by Eric Barton | March 30, 2021
8 Central Florida Restaurants You Have to Try
From quirky breakfast joints to top-dollar fine dining, here's where you should be eating in Central Florida right now.
The first meal I remember eating in Orlando was at the Polynesian Resort, a big splurge for my family during a trip to the theme parks. I was 9, and the dish I remember most looked like a bowl of bean pudding, the earthy oddity that is poi.
It was exciting and adventurous for a small-town kid, and it’s probably exactly the type of meal many people think of when they consider Central Florida cuisine: overpriced, consumed at a theme park and overshadowed by that day’s roller coaster rides.
These days, though, you can eat very well in Central Florida. The I-4 corridor is now home to outposts of famous chefs and homegrown cooks rising to national acclaim. It wasn’t easy to boil down the finest Orlando and Tampa Bay restaurants, but we did just that, in a list of places you should try right now.
Victoria & Albert’s
In our feature on the James Beard Awards, longtime restaurant critic Scott Joseph said this spot in the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa might be Orlando’s finest. The place looks like a dining room straight out of a grand France chateau and serves a six-course tasting menu that changes nightly. While there’s still no word when V&A’s will return as part of Disney’s phased reopening, check the reservation page for updates.
Look, we know a whole lot of people would naturally put Bern’s down as Tampa’s finest restaurant. Sure, those steaks are legendary, but Flor Fina is something entirely original, a mix of Latin influences from acclaimed chef Douglas Rodriguez, born to Cuban immigrants in Miami, who then added a Tampa Bay twist to a menu that feels all his own. The dining room, with its gold hue from the bar’s glowing ceiling and overall stunning setting in the new Hotel Haya in Ybor City, is also something to see.
This is, admittedly, a controversial choice considering it’s an unassuming Lake Nona strip mall pizza joint and not a household name like NYPD Pizza, which has multiple locations in the metro area. But the Parascandolo family that runs it puts out truly beautiful Neapolitan-style pies cooked quickly in a blazing-hot oven until the crust chars and the bottom crisps.
You’d be hard pressed to find a pizza more painstakingly handmade than these. Owner Greg Seymour buys organic wheat and grains that he mills himself, makes his own sausage and sources water buffalo milk for the cheese. The end result is a pie that’s a rare find not just in Tampa, but anywhere.
Ella's Americana Folk Art Cafe
As charming as the Seminole Heights neighborhood it calls home, Ella’s prides itself on its eclectic nature, from the quirky furniture to a menu of dishes like The Florida Man, featuring smoked sausage with smoked beans and apple coleslaw. Breakfast here comes in the form of weekend brunch. Think: fried chicken and waffles drizzled with bourbon-caramelized honey and biscuits with smoked sausage gravy.
Highball & Harvest
Orlando is a city where many breakfasts are defined as hotel buffets or chains, and that’s part of what makes the Highball & Harvest unique: a one-off, farm-to-table restaurant (located inside the Ritz Carlton) where the menu lists not only pancakes and eggs benedict, but the regional farmers that supplied the ingredients.
If you’ve never had Laotian food, a visit to Sticky Rice in Orlando is a good primer, with a menu that hits the staples like laab, curry and, of course, sticky rice with mango for dessert. Owner Kevin Phanvilay's menu also features the food of his childhood, a mix of Laotian streetfood and the more homey dishes his mom would make him as a kid.
Chef Felicia Lacalle describes her menu as "the modern take on your Abuela's cooking,” and that's evident by the way she combines roasted pork, yuca fries and tostones in ways you wouldn't find at traditional Cuban tables. Her pressed Cuban sandwiches have received wide acclaim in Tampa, a difficult task in a city famous for them.