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The Rebirth of Downtown Orlando Delicious additions to our increasingly urban center By Rona Gindin Want to meet for dinner downtown? “No!” you say, wincing at the thoughts of distant parking lots, torn-up streets and darkened office buildings. Five years from now you‟ll be proposing downtown dinners yourself. The city is changing. After years of talking and planning and planning and talking, downtown Orlando is on the verge of taking off. Residential and office condos are going up from East South Street to South Ivanhoe. So are theaters, boutiques and inviting plazas. Restaurants will open, many in the new buildings themselves, others nearby. Sidewalks will have crisp curbs and will be well-lighted. New “light rail” trains may even wisk diners from the suburbs to these downtown destinations and back home again. You‟ll barely recognize the city center after dark, which has historically had a dour dining scene at best, punctuated by 20-somethings meandering from club to club. “To be a world-class community you have to have a world-class downtown,” says Buddy Dyer, Orlando‟s mayor. “In two years, you may drive into the city from Windermere figuring you‟ll select a restaurant when you get downtown, and you‟ll have the option of going to a number of different arts and cultural venues. In five years, you‟ll also be able to take in a play or a concert.” We‟ve come long way in one short decade. “In 1996, the restaurant scene was Dexter‟s [in Thornton Park] and the staples downtown like Ichiban and Harvey‟s,” recalls Steve Kodsi, president of Historic Creations Design Development Group, which develops condominium buildings. “In the early 2000s, Hue, Shari Sushi and Kres gave a little more credence to our restaurant options.” Those high-style establishments are a great start, he says, but not enough to sate the “critical mass of people” now living in condos, plus the suburbanites who want to “get out of their neighborhoods to destination dining in a place where they can eat, drink, see, be seen, and be entertained with live music in small, boutiquey non-chain restaurants.” “We simply need more places to go to create that all-important feel of a „real city,‟” concurs Craig Ustler, president and owner of Ustler Development, which builds condos, and president of principal of Urban Life Management, which operates three high-profile restaurants downtown and plans to add three to five more within the next few years. As downtown‟s population gets denser, he says, the city needs places that are “creative and on the cutting edge” to “set Downtown Orlando apart.” Those restaurants are on their way. The crux of the resurgence is the construction of residential and office space. It began in 1999, when the Downtown Development Board (DDB) and the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) decided Orlando needed more downtown housing in to become a true urban center. Recognizing that the only housing around was in single-family homes and retirement high-rises, the city decided to “incentivize residential to be built downtown,” according to Naeem Coleman, economic development coordinator for the DDB. He says his organizations helped offset the costs of building downtown “because it‟s more expensive than building in suburbia.” As a result, five apartment complexes opened within the next few years, some built from the ground-up, others renovations of existing buildings. They filled quickly, and four have since been converted to condominiums. Since those were successful, other condominium complexes and townhouses arose soon thereafter. One of the most well-known is Thornton Park Central, opened in 2002, which contains office space, loft condominiums, a parking garage and the Thornton Park Central retail strip that incorporates the restaurants Hue–A Restaurant and Shari Sushi Lounge, plus the Central City Market grocery store and the Urban Think bookstore. “Thorntown Park Central is a prime example of “new urbanism,” according to Craig Ulster of Ulster Development and Urban Life Management. ”It emphasizes walkable streets, mixed-use neighborhoods, sidewalk activities, public gathering spaces, architecturally significant design and integrated infill development.” By 2003, while interest rates were low and the new projects “proved that downtown is a viable area to build in,” more developers wanted in, according to Naeem Coleman of the Downtown Development Board. Mayor Dyer took office in February of that year. True to his campaign promises, he made the continued revitalization of downtown a priority. “You‟re seeing the results of that in the cranes dotting our skyline right now,” says Frank Billingsley, who ushered in this construction wave as Executive Director of the Downtown Development Board and the Community Redevelopment Agency and has recently taken on the job of Director of Economic Development for the City of Orlando. “Very few cities in America have the kind and the array of development underway that we have right now.” The rush was on. The Sanctuary Downtown has since opened, with 173 condo units on 18 floors, plus a sundeck with cabanas and a pool desk with a hot tub. It will eventually have four restaurants. Scheduled at press time for an August 2006 opening, 801 North Orange is in an area being billed by those promoting it as the new Uptown District. An urban mixed-use development, it will have 96,000 square feet of office condominium space, 18,000 square feet of commercial space and a 362-space parking garage. It‟s being built by Ulster Development, and Urban Life Management will open a New Florida Cuisine restaurant called Citrus in the retail area. PremiereTrade Plaza will open this winter with two office buildings and a condominium complex called Solaire within its city-block expanse between Orange Avenue and Magnolia, Church Street and North Pine. Two floors of retail, restaurant and entertainment venues will be part of the project. The Vue at Lake Eola is scheduled to open on the corner of Rosalind Street and Robinson Street by the third quarter of 2007. The 35-story condo tower with Lake Eola views with have 384 residential units, 6,000 square feet of retail space and 660 parking spaces. The 32-story 55 West on the Esplanade is shooting for a 2008 debut in the heart of downtown with 405 condominium units, 10,000 square feet dedicated to the arts, 75,000 square feet of retail space and a 1,072-car parking garage. The retail area will in part encompass a redevelopment of the Church Street Market complex, already home to restaurants. The developer is Euro American Advisors, a Tampa-based arm of Euro American Investors Group, B.V., of The Hague, The Netherlands. 1000 North Orange would be a 41-story mixed-use building with 650 residential units, plus office, retail and restaurant space; no date has been set yet. Steve Kodsi‟s Historic Creations Design Development Group has Star Tower under development. The 18-story condominium building on Osceola at Mariposa will have a rooftop pool and health center and a South Beach feel, according to Reena Bhardwaj, director of communications. The ground floor will have one retail space, and “we are contemplating a restaurant for that.” Later this year, Kodsi‟s group plans to announce a new 6.7-acre “midtown” project where Orange Avenue and S.R. 50 meet. “It will rival the Time-Warner Center in New York and the Pacific Place in Atlanta, and will be an architectural landmark in this city,” he promises. Toward downtown‟s outskirts, a project called CityPlace is in the discussion stages. Located in Parramore near I-4 and Colonial where a Holiday Inn once stood, CityPlace could be home to the largest tower in Central Florida. “The idea is to make this a multi- phase project with different buildings going up at different times,” says the DDB‟s Naeem Coleman,” and there‟s no timetable for that.” He says plans call for a condominium hotel first, then an “amenities building with a spa,” and later a condominium residential building. Also in the Parramore neighborhood, a proposed nine-story mixed-use development will house offices, 42 residential condos, the headquarters of the Black Business Investment Fund, a community theater, and restaurant and retail space. Timing hasn‟t yet been determined. Jaymor-Reed Development, Inc. plans to build the 24-story, 179-condo Monarch in the Eola South Residential District. It will have a rooftop deck, cabanas and a pool, plus 3,500 square feet of retail. Jaymor-Reed plans to have a high-end convenience store within that space. Completion is slotted for early 2009. Within five years, the former site of the Expo Center at the Centroplex and the 60-plus acre site surrounding be turned into what Mayor Buddy Dyer is calling the Creative Village. it will house the University of Central Florida‟s School of Film and Digital Media as well as the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy. Mayor Dyer says he envisions that nearly 3,000 students, faculty members and staffers will be regulars. Ideally, the Creative Village will include offices of high-tech and digital media firms plus retail space. The current Marriott hotel will be converted into a college dormitory, and the hotel‟s current operator will build a new premium hotel due east. These are only some of the major undertakings underway. To find a full list of the 50 planned and proposed projects, go to www.downtownorlando.com, then click on News, then News & Developments; a list of all projects will appear on the right. It‟s clear that downtown‟s population will continue to rise. According to “Trends & Projections: Downtown Orlando,” published in 2004, the city will gain 7.4 percent more residents within a mile of Orange Avenue at Central Boulevard, or 1,070 people, from 2004 to 2009. The population was expected to rise by 4.5 percent, or 4,188 people, within a three-mile radius during that time. Those predictions allow for 15.3 percent more housing units within one mile, 10.7 within three miles. Most of the residential action has been in the city‟s Lake Eola area, with some condos--but big ones--in the core of the central business district. All of the biggest projects will have restaurants in ground-floor retail spaces. Where will we be eating? In the Eola District, the Sanctuary, opened last year, will add four restaurants to the neighborhood‟s portfolio. The Beacon, which should be open by the time you red this article, will be a high-end lounge with tapas served to guests seated on comfortable chairs and banquettes, listening to the sounds of Down Tempo and acid jazz. It will be owned by Todd Ulmer, Jason Lambert and Mark Angelo, who operate Room 39 and The Lodge on Orange Avenue, and Cigarz at CityWalk. The Beacon will also have three athlete-investors: Barry Larkin, Dee Brown and Tony McGee. Fifi‟s Patisserie and Graze are under construction in the same building, The Sanctuary. Both will be owned by SK Restaurant Group, aka Steve Kodsi, whose Historic Creations Design Development Group built The Sanctuary. Fifi‟s Patisserie will be a dessert house and café open late each night for drinks and dessert. It will also sell retail and specialty cakes. Graze will be a market-inspired tapas concept. Kodsi hired industry pros to run the restaurants: Jose Gonzales, formerly of E-Brands, and Garland Ross and Klaus-Peter Schafer, of Schafer‟s Caffeehaus. The executive chef is Randy Luedders, previously executive chef at Isleworth Country Club and Ron Jon Surf Grill. Right on Lake Eola, the space that long housed the venerable Lee‟s Lakeside will soon be Stotter‟s, a fashion-forward restaurant by chef Robin Stotter, who spent most of his career with Wolfgang Puck and E-Brands. “This is an unbelievable location,” he insists, noting that he tried repeatedly to lease this space for six years before succeeding. “I had to minimize my risk, and getting the right location in the right urban setting with the right demographics” was quite a coup, he says. He looks to the spot‟s 50-year history as a successful home to restaurants, and its placement “between the revitalization of downtown and the resurgence of residences in Thornton Park--and it‟s on a lake” as factors operating in its favor. A downstairs bar will be called The BassMint. In the core of downtown, 55 West on the Esplanade will have two stories of retail, including a seafood restaurant operated by Urban Life Management; it will be located where an Olive Garden used to be. 55 West will essentially double the retail space in what is today Church Street Market, located a block north of historic Church Street Station, and will flank both sides of Church Street. Currently home to Amura, the sushi specialist with offshoots in Dr. Phillips and Lake Mary, Church Street Market will soon see a clone of Gino‟s Pizza & Brew and a Panchero‟s Mexican Grill. The renovated Market and surrounding space will be renamed The Esplanade and will include outdoor cafes, an urban market, mature oaks and a park-like atmosphere. PremiereTrade Plaza, also flanking Church Street Station, is scheduled to open in early 1997. The Plaza‟s two bottom floors, owned by Unicorp National Development, will include about 15 restaurant and retail spaces, plus a second-floor 12-screen AmStar movie complex--a first for the city‟s heart. So far, the ground-floor retail emporium has six foodservice-related spaces booked: Bento Café, a trendy pan-Asian restaurant; BOLA, an upscale continental-Italian restaurant; Urban Flats, a sibling of the Winter Park flatbread concept; Salsarita‟s Fresh Cantina, a unit of a Charlotte-based chain; Cold Stone Creamery; and PJ's Coffee Co., a unit of a New Orleans- based chain that‟s part of the Raving Brands! franchise company that operates Moe‟s Southwest Grill, Mama Fu‟s Asian House and six other concepts. At press time, it looked as if the Corona Cigar Co. would be signing on to have a combination lounge and retail store as it does on Sand Lake Road and in Lake Mary. And Church Street Station, in the papers for years for its woes, has a handful of new restaurants housed in its historic buildings. In fact, every retail space in the Station is expected to be filled within a year, according to Frank Vazquez, who is both vice president of operations for Church Street Station and one of the managing partners of the group that operates Pearl Steakhouse, opened in July 2006, and Exchange Lounge, which is a few months older. “Everything is already leased out,” he says. “It‟s just a matter of getting permits. I think in about another six months [from August 2006] we‟ll have just about everything hopping, maybe up to eight months for the space where the Cheyenne Saloon used to be.” Once a destination for tourists, the new Church Street Station will be aimed at locals from several different demographic groups. Pearl Steakhouse and Exchange Lounge cater to a mature crowd, while a nightclub goes for a younger group, TooJay‟s is best for office-worker lunches. NYPD, the pizza chain, is in the permit process now. “We want the businesses to complement each other, of course,” says Vazquez. “We‟re not going to have two places competing.” Other tenants include shops selling wine, antiques and furniture. Offices are inhabited by mortgage brokers and, soon, attorneys. Absinthe is the newest member of Church Street Station, opening its doors in early August. Owned by Mark Dollard, a former Disney chef who spent his last year as chef de cuisine at the Wyndham Orlando Resort on International Drive, Absinthe is a bar, café and bistro in one, all catering to a young urban professional crowd. The food, and the name, are tributes to Paris in its Bohemian days. (Absinthe is a potent licorice-flavored spirit that was banned at that time in Europe and the United States.) Dollard admits he was wary of choosing a Church Street Station location at first. He began seeking space in Dr. Phillips and Baldwin Park, then tried to get into one of the new buildings going up but found all the spaces had been booked. Once he saw the location that is now his restaurant‟s home, with its exposed brick walls, old-tile floors, wooden ceiling, wooden bar, brasswork and chandeliers, he realized, “We can‟t recreate that feel.” Although Church Street Station will remain hard to get to until nearby construction is completed, Dollard has big plans. His 80-seat bistro features slow-cooked authentic French foods such as coq au vin for competitive prices. The 100-seat lounge will serve trendy cocktails for a reasonable $6 or $7, including a $3 Green Fairy shot (made with absinthe) every time a train rolls by. The café will serve “French-inspired sandwiches” such as croque monsieur. At press time, Dollard was hoping to keep the café open until 4 a.m., with plans for 24-hour service “when the condos open.” Until those condos open, until the construction is done, until Church Street Market and Church Street Station have businesses in every storefront, foot traffic will be temperamental. Church Street Market has been “slow to develop,” concedes Urban Life Management‟s Craig Ulster, noting that the future is indeed worth holding out for. “We believe there is a market for higher-end restaurants in the urban core. Most of what is going in at The Plaza is more mid-market. It will be important to fill in the mix at 55 West with other good restaurants, probably more “fast casual” on the ground floor and more destination on the second floor. We think our seafood-house concept will do well. 55 West is very big; the building will be an icon. It will be great for downtown, it is just a couple of years away.” A spokesperson for 55 West adds, “We do not have a specific formula for choosing tenants for The Esplanade. We are just looking for tenants who have a desire to serve the needs of the residents as well as the Downtown Orlando community in general.” While it‟s clear that downtown‟s daytime and evening populations will be larger, developers and restaurateurs opening independent restaurants are still taking a large risk. Why gamble when plenty of tried-and-true establishments would be happy to set up second (or hundredth) homes in these upscale condo towers? “A lot of national restaurants were interested in our retail spaces, and a lot of existing Orlando restaurants wanted second or third locations here,” acknowledges Steve Kodsi of Historic Creations and SK Restaurant Group. “I felt that Sanctuary clients want New York, Miami Beach and Chicago--high design, food and drink they can‟t prepare at home, and to be impressed from all their senses.” In other words, a big-budget independent. The Sanctuary‟s first three establishments will open while four nearby buildings are still under construction, yet Kodsi insists that, while business may admittedly be slow until the construction ends, enough pedestrians live close enough to keep the restaurants viable. Noting that several condo buildings are already filled within three blocks of the Sanctuary, he observes: “Go downtown between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. on a Wednesday, Thursday or Friday night, no matter how hot it is outside, and you‟ll see guys in long-sleeve shirts and girls in sundresses and high heels walking from the Waverly to Wildfires or taking a pedicab to the commercial district. It‟s very encouraging.” Downtown offers the potential to draw customers during all meal segments. Unicorp is hoping to bring lunch and dinner patrons to its foodservice outlets in PremiereTrade Plaza. “For lunch, we‟re very focused on getting a mix of restaurants that will appeal to every type of employee downtown, from your quick-casual to your sit-down restaurant,” says Amy Young, director of leasing. “We‟re not just leasing space based on lunchtime traffic though. We‟re leasing space based on the fact that once somebody went in for lunch he or she will come back for dinner or drinks.” She says she‟s hoping to lure clothing boutiques, a florist, a jewelry store, and a card and gift store into the retail mix. The real estate market is cooling nationwide, including in Central Florida, and some developers fear that might hurt downtowns‟ plans. “The downtown condo market is still solid, but it is not as hot as it was the past few years,” notes Craig Ulster. “Yes, there are several high profile towers and other projects that are under construction and that will lead to a big jump in permanent downtown residents. But the activity on projects that are in the earlier stages of development (pre construction) has slowed down. Some projects are being delayed or cancelled. The condo market is "accelerating" in the sense that a lot of units will be coming on line in the next year or two and they have all sold well, but it has softened in the sense that there are not a lot of new projects that are being started.” The mayor insists the cool-down hasn‟t affected downtown a bit. “Other Central Florida markets are being affected, but this one isn‟t,” he says, pointing to four new projects approved on a single day in August--the day before his interview for this article. Citing statistics that say Central Florida‟s population will grow from 3 million today to 7 million in 30 years, Frank Billingsley points to downtown‟s boom as “smart growth,” says, “It‟s the answer to urban sprawl. The infrastructure is already in place. It‟s not like we‟re converting green fields of forest to develop the city. In fact, this more compact environment is environmentally friendly.” Luckily for those committed to opening restaurants downtown, the residences and offices are a large part of the renaissance, but they‟re not all of it. New cultural destinations will lure suburbanites to the metropolis. One has already opened. The City Arts Factory made its debut in July. Located on Pine Street, the building houses five galleries, including one specializing in sculptures from Zimbabwe, another a glass-blowing studio. Expect a space for live theater to occupy the second floor within the coming months. A performing arts center is in the planning. Funding is still iffy, but it looks like the Orlando Performing Arts Center may be able to pull off a 2010 opening by tapping the recently approved Orange County sixth-penny tourist tax and the City of Orlando Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA). The ultimate goal is a nine-acre site bordering Orange Avenue, South Street, Rosalind Avenue and Anderson Street. The heart of the complex will be a performing arts center with two start-of-the-art performance halls, one with 1,800 seats, the others with 2,800 seats, plus a 300-seat theater for the University of Central Florida and local groups to use. Also on the slate are an arts education facility and a banquet facility. A public plaza will be home to concerts and festivals. Commercial facilities within the boundaries will include 30,000-square-foot and 400,000- square-foot CNL office buildings, a 200-room boutique hotel, a condominium or apartment facility with 300 to 500 units, stores and restaurants. According to Rachel Kingston, communications coordinator for the Orlando Performing Arts Center, Orange County and the City of Orlando should give their yeas and nays about funding by November 2006. If commuters are put off by parking now, how will they handle it once all these spiffy new buildings and dining and cultural venues are open? We‟ll have to get used to paying to stay in lots, it seems, but many more lots will be available. “Conceived lack of affordable or convenient parking” is one of many “typical urban challenges” we face, according to Urban Life Management‟s Craig Ulster, as is public safety. “These perceptions are common in urban markets and you have to work to address them in your design and marketing.” Frank Billingsley points to several parking garages under construction, including a 400-space public lot of Church Street, an 1,000-space lot on Washington Street and a 1,400-space lot in PremiereTrade Plaza. For now, restaurateurs are scurrying to make their establishments accessible. Mark Dollard of Absinthe in Church Street Station is working with the folks at Pearl Steakhouse to negotiate a parking deal in the SunTrust building. Pearl, in fact, is being quite aggressive about pursuing parking options for potential customers. According to Frank Vazquez, his group runs the Presidental Ballroom parking lot “so we have special reserved parking a block away.” He‟s also “working on getting reserved parking on Garland between Pine and Church, and there‟s parking on the other side of I-4, 400 spots, and people can valet park their cars a block away and walk over.” Concerned? Clearly. Kres, a block away, offers valet parking in the evening. Most restaurant operators feel the problems will dissipate, in part because downtown will be worth the inconvenience. Many will offer valet parking for free or for low fees, such as $5 for the evening at The Beacon. You may not even need to drive. The city is in the process of doing a comprehensive transportation study “looking at all the components of moving cars and people,” says Mayor Dyer. It is studying which streets should be one-way only, which two-way, how to move cars most efficiently, how to make the streets more pedestrian friendly--and how to cut down on cars altogether. Commuter rail will likely bring in people from Deland to Kissimmee, and Lymmo buses might run from Florida Hospital to ORMC, from Thornton Park to Parramore, meaning yet more folks can leave their wheels at home. Is going downtown to dine worth the trouble? Give it two years. When the bulk of those cranes, makeshift walkways and deserted storefronts are gone, downtown Orlando will be a prime destination for an evening out. Along with chic condos, the city will dazzle visitors with its one-of- a-kind destination restaurants featuring big-budget decors and serious menus. And then you get to walk to a play, concert or movie. Urban bliss. Facts:maybe we can stick these in somewhere--rg Occupancy downtown is at 90 percent. Parking is free after 6 p.m. every day and all day on Sunday. Where to Eat Downtown We obviously can‟t list every sandwich shop and coffeehouse crammed into downtown‟s streets, but following are the major restaurants serving meals to downtown residents, visitor and workers- -and those coming in the near future. RESTAURANTS TO EXPECT SOON THE BEACON The Sanctuary, 100 South Eola Drive, Orlando Designed to feel like a boutique hotel‟s lobby bar, The Beacon will be an upscale lounge serving an urban 35-and-up crowd. The menu will be tapas-based with international flavors, such as flatbreads topped with grilled royal trumpet mushrooms, beef three ways (tartare, skewered tataki and carpaccio) and caviar. The chef, Laird Boles, last worked at Dexter‟s. Wood beams, rusts, maroons and shimmer screens will help create a relaxing atmosphere. BENTO CAFÉ PremiereTrade Plaza www.bentocafesushi.com Pan-Asian dishes from Thai-curry chicken to Cantonese roast duck will be served in a fashionable space, as it is in the original Gainesville location. BOLA PremiereTrade Plaza Louis Huang, who has run restaurants on International Drive, will open this fine dining continental-Italian restaurant. CITRUS 801 North Orange Avenue Seating 175 in 5,620 square feet, this restaurant by the proprietors of Hue, Kres and Central City Market will be “contemporary but comfortable,” according to a spokesperson, with “big city design” and a menu featuring “New Florida Cuisine,” with the concepts “fresh, clean and local” incorporated into the menu and décor. A private dining room will seat 50. A Spring 2007 opening is planned. FIFI‟S PATISSERIE The Sanctuary, 100 South Eola Drive, Orlando A café and casual spot for drinks, Fifi‟s will serve breakfast and lunch, sell whole cakes retail and make specialty cakes. GRAZE The Sanctuary, 100 South Eola Drive, Orlando Globally inspired “grazing platters” built around market-fresh ingredients will be the core of Graze, whose executive chef, Randy Luedders, spent time at the Isleworth Country Club and Ron Jon‟s Surf Grill. PANCHERO‟S MEXICAN GRILL Church Street Market/The Esplanade, Orlando This Iowa-based case specializes in burritos that are wrapped to order in homemade tortillas and “pressed” until warm. STOTTER‟S 431 East Central Boulevard, Orlando The former Lee‟s Lakeside is in the process of being remade by Robin Stotter, a 15-year Wolfgang Puck alumnus who later helped develop some Restaurant Row concepts. Lake views will dominate the redesigned restaurant, which will feature high-quality foods prepared simply, according to Stotter. Patio dining, private function space and a redesigned downstairs bar called The BassMint complement the main dining room. One wall will highlight the restaurant‟s history. SALSARITA‟S FRESH CANTINA PremiereTrade Plaza www.salsaritas.com Already established in Sanford and Kissimmee, this downscale fresh-Mex chain will offer quick lunches and dinners to downtown‟s office workers. URBAN FLATS Premiere Trade Plaza Like its sister on Fairbanks Avenue in Winter Park, this stylish and casual Urban Flats will feature flatbreads with unusual toppings. RESTAURANTS NEW ON THE SCENE ABSINTHE BAR & BISTRO 116 West Church Street, Orlando, 407-401-8932 www.absinthebistro.com A combination bistro, café and bar--none of them small--specializes in slow-cooked French bistro foods such as coq au vin and duck cassoulet, French-inspired sandwiches and trendy cocktails. The atmosphere is Bohemian Paris of days gone by. It‟s run by chef-owner Mark Alan Dollard, a Disney and Wyndham veteran. EXCHANGE LOUNGE DOWNTOWN 127 West Church Street, Orlando, 407-581-8860 www.exchangelounge.com With live jazz and a swanky décor, Exchange Lounge is the perfect grown-up date spot. High ceilings, rich wood tones, dainty glass and turn-of-the-century charm are mixed with a contemporary spin in a space that was originally a meat market--and at other times housed a shoe shop, a jewelry store, a parking lot and Apple Annie‟s. The décor is a melding of historical elements; for example, the bottom of the bar was once the communion rail of a 19th-century French Catholic church. Head upstairs to the Cigar and Wine Club, where plush sofas will make you comfortable as you sample a stogie. JOHNSON‟S DINER Shoppes at City View, 595 West Church Street, Orlando, 407-841-0717 Home-style food, with an emphasis on soul food, draws a faithful downtown contingent to Johnson‟s Diner, a beloved coffee shop that moved to this new Parramore location in the spring. Four times as large as the Robinson Street original, the new digs were lauded by politicos as an important new step toward rejuvenating the Parramore District. MARKET STREET CAFÉ 407 East Central Boulevard, Orlando, 407-770-2030 Lake Eola views and upscale diner food are the hallmarks of the Market Street Café, the offshoot of a restaurant that has been in Celebration for a decade. Its 211 seats are located indoors and out. MIDNIGHT BLUE 900 East Washington Street, Orlando, 407-999-9012 www.midnightblueorlando.com After making her name at Blue Bistro in the ViMi District, chef-owner Jefanie Foster is trying her brand of reasonably priced, powerfully flavored food in Thornton Park. Her mostly outdoor newbie is a grazing-oriented joint featuring a range from top-quality “slider” hamburgers to seared sea scallops with lemon-teriyki glaze. PEARL STEAKHOUSE Church Street Station, 125 West Pearl Street, Orlando, 407-581-8865 www.pearlsteakhosue.com Dark woods and textured glass create turn-of-the-century elegance in this spacious steakhouse, which is owned and operated by the same folks who own Church Street Station. The classic menu features pricy steaks such as a prime dry-aged Cedar River Farm New York strip and prime rib, with a strong showing for seafood, including Asian blue-fin tuna wrapped in nori and phyllo dough, and grilled wild Alaskan king salmon in an amarena-cherry sauce. PIATTINI PIZZERIA & CAFÉ Shoppes at City View, 595 West Church Street, Orlando, 407-419-3773 www.eatpiattini.com Italian immigrant Zoran Cupic and his wife, Tina, have opened this contemporary 40-seat pizzeria and trattoria in Parramore‟s new City View, offering classics from caesar salad to pasta Bolognese, plus a variety of pizzas and paninis, to area residents and workers. Delivery is available. DOWNTOWN CLASSICS AMURA 55 West Church Street, Orlando, 407-316-8300 Fresh sushi is served to urban 20- and 30-somethings in a contemporary dining room at the original Amura, which has a nearly cult-like following. THE BOHEME The Westin Grand Bohemian, 325 South Orange Avenue, Orlando, 407-313-9000 www.theboheme.com Arguably downtown‟s most sophisticated restaurant, the swanky Boheme features creative-fusion fare within an art-filled hotel. Its power breakfast is legendary, and both business deals and romantic dinners are held frequently in its upholstered booths. DEXTER‟S THORNTON PARK 808 Washington Street, Orlando, 407-648-2777 www.dexwine.com Thornton Park‟s first watering hole aimed at an up-and-coming clientele, Dexter‟s has grown from a comfortable stop for a microbrew to a restaurant serving an eclectic mid-priced menu, sometimes to a live band, always to a stylish if dressed-down crowd. HARVEY‟S BISTRO 390 North Orange Avenue, Orlando, 407-246-6560 www.harveysbistro.com A pub with panache, Harvey‟s is a popular downtown hangout for lunch and dinner, where chi-chi items like mushroom morel bisque and truffle fries complement classics such as grilled tenderloin filet and chicken piccata. HUE - A RESTAURANT 629 East Central Boulevard, Orlando • 407-849-1800 www.huerestaurant.com Wear black, expect a wait and order a martini while hobnobbing at this Thornton Park trendinista, where the menu draws from the fashion-forward restaurants of the nation‟s bigger cities. ICHIBAN JAPANESE RESTAURANT 19 South Orange Avenue, Orlando, 407-423-2688 Located in Downtown Orlando‟s Historic District, Ichiban was one of the area‟s first serious restaurants serving sushi and bento boxes, and its fresh fish and contemporary décor keep it booked regularly. KRES CHOPHOUSE 17 West Church Street, Orlando, 407-447-7950 www.kreschophouse.com OK, it‟s only been a around three years, but in Downtown that‟s old. Kres is a stylish see-and-be- seen steakhouse located a just north of Church Street Market. By-pass the scantily clad crowd around the bars sharing Kres‟ street and treat yourself to triple-lamb rib chops, buffalo rib-eye steak and Barbados yellowfin tuna in a swanky space. MANUEL‟S ON THE 28TH Bank of America Building, 390 North Orange Avenue, Orlando, 407-246-6580 www.manuelsonthe28th.com City views and “contemporary world cuisine” continue to make Manuel‟s a special-occasion restaurant in the heart of downtown Orlando. NAPASORN THAI RESTAURANT * SUSHI BAR 56 East Pine Street, Orlando, 407-245-8088 www.napasornthai.com This pretty, bi-level restaurant serves Thai cuisine. SHARI SUSHI LOUNGE 621 East Central Boulevard, Orlando, 407-420-9420 www.sharisushilounge.com Cutting-edge Asian fare distinguishes this chick Thornton Park spot from Orlando‟s more typical sushi restaurants. Fun Finds--We might want to hold these for another issue. Or, we could run them in the dining section in a small version of the regular column with an intro like this: How‟s the food downtown these days? Surprisingly good. Here‟s what we found at visits to one newcomer and one old-timer. Amura 55 West Church Street, Orlando, 407-316-8300 Entrees: $15.99 to $33.99 (up to $118.99 for sushi and sashimi platters; the menu doesn‟t state how many people they‟re meant to feed) “I hate you!” the hostess seemed to say. “I hate you!” the waitress seemed to echo. The tone was so ugly throughout a Saturday evening meal at this long-popular sushi spot that the experience could have been a solid negative. The sushi is just so good, though, that I‟d go back weekly. Amura‟s sushi and sashimi list is not all that interesting; of the few dozen choices, most were made with tuna or salmon with avocado and/or cucumber. You have to dig to find a bit of eel, a flash of shrimp. And many rolls have cream cheese or mayonnaise, which is so unnecessary I won‟t touch the subject. But oh, are these rolls made well. The coco-mango is so different from most others that it‟s served first so you won‟t get tempted to muck it up with wasabi and ginger. Oversized in every direction, this Mexican-flavored creation involves slices and chunks of white tuna, tuna, salmon and mango slithering about the rice, with cilantro tucked inside and shreds of fresh coconut on top. Minced jalapeño spices it up. Even the more traditional rolls are phenomenal--fresh and flavorful. Spicy Super Crunch Rolls have a battered and fried interior. Dancing eel roll combines the sweet flesh with avocado and cucumber. The Bamboo Wine Roll has a base of spicy white tuna. Each had a drizzle of a different sauce. They sound common, but each is so well done that it‟s way more than a simple meal. Fish-phobes have a few choices for meatier meals, such as a Cowboy steak, New York beef teriyaki, filet mignon plain or topped with gorgonzola cheese and teriyaki, pork osso buco and “fiery spicy garlic chicken.” We sampled the four rolls at a table but had to fight for the privilege. The restaurant had nobody else waiting when we arrived, yet the hostile hostess kept trying to get us to sit at the sushi bar. We spotted empty tables and pointed to them. She still pushed. Finally she gave in. That threw us into the hands of a team of waitresses, one nastier than the next. When one thought we‟d said we‟d order more sushi after our initial order if we were still hungry (we hadn‟t said that, but so what if we had?), she snapped, “You‟ll have to wait 40 minutes!” She never mentioned specials that we later noticed posted over the sushi bar. Service was competent-- beverage and food orders were delivered accurately and in a timely manner--but the team emanated downright disgust toward the customers. The space is delightfully urban--like a Miata to the Sand Lake Road unit‟s Lincoln or the Lake Mary unit‟s Lexus. A burnt orange base color predominates in the small and loud space, with black-top tables and geometric wall décor playing against the pounding of bass in the background. Midnight Blue 900 East Washington Street, Thornton Park, 407-999-9012 www.midnightblueorlando.com Entrees $11 to $15. “Casual, comfortable, eclectic” is the slogan for Jefanie Foster‟s follow-up to Blue Bistro, a Mills Avenue success, and the saying is right on. Located in Thornton Park, Midnight Blue is a wear- jeans-but-a-gown-is-OK hangout with low prices, no pretensions, and a menu that covers vast parts of the globe, in bits and pieces. Seats are in the area that was once an outdoor garden. Now it‟s mostly enclosed so the temperature is pleasant even on a hot summer night. It‟s loud when the places is filled. The inside as a few barstools and a couple of high-tops. The menu set-up is sort of gimmicky. Items are divvied up by prices--$5, $7, $11 and $15. Your server will tell you the menu is meant for grazing, but will then ask for entrée orders. In other words, share the lower-priced dishes as an appetizer, then order a $15 Kobe beef meatloaf with caramelized onion gravy or seared scallops with lemon-teriyaki glaze for yourself. It‟s all intensely flavored, as is Foster‟s signature. Chilled tuna steak has a sesame crust and mango, avocado, cucumber, ponzu and “wasabi caviar.” Hanger steak with red wine bordelaise is hearty. Lamb kabobs have a tangy cucumber-yogurt sauce. Salsa verde-braised pork shoulder is tender and spicy. An artichoke, potato and swiss chard custard is a savory side dish. A deep-fried Twinkie for dessert is fun. A cheese platter has huge portions of interesting selections such as “rogue smoky blue” from Oregon, “mature cheddar with malt whiskey” from England and truffle cheese from Italy. And they‟re only three for $8, five for $13. The wine list is funky too. Instead of glasses and bottles, it offers servings in 250ml, 500ml and 750ml. The labels are quirky: Villiera Down to Earth, Pink Flamingo Gris de Gris, Por Que No? Zin Blend, 14 Hands Merlot.
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