Three Orlando chains that don’t suck 

click to enlarge Tom & Chee

Photo by Rob Bartlett

Tom & Chee

Red Robin
8167 International Drive, 407-574-2295,; $$

For years, we've heard the "Red Robin ... YUMMMMM!" jingle on Central Florida television, but we've been deprived of those bottomless fries until just recently with the opening of the I-Drive 360 complex in May. Now, along with a slew of other chain restaurants in the area (because tourists aren't adventurous eaters, as we all know), there's a Red Robin in all its neon and kitsch at the corner of Sand Lake Road and International Drive. Start off with a Blue Moon beer shake ($6.49), a combo of the Belgian white ale, vanilla soft serve, orange juice and Cointreau, and a starter of pretzel bites ($5) alongside pleasantly bitter cheese and beer fondue. From there, choices are nearly endless, especially for burger lovers (pro tip: Order your burger one temperature above what you really want. By the time it gets out from the heat lamps and to your table, it'll be just right.) Health nuts, there's a whole page in the back of the menu that serves as a How-To on ordering your burger to cut some cals. A sautéed 'shroom burger ($10.69) works nicely on a couple of sheets of iceberg lettuce, but you'll want a stack of napkins at the ready. Avoid the Chocolate Fruffles (cold, hard "brownie fries" that are more gimmicky than gimme) and instead finish off with a Towering Doh! Ring ($7.99), a stack of eight cronuts (but they can't call them that) served with hot fudge and berry dipping sauces.

Tom & Chee
12533 State Road 535, 321-395-4930,; $

The masterminds behind the chain Tom & Chee (the name's short for "tomato soup" and "grilled cheese,") must have heard about Toasted's success before diving into the saturated Orlando QSR market. After all, who wants to slurp tomato soup and gnaw on a greasy grilled cheese in 90-degree heat and 100 percent humidity? We all raised our collective hands. Nestled into a strip mall in Lake Buena Vista with at least seven other chains (including Fuddruckers, Moe's, Jamba Juice, Flipper's Pizza, Noodles & Company), Tom & Chee's menu is full of gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches like the Flying Pig ($7.95), with smoked turkey, bacon crumbles, pickles and smoked gouda on sourdough, and the Italian ($8.95), which flaunts salt and vinegar potato chips, pepperoni, ham and mozzarella between two slices of ciabatta. Add a dipper of either creamy or chunky tomato soup (we're partial to the latter) for only a buck-fifty, or add a side of Mac & Chee (sic) or, if you're feeling frisky, double-decker your grilled cheese for two bucks more. The thing that sets Tom & Chee apart from the other soup/sandwich spots is the grilled cheese donuts. If sweet-salty-savory is your thing, order one of these. We love the Barbara Blue ($5.45), a griddled glazed doughnut with blueberry compote, ham and brie oozing out the sides. Heaven.

Yard House
8367 International Drive, 407-351-8220,; $$$

This menu brings all the boys to the yard. Also all the men, women, girls, babies, locals and out-of-towners, and by "yard," we mean the I-Drive 360 entertainment complex. Yard House takes the principle of "something for everyone" very seriously: Drinkers can choose from 140 beers on draught, a selection of bottled gluten-free beers and ciders, an enormous cocktail list (with beer cocktails, prosecco cocktails, five "fresh & skinny" low-calorie cocktails and about a dozen different martinis) plus wine, champagne, sake ... and we haven't even gotten to the food yet. The menu reads like a cross between an issue of Bon Appetit and a stoner's fever dream, with starters and snacks ranging from chicken fingers and nachos to crispy malt vinegar Brussels sprouts and ahi tuna poke with macadamias. With this many choices to make before you even get to the main event, it's understandable if you feel overwhelmed; we did. So we ordered a VanderGhinste Oud Bruin (a 5.5 percent ABV Belgian sour, $9.25), a refreshing gin-based cucumber-citrus cocktail and the duck-fat "ripped potatoes" (a salt-and-peppery mix of fried potato chips and chunks served in a cast-iron skillet, $7.85), and settled in for some serious reading. After wading through long lists of salads, sandwiches, burgers, tacos, pizzas, seafood, a vegetarian Gardein menu, and "favorites" (which ranged from turkey pot pie to Nashville hot chicken to jambalaya to enchiladas), we sort of collapsed and went with a simple chopped salad: a mandolined fan of avocado over a chopped mix of tomatoes, little planks of corn off the cob, perfect tiny-diced cucumbers, shatteringly crisp bacon and celery leaves (a very smart use of the most flavorful part of the vegetable). We also tried the vegetarian orange peel chicken ($16.95) – the delicately crisp crust held up well under the sweet-heat glaze on chewy chunks of meatless Gardein. Had we each ordered a ramekin of apple-and-peach cobbler with caramel ice cream ($3.95), it would have tipped us over the edge of overconsumption; splitting it worked better. In the end we concluded that while Yard House's kitchen staff is skilled – everything was competently executed – their menu developers are truly geniuses, because we're still regretting not ordering that lobster and brie omelet ....


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