My culinary tour of Universal Orlando Resort has, thus far, hit all the highs: the best food, best dessert and breakfast, best theming, and, of course, the best restaurant, in both full-service and counter-service varieties. But now it’s time to hit a low – one of the biggest lows, in fact, that Universal has to offer.
Before CityWalk’s recent renovations – which have, to date, unleashed eight brand-new venues on the area – Emeril’s Orlando was the flagship eatery at the dining/shopping/entertainment district. And, really, it’s easy to see why: slick, upscale décor, an expansive (and decadent) menu, and a staggering collection of wines (all impeccably stacked in a 12,000-bottle gallery) all make for an impressive dining destination. Eating here is undeniably an experience.
Unfortunately it’s still an experience that, for most people on most schedules and with most budgets, is an experience I recommend be skipped – particularly considering all the other gastronomic delights that Universal Orlando has on hand, from the exclusive themed offerings of The Wizarding Worlds of Harry Potter and Springfield, USA to the more traditional (but still excellent) likes of Antojitos Authentic Mexican Food and The Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar.
Here’s why you’re better off spending your hard-earned vacation dollars somewhere else:
Let’s get the good parts of the equation out of the way first. As one would expect when they see Emeril Lagasse’s name on the joint, there are a number of really tasty dishes on the menu. The Apple Cider-Glazed Pork “Ham” Chop, the Andouille-Crusted Florida Drum, and the Bourbon-Mashed Sweet Potatoes are all yummy and refined. They each offer a level of dining that is hard to come by anywhere else at the resort (save for, perhaps, the other Lagasse establishment, Emeril’s Tcoup Chop, located down the waterway at Royal Pacific Resort).
Sadly, the bad parts aren’t too far behind, and they actually take two different forms. First up: such extravagant offerings come at a price, and it’s a pretty steep one. With entrees running anywhere from $21 to $45 – even a single slice of pie weighs in at $10 – Emeril’s is easily the most expensive restaurant at CityWalk, which, considering how pricey everything else at the complex is, means it’s also automatically the most overpriced. In order to justify eating here, deep pockets and/or a pretty deep-seated desire to munch on some bam-powered dishes are absolutely required.
For me personally, the food didn’t offer the bite (no pun intended) needed to satiate my appetite or assuage my bruised wallet. To put it bluntly – and to forever label me as the arch-nemesis of foodies everywhere – the menu was just too fancy for my admittedly picky tastes (and, I wager, the tastes of the majority of theme-park-going guests). I had to search and search for something that I would enjoy (and this coming from a guy who dines in Michael Symon’s backyard). To make matters worse, even my wife, who has nowhere near my limited palate but is a vegetarian, struggled to select a suitably appealing dish.
Was our meal expertly crafted and beautifully presented? Yes, absolutely…no question about it. But did we enjoy our dinner enough to justify the stiff bill? Alas, no.
Here’s where things get dicey and public opinion gets more polarized than discussing politics at the family Thanksgiving table.
A brief survey of reviews on popular food sites results in two quick observations: the restaurant may have an overall favorable – or better! – rating, but it still has a huge level of negative comments, with the single biggest contention easily revolving around service. (I suppose everyone is already aware of, and on board with, the idea of being charged an arm and a leg for her meal.) While it’s important to note that many purported instances of bad service actually seem to be nitpicking to the extreme – apparently, when a consumer pays a premium for a service, he (understandably) wants to be made to feel like he’s the supreme leader of all things – it’s still a big enough issue to be made aware of when deciding whether Emeril’s is the place for you.
Personally, my wife and I found our wait staff to be perfectly acceptable, but they couldn’t hold a candle to the wonderfully charismatic server we had at Mama Della’s Ristorante the day before. Let that factor into the cost considerations as you will.
The end result is that Emeril’s Orlando becomes something of a gamble. Will you find a dish rewarding enough for your taste buds? Will your waiter meet – or, the theme park gods be good, actually exceed – your expectations for your meal? And will the whole shebang cost you your first-born son?
While you’re already juggling various permutations of touring plans around in your head, and weighing a potential meal at this restaurant with all the other sure-fire offerings literally right next door, the simple truth may be that the answer is actually a no-brainer. Maybe going with a more reliable, and cheaper, restaurant is safer, leaving the gamble for guessing which Wizarding World Universal will decide to have open at Early Park Admission the following morning.