HEAD EAST: MAGICAL DINING
Restaurant weeks (or months) have caught fire in most major cities, often during what amounts to "off season" for the local dining scene. Participating restaurants offer inexpensive prix-fixe menus and the whole event is publicized and organized by the city, all of the tantalizing details elucidated on a website.
In its 11th year, Visit Orlando's Magical Dining Month warrants heading east on Interstate 4 for dinner from Monday through Oct. 2. In the biggest event yet, 95 of the greater Orlando area's best restaurants offer three-course meals for $33, excluding beverage, tax and gratuity.
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. And there's another beneficiary this year: The Russell Home for Atypical Children, a local charity, will receive $1 from each meal.
This year there are 26 new participants (the largest group of newbies yet), including STK, a new upscale steak house with a high-energy atmosphere at Disney Springs; Morimoto Asia, by chef Masaharu Morimoto of Iron Chef America fame, offering pan-Asian flavors; Urbain 40, glinting with 1940s glamor and a continental menu crafted from largely local, seasonal ingredients; and Cask & Larder, a local favorite featuring brewed-on-site beer, home-cured meats and pickled vegetables. Cask & Larder is the second restaurant created by five-time James Beard-nominated chefs James Petrakis and Julie Petrakis.
From options near the theme parks to hidden gems in Orlando's local neighborhoods, this year's highlights include:
RA Sushi*, Itta Bena*, Tapa Toro Tapas Bar & Paella Pit*, Urban Tide (Hyatt Regency Orlando), the Capital Grille, Cuba Libre Restaurant & Rum Bar, a Land Remembered (Rosen Shingle Creek)
Disney/Lake Buena Vista:
Black Fire Brazilian Steakhouse, Deep Blu Seafood Grille (Wyndham Grand Orlando Resort), Nine18 (the Villas of Grand Cypress), Todd English's Bluezoo (Walt Disney World Dolphin)
Shari Sushi Lounge*, Artisan's Table, the Boheme, Citrus Restaurant, Kasa Restaurant & Bar, Maxine's on Shine
Slate*, Big Fin Seafood Kitchen, Christini's Ristorante Italiano, Dragonfly Robata Grill & Sushi, Eddie V's Prime Seafood Restaurant, Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, Morton's the Steakhouse, Ocean Prime
Amatista Cookhouse* (Loews Sapphire Falls), Emeril's Tchoup Chop, Islands Dining Room (Loews Royal Pacific), the Kitchen (Hard Rock Hotel), Mama Della's Ristorante (Loews Portofino Bay)
Blu on the Avenue*, the Ravenous Pig, Luma on Park, Mitchell's Fish Market, Chez Vincent, Hamilton's Kitchen, Ruth's Chris Steak House
F&D Kitchen and Bar*, Osprey Tavern*, Kabooki Sushi*, Ruth's Chris Steak House (Orlando and Lake Mary)
(* First year in Magical Dining)
A full list of all participating restaurants, menus and OpenTable reservations are available at orlandomagicaldining.com. You can plan where you want to go in two ways: Visit the website and read about the restaurants, or click through and base your decision on the posted menus. And when you make reservations, indicate you are coming for the special menu.
I've gone nearly every year. In 2011, I visited the Grand Bohemian in downtown Orlando and was seated at a table next to Geraldo Rivera, who was interviewing Casey Anthony's ex-boyfriend. I got a crick in my neck trying to eavesdrop, but dinner was excellent.