ORLANDO — In the early 1900s, hotels offered "table d'hote" or "prix fixe" menus to guests as a form of loss leader. Hotels didn't necessarily make money on these lower-priced, multicourse inclusive meals, often served at communal tables, but they made up for it on the booze. Prohibition may have contributed to a gradual shift toward a la carte pricing in American restaurants (no booze, thus no buoying booze sales), but surely this trend also reflects the dining public's insistence on choice. We want options, balking at being told, "You get this appetizer, followed by this entree and culminating in this dessert. Deal with it."
The pendulum may be swinging back. In the current economy, a value-oriented, multicourse prix fixe sounds pretty good. Many American cities are running with this notion, offering a restaurant week (or month) during which participating restaurants offer inexpensive prix fixe menus. New York does theirs in the dog days of July, Sarasota conducts one at the end of May, Miami's is in August and September, and Orlando's Magical Dining Month is September. It's a win-win. Restaurants are full during traditionally slow weeks, potentially snagging new regular customers while raising awareness through shared publicity. Diners get to try unfamiliar restaurants relatively risk-free, keeping more cash in their pockets at meal's end.
Tampa Bay hasn't launched a restaurant month or week, but Orlando's Magical Dining Month warrants heading east on Interstate 4 for dinner. More than 50 of the greater Orlando area's best restaurants offer three-course menus for either $19 or $29, excluding beverage, tax and gratuity. This includes heavy hitters like celebrity chef-driven Emeril's Tchoup Chop and Roy's as well as all the sophisticated independent restaurants that crowd Winter Park and Orlando's trendy Thornton Park neighborhood (Beluga, Rocco's, Graze). Plan one of two ways: Go to www.orlandomagicaldining.com and read about the restaurants, or click through and base your decision on the posted menus. Make reservations, indicating you are coming for the special menu. I drove over and previewed a couple of the options, finding both restaurants exceptional, their menus generous and exciting.
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French onion soup is an exercise in delayed gratification: the scent of thyme and sherry drifting up in the steam, a bubbled cap of molten cheese double-dog-daring you to dig in.
I've never been good at delayed gratification, my first heavenly bite of soup at Chez Vincent haunting me still with roof-of-mouth agony. A classic French bistro set on a now-gentrified stretch of New England Avenue in tony Winter Park, Chez Vincent got it just right. With white tablecloths and putty-colored neutral decor, it's intimate and charming, its soup similarly classic (intense broth without being salty, thick-cut onions, the tang of good gruyere).
From there I moved on, wincing a little, to a lovely chicken crepe, a mushroomy cream sauce just moistening the crisp edges, a precise fan of snow peas and a rosette of duchesse potatoes adding a deft "nouvelle" touch. For dessert? The kind of velvety creme brulee that wins your heart just as it goes straight to your thighs.
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The Grand Bohemian Hotel, near the ever-in-transition Church Street Station, is downtown's hippest property. Its restaurant, the Boheme (strangely, pronounced bo-HEEM), is one of the swankiest restaurants in the city. A sweeping medley from the lounge's Imperial Grand Bosendorfer piano (one of only two in the world) provides the soundtrack in the gorgeous, dark-wood dining room.
This kitchen's Magical Dining menu screams luxury: I began with a lobster bisque, the signature soup rich and heady, crunchy wonton strips floating up top while chunks of sweet lobster meat lurk down below (sublime with a glass of toasty-oaked Coldstream Hills Yarra Valley chardonnay, $13 a glass, with its minerality and lingering peach on the finish).
Architectural and stylish, the next course brought a fillet of honey-slicked salmon perched atop tender-crisp asparagus and roasted fingerling potatoes, the fish in turn topped with a cloud of micro arugula hiding snowy white crab. The plate's dots of lemon oil and red pepper coulis provided proper punctuation to the balanced dish. Dessert options will vary, but my visit's lush dark chocolate lava cake with raspberry syrup proved that a three-course prix fixe, while fiscally prudent, can be anything but abstemious.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, can be found at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.