Something is happening in Orlando. Yes, the Mako coaster at SeaWorld, but I mean something else. The theme parks have always had better food than they needed to (mental scroll of amusement park food elsewhere in the country: turkey legs and I-can't-believe-they-fried-this-and-put-it-on-a-stick items), but all of a sudden Orlando seems to be the It spot for celebrity chefs. Maybe they've fatigued of Las Vegas or maybe New York rents are too high, but a number of celeb-fronted ventures and high-end chain concepts are landing on the Mouse pad in upcoming months.
First up, STK Orlando has debuted at Disney Springs. STK Orlando is within the Landing neighborhood in a 15,000-square-foot building reminiscent of a refurbished 1900s train station. What is STK all about? Come on, folks, fill in the vowels. It's a modern steakhouse with a hip lounge with an in-house DJ and a dramatic second-level terrace. The menu is all about reimagined classic American cuisine with signature dishes like lobster mac and cheese and bite-sized Lil' BRGs (these people hate the vowels) made with Wagyu beef. STK has locations in New York City; Washington, D.C.; Miami; Chicago; Atlanta; Los Angeles; Las Vegas; Orlando, London; and Milan, Italy; with additional locations coming soon to Dallas; Toronto; San Diego; Denver; Austin, Texas; Boston; Edinburgh, Scotland; and Ibiza, a Mediterranean island.
Also at Disney Springs, Frontera Fresco, a new Mexican dining concept from chef Rick Bayless, top right, launches this summer. Bayless, a six-time James Beard winner, aims to showcase the innovative Mexican cuisine that has made him a culinary legend at his flagship restaurants Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in Chicago, as well as subsequent restaurants XOCO and XOCO Bistro in Chicago, Frontera Fresco (this will be the fourth location) and Red O in California.
And then celebrity chef Art Smith, bottom right, gets in on the action at Disney Springs with Homecoming: Florida Kitchen and Southern Shine. Born and raised in the town of Jasper on the Florida-Georgia border, this is a homecoming of sorts. After 25 years of preparing award-winning meals for celebrities and heads of state (he worked for former Florida governors Bob Graham and Jeb Bush, was the personal chef to Oprah and once served a vegetarian version of his fried chicken to the Dalai Lama), he's heading back to Disney property. As a young-un he went through the Walt Disney Magic Kingdom College Program. Expect healthier versions of classic Southern fare.
Also new on the scene are fast-casual concepts. You'll find D Luxe Burger, Blaze Fast-Fire'd Pizza, the Daily Poutine, Amorette's Patisserie, a high-end bakery with classic and contemporary confections, and Morimoto Asia's walk-up order window. On the horizon is the Edison, similar to its sister location in Los Angeles. With a theme that centers around a 1920s-period electric company with live entertainment, classic American food and craft cocktails, the industrial Gothic space will have 35-foot ceilings. Opening date has not yet been released. And this fall, Fulton's Crab House becomes Paddlefish with a complete makeover and new menu.
There's the improved Flying Fish Café at Disney's Boardwalk with an all new interior, menu and chef, and Jungle Skipper Canteen recently opened in the Magic Kingdom (the park's fourth sit-down restaurant).
Universal CityWalk will welcome Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen later this year. It will be a 19th century-inspired, Steampunk-era chocolate factory and full-service restaurant that offers a wide variety of dishes from all-day-brunch crepes and quiches to takes on classic steak, seafood and pasta, and an array of gourmet-level chocolates and desserts.
Downtown Orlando gets DoveCote, the newest project for James Beard-nominated chefs James and Julie Petrakis, right, who also own Winter Park's Ravenous Pig, Cask & Larder and Swine & Sons. A twist on the classic French brasserie, the new restaurant is expected to open in June. Chef Clayton Miller, a past winner of a "Best New Chef" award from Food & Wine, who also worked under Thomas Keller at French Laundry, will oversee the kitchen. The Petrakises will also open a Cask & Larder location at Orlando International Airport this summer. It will be the first restaurant at the airport to specialize in seasonally driven cuisine and locally sourced ingredients.
When you feel like you've had enough of Orlando's allures, you can take a drive north to the charming town of Mount Dora to check out celebrity chef Norman Van Aken's latest venture, 1921, which launches soon. Why Mount Dora? Maybe Orlando's getting too crowded.