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The Rebirth of Downtown Orlando

VIEWS: 17 PAGES: 12

									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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