 2015 at 8:08 am
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      We love BJ’s Brewhouse as well — in fact, we were there last weekend. Central Florida has so many different chains from across the US that you can’t find elsewhere, and there’s nothing wrong with visiting them when you come into town. Before we moved here, we would go to Sweet Tomatoes every time we would be in the area. Even though it is a chain, we didn’t have it in Maryland, and we loved the food.

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      • February 24, 2015 at 6:23 pm
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        BJ’s is a really great chain. I guess because they also have it here in Texas, I didn’t really think of it as not being other places!

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  • February 23, 2015 at 8:27 pm
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    DUDE – so many more places to add to this list! I’m shocked that their list is so dull… I should do one of my faves:

    – Yellow Dog Eats
    – Deep Blu
    – Manny’s Chop House
    – Celebration Town Tavern
    – Arabella’s
    – Cafe Tu Tu Tango

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    • February 23, 2015 at 10:11 pm
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      YES. Manny’s.

      For Tex Mex, I also have to add Tijuana Flats. They’re everywhere in the area. There are great places to eat in Central Florida but you have to go out of the heavy tourists areas for a lot of it.

      Golden Coral has nothing on Sweet Tomatoes. We ate there weekly. The best Sweet Tomatoes (at least it was last year) is off 429 and 192.

      I scoured the area for good, local coffee when I lived there, and unfortunately I didn’t know of any anywhere near the parks. However, if you go up to Winter Garden, you absolutely must go to Axum coffee. Excellent drinks, excellent service, and they donate all their profits to Africa. http://www.axumcoffee.com/

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      • February 24, 2015 at 8:27 am
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        Hint, you might be pleased with what is on the Tex Mex list… 😉

        We actually drive over to the Sweet Tomatoes at 429 and 192, even though Crossroads is much closer for us because they really have their act together there.

        I’m not a coffee drinker, but I have heard great things about Axum. If you go on a Saturday morning, you can also enjoy the Farmer’s Market in downtown Winter Garden and, if the weather is warm, the splash pad out there is great for kids. Also, keep your eyes peeled for the new Plant Street Market in that area, opening later this spring. Axum will be roasting their coffee on site there, and there will be a bakery, butcher, juice bar, homemade pasta store, and a lot of other things.
        http://www.wotimes.com/2015/01/2015-forecast-plant-street-market/

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        • February 24, 2015 at 6:28 pm
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          I saw that when I went to the full list! 🙂

          Another reason we avoided the Crossroads location was just, well, the location. Getting in and out of Crossroads is an absolutely nightmare at almost any time of day, any day of the week.

          Thumbs up for the Winter Garden farmer’s market! We divided our Saturdays between that one and the one in Lakeland. Lakeland has a good coffee shop right there as well called Black and Brew, plus there is a cart at the market that makes WICKED beignets, fresh to order.

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    • February 24, 2015 at 8:14 am
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      A couple of those are outside the 10 mile radius (and for me personally, if I’m having to drive more than 15 minutes from my hotel for a meal, I tend to skip it). Yellow Dog Eats is in my part of town, but I just haven’t been able to get up the desire to go. There’s absolutely nothing on the menu my daughter will eat (and they don’t seem to have a kids’ menu available online), and their sandwiches are “too complex” for my tastes.

      I was surprised that Celebration pretty much was nixed from the list altogether. Then again, the three hot spots for dining in Central Florida are Winter Park, Dr. Phillips, and Downtown.

      As an aside, the one thing where I haven’t been able to find *anything* good is Chinese food in Central Florida. If anyone has any suggestions, I’m open. We’ve tried more than a dozen places, and they are all on par or below the “quality” of Nine Dragons…

      Reply
  • February 23, 2015 at 9:03 pm
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    We live in East TN. Golden Corral in Pigeon Forge is great when it’s not crowded. But it’s almost always crowded, so being local helps. We can make time to go by in the off season (Tuesdays).

    We tried GC off International Drive (I think) and it was just OK. So we can say we tried it and now we can go back to Chick-fil-a.

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    • February 24, 2015 at 8:51 am
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      You can’t beat the iced tea at Chick-fil-a. For chicken, I’m usually headed to Pollo Tropical, though. They have now opened one on 192 just past Sherberth Road.

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  • February 23, 2015 at 10:16 pm
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    OH! Also. Publix’s subs. Man, do I miss their subs.

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    • February 24, 2015 at 8:52 am
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      YES! (Although now I’ve found Which Wich?, so I’m torn about best sandwich…)

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      • February 24, 2015 at 6:29 pm
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        Oooh, I haven’t been there. I think there is one here in Dallas, so I’ll have to check it out.

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  • February 24, 2015 at 1:04 am
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    So HAPPY to see this list!
    I have been googling and googling for “non-WDW” but still in Orlando and yummy restaurants!! Yay!

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    • February 24, 2015 at 8:53 am
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      The great thing about this area is that there are restaurants everywhere (so you never run out of places to try)…the bad thing is that there are restaurants everywhere (so some of them are good and some, not so much).

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  • February 24, 2015 at 1:14 am
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    You’ll find that Golden Corral is very popular among Brits, such as me. We love it.

    What’s your similar alternative?

    (light blue touch fuse…)

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    • February 24, 2015 at 8:49 am
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      It really depends what you’re looking for on a buffet. For meats, I’d suggest somewhere like The Knife or Fogo de Chao (both of those will be a little more expensive). For breakfast, I’d just stay on property and go to Captain’s Grille, The Wave, or Boma (or if budget permits, over to Ravello for the character breakfast on Saturday). Probably the most comparable to GC on property is Trail’s End at Fort Wilderness. I personally like Sweet Tomatoes, but if you’re craving meat, that’s not the place to go. My hidden secret place to recommend is Villa de Flora at the Gaylord Palms. It got the nod for best brunch, but it also has an amazing dinner buffet.
      http://www.marriott.com/hotelwebsites/us/m/mcogp/mcogp_pdf/Villa_de_Flora_Menus_12.23.14.pdf

      It really depends what you like in particular from GC.

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    • February 24, 2015 at 8:54 am
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      Oh, I haven’t been in almost 20 years, so I’m leaving this up to other readers to weigh in, but probably the most similar place to GC is Ponderosa. I have no idea how the quality is at this point, however.

      Reply
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