Best Of 1997

Best of Orlando-Cuisine

Best untried theme for a restaurant

10. Catch & Eat Fish
;9. Bring Your Own Buffet
;8. Bikini Bistro
;7. Dead Celebs
;6. TV Dinner (with personal TV)
;5. Goth
;4. Laundry Bar
;3. Good Food Cheap
;2. Food Fights "R" Us
;1. No shirt, no shoes -- yes! -- service

Best restaurant reading room

Bathrooms in restaurants and bars certainly have their uses, not only for the obvious purpose, but for escaping unwanted company or conversations, or to exit to thereby assuring that your food or drinks will show up at the table. Some bathrooms are heinous and unfit for use as public facilities, some are sumptuous, elegant and even have attendants in case you forget how to do anything in there, but none of them seem designed to get you to stay. Except for the one at Chapter's Bookshop and Cafe (717 W. Smith St., Orlando). Not only is the ladies' room at Chapter's unusually big and homey, it has a bench in it, like you might have invited a visitor in there with you and need a place for them to sit down, too. Not only that, it has a book shelf. With books on it -- World Book Year Books going back as far as 1957 that seem to invite you to hang out and discover everything that happened in history, politics, and entertainment up to and including the present time while you're sitting around waiting for, well, whatever you're waiting for. You don't want to hide in there for too long, though, because the coffee and the food are excellent and the selection of old books is enormous. But it certainly is worth noting that the full bookcase in Chapter's bathroom is the most interesting invitation we've ever;seen to set a spell on the toilet.

Worst place to go when you have to "go"

On Thursday nights, Dexter's Wine & Cheese in Winter Park (200 W. Fairbanks Ave.) is packed, and there is only one single-stall restroom for the ladies. In fact, the sign on the door should just say, "Lady." Thursdays are when the social set head out for networking and noshing on veggie peanut pasta and tortilla pies that are stacked like flying saucers. They also go for the wine tastings and jazz combos. Be sure to answer nature's call before dropping by. And after you get there, don't drink more than you can hold. Otherwise you'll do most of your;shmoozing in the back, while waiting in line for bladder relief. But hey, the well-dressed types in the queue just may tip you off to the latest additions to the clearance rack at Tuni's. And the bar's rotating art collection is a nice distraction while you wait.

Worst place to go when you want to "go" in private

For shy guys, it's The Mill Bakery, Eatery & Brewery in Winter Park (330 W. Fairbanks Ave.). Anyone who dines near the south side of the bar, by the stage, will notice that they are placed in a curious juxtaposition to the men's room. Every time the door swi-i-i-ngs open, you get a pretty decent glimpse of the urinals and whoever is using them. It alternates between offensive and amusing, depending on how much honey wheat beer you've imbibed -- and there's probably an opportunity for a bar game in there, somewhere.

Best upscale French in an up-and-coming neighborhood

Just barely edged out of the top spot as Best New Restaurant, Chez Vincent (533 W. New England Ave., Winter Park) sits smack in the middle of a gentrification project, just west of Park Avenue. It's the most sophisticated dining arrival in this enclave of casual neighbors. Small and intimate with a smart decor, it's a good bet for quiet midday meals or elegant dinners after hours. The location hasn't yet caught up with the upper crust ambience, but it probably will eventually.

Best combination of liquor and chocolate

The Jack Daniels chocolate layer cakeat Sapphire Supper Club (54 N. Orange Ave., Orlando) is just the best damned chocolate cake we've had in years: Warm, moist layers of cake are permeated with hints of whiskey and plenty of creamy icing. And it's served in such a heaping helping that they ought to card anyone who orders it.

Best inspiration for a scene out of a Quentin Tarantino movie

Carnevale D'Amalfi Drive-Thru Italian Restaurant in Union Park (9728 E. Colonial Drive) is the restaurant equivalent of an Elvis moment. It looks like a big Italian merry-go-round. Prancing carousel horses ring the building. Balloons twirl in the breeze by a sign out front; flags flutter on top of the roof. Go when you're really hungry, and maybe a little bit dazed, after a long day at work. Pull up through the drive-through lane, lined up with prancing carousel horses. Order a big, fat pan of lasagna. And while you wait, listen to the piped-in Italian pop and Rat Pack hits. When you hear Dean Martin wail, "When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie ..." you'll know what we mean. If you have an overactive imagination, you can almost imagine a bloated, slightly sinister John Travolta leaning through the window to hand you your order -- except that this is a totally harmless mom-and-pop joint that also happens to have some of the most savory, homestyle Italian cooking in town, and it's ready to go within minutes.

Best-kept secret for free gourmet food

Culture vultures are tuned in to this phenomenon, but the general public is largely unaware that whenever there is an exhibition opening at certain local museums and galleries, there usually is an impressive spread of food. Maitland Art Center has a consistent cornucopia of appetizers and desserts; Orlando Museum of Art has thrown some pretty impressive catered affairs; and the fall and spring open houses at McRae on the Lake offer a bonanza of gourmet fare. We've sampled prawns, filet mignon, clams casino and caviar -- all in the convenient form of finger food -- at these receptions, and have rarely seen an admission charge. There usually is a bar, with wine and beer on a donation basis. We don't like to admit it, but this is usually about 50 percent of our motivation for attending. The other reason is to support the arts -- in spirit, if not always with our wallets.

Best place to go solo

"Lagniappe" is French for "a little something extra," and Lagniappe Cafe (691 S.R. 436, Altamonte Springs) doesn't just give lip service to solitary diners; they give them free desserts or cocktails. Don't miss the Bananas Foster bread pudding, pretty much a dressed-up French toast dish with brown sugar rum sauce. Also good: the New Orleans-style beignets, traditional pastries deep-fried, dusted with confectioner's sugar and served hot.

Nastiest dining trend

Upscale restaurants, such as the exquisite Le Provence, that offer cigar menus.

Best place for a power lunch

Across town and at large, it hasn't yet gained familiarity despite a classy ambience, top-drawer menu and professional staff. But the downtown crowd seems to have tapped into Sergio's (355 N. Orange Ave., Orlando) as a backdrop for business dealing and special celebrations; it's even close to the center of power, located in the shadow of the new courthouse. From the moment you enter the plush lounge that leads to the main dining area, you'll know that you're in for an extra-special experience. Dinners are culinary and visual treats. Try the tagliolini di spinaci al gorgonzola e pinoli (or just try pronouncing it): spinach pasta, tossed with a creamy Gorgonzola sauce and topped with pine nuts and marinated tomatoes.

Best salsa bar

Fresh ingredients, ample portions, simple items and value-added prices. What more could you ask for? A hot sauce bar! Well, Tijuana Flats Burrito Co. (three area locations) already is a mile ahead of you. In addition to selling literally hundreds of different sauces over the counter and through a mail-order catalog, the restaurant/store has a permanent bar of 12 rotating sauces available to add plenty of fire to their tasty burritos, tacos and quesadillas. Most make Tabasco taste like ketchup, so order a cold beer to doyuse the flames. A must-stop for connoisseurs of Tex-Mex, hot sauces and value.

Best place for patio dining overlooking a construction site

Patio dining in Orlando is pretty pathetic. While in most cities the urban bistro concept is situated in bustling shopping plazas with plenty of pedestrians to view, most of Orlando's sidewalk cafes lack even the requisite sidewalk. Instead, diners are treated to strip mall franchises that tack on patio dining as an afterthought. Two Colonial Plaza spots come to mind: Cooker Bar & Grill, with its annoying view of Colonial Drive, and Barnie's, with its benign exposure to nothing more enticing than the parking lot. On the other hand, Chez Jose and Moo's Brothers (700 E. Washington St., Orlando), the newest and best place for patio dining, is currently plagued by the woes of construction at Summerlin Avenue and Washington Street. But never fear. With its light fare, great desserts, a wonderfully mixed clientele and an appealing atmosphere, biting down on a burritto outside on its covered deck couldn't be better.

Best place for an affordable late-night snack

Formerly the Yab Yum coffeehouse, Harold & Maude's Espresso Bar (25 Wall Street Plaza, Orlando) was converted with an emphasis on an over-21 crowd, coffee liqueur drinks and desserts. But while the redecorated atmosphere seems to scream upward mobility, several items on the menu can be yours for mere pocket change. The humus and chips ($2.50) is a tasty snack for two or a hardy meal for one. Or how about a pitcher full of tater-tots ($3) served with a secret sauce? And coffee (with free refills) is only a buck. For the best sandwich in town, The Torpedo ($3.50) combines mouth-watering Brie cheese, tomato, onions and apple butter, all served up on a toasted baguette bun. Like a dyed-in-the-wool Brit playing Scarlett O'Hara, it shouldn't work, but it does. And deliciously so. If only nations could learn to get along as harmoniously as the ingredients of this tasty treat. Food is served until 2:30 a.m., although food here is the only real value; their drink prices will have you reaching for your gold card.

Best place to view Orlando's underbelly while dining

Late-night dining, particularly on the weekends, is scarce downtown. And unless you're content with the mundane Bennigan's or T.G.I. Friday's, the pickings are slim elsewhere as well. That was until the opening of Cuoco Pazzo (1 S. Orange Ave., Orlando) right in the heart of the downtown club scene. Open until 4 a.m. on weekends, Cuoco Pazzo not only serves up great Italian food and pizza but also, if you're lucky enough to nab a window seat, plenty of entertainment via the sidewalk as well. The mix of people pounding the pavement until the wee hours of the morning couldn't be any more diverse. From couples who look like they got lost on their way to South Beach, to redneck goat ropers leaving the rodeo at Eight Seconds, to slacker street punks too broke or indifferent to pay the cover charge at The Club, the endless parade is one fashion faux pas after another, and worth witnessing from a safe distance behind glass.

Best hummus

There's no denying the craving for the miracle concoction called Red Pepper Hummus that's whipped up by the creative and healthful cooks at Chamberlin's Natural Food Market in Winter Park (one of five area locations). Not hot, but richly flavored by red bell peppers that give a blushing hue to the blend of mashed chickpeas, lemon juice, garlic, olive oil and tahini, this twist on the Mideastern staple is creamy and satisfying. When they make a fresh batch, the relatively pricey cartons disappear from the deli at an alarming rate. Once you try it, there's no going back.

Best excuse for skipping church

At $23.99 per adult, it's slightly pricy for the quality of a self-serve buffet that is largely sampled and consumed in conditions too dark too see just what, exactly, you've heaped onto your plate ("I think it's grits -- you eat it first"). And the service on its opening weekend suffered from a sellout crowd -- not something that any new restaurant is well-prepared to handle with an untested staff. When you buy a ticket for a 10:45 a.m. brunch, you rightly expect that you won't still be standing outside in line at 11:10 a.m. But once the technicians finally located the proper music, and profuse apologies smoothed over most of the glitches, the House of Blues' Sunday Gospel Brunch surrendered itself to song and the Savior and -- hallelujah! -- the energy did flow forth. A transplanted fixture from founder Isaac Tigrett's other Houses of Blues, the Sunday brunch celebrates the religious musical roots of a culture -- the rural, African-American South -- that Tigrett, a native of Jackson, Tenn., also champions through the folk art that covers every inch of his club's walls and the blues that he sandwiches between more marketable mainstream pop, rock and other acts. And in time the club just may expand its brunch to seven days. But while Tigrett insists that he did not sell his soul to become an anchor at the new Downtown Disney West End, this much is clear: Disney finally has found a way to make money off of Jesus.

Sidebar: Readers Picks:

Best Bagels:

Einstein Bros., 10 area locations

Best Breakfast:

First Watch, four area locations

Best Bookstore Cafe:

; ;

Barnes & Noble, 4324 E. Colonial Drive and 8358 S. Orange Blossom Trail, Orlando

Best Burger:

Checkers Drive-Thru, 24 area locations

Best Chinese:

4-5-6, 657 N. Primrose Drive, Orlando

Best Coffeehouse:

Harold & Maude's Espresso Bar, 25 Wall Street Plaza, Orlando

Best Cuban:

Black Bean Deli, 325 S. Orlando Ave., Winter Park

Best Deli:

TooJay's, 2400 E. Colonial Drive, Orlando, and 515 E. Altamonte Drive, Altamonte Springs

Best Diner:

Angel's, three area locations

Best Dessert:

Pete's Bubble Room, 1351 S. Orlando Ave., Maitland

Best French:

Le Coq Au Vin, 4800 S. Orange Ave., Orlando

Best German:

Bauern-Stube, 5607 S. Orange Ave., Orlando

Best Greek:

Athena, 501 N. Orlando Ave., Winter Park

Best Indian:

The Clay Oven, 1275 S. Hwy. 17-92, Longwood

Best Italian:

Sorrento's, 651 N. Primrose Drive, Orlando

Best Japanese:;

Ichiban, 19 S. Orange Ave., Orlando

Best Mexican:

PR's, 499 W. Fairbanks Ave., Winter Park,and 4768 S. Kirkman Road, Orlando

Best Middle Eastern:

Tony's Deli, 1323 N. Mills Ave., Orlando

Best Pizza:

New York Pizzeria Delicatessen,373 N. Orange Ave., Orlando

Best Seafood:

Straub's, 5101 E. Colonial Drive, Orlando, and 512 E. Altamonte Drive, Altamonte Springs

Best Steak:

Outback, seven area locations

Best Sushi:

Ichiban, 19 S. Orange Ave., Orlando

Best Thai:

Thai House, 2101 E. Colonial Drive, Orlando

Best Vegetarian:

Chamberlin's, five area locations

Best Vietnamese:

Little Saigon, 1106 E. Colonial Drive, Orlando

Best Weekend Brunch:

Lili Marlene's at Church Street Station,129 W. Church St., Orlando

Best Outdoor Dining:

Julie's Waterfront Cafe, 4201 S. Orange Ave., Orlando

Best Intimate Dining:

Manuel's on the 28th,390 N. Orange Ave., Orlando

Best New Restaurant:

Bahama Breeze, 499 E. Altamonte Drive, Altamonte Springs, and 8849 International Drive, Orlando

Best First Date Restaurant:

Pebbles, four area locations

Best Restaurant When Someone Else is Paying:

Manuel's on the 28th, 390 N. Orange Ave., Orlando

Best place to cure 3 a.m. munchies:

Denny's, 31area locations

Sidebar: Best alternative dining when all you were expecting was the catch-of-the-day (or every day, for that matter)

Stereotyped as having only herring to eat, which is not only a silly-sounding fish but a tiny one, Norwegian cuisine is thought of as cold, meager and monotone. If you had to chose an ethnic cuisine, you would opt for Inuit or Martian before Norwegian (because although you may not know what you're getting, at least you'd know it wouldn't be bait).

That is where, as has happened so many times before, you would be wrong, and it's the great trick of Restaurant Akershus, the Norwegian venue at Disney's Epcot Center.

No one really knows what to expect of Norway. They could hand you a smelt and a water roll and for all you know that would be authentic.

But apparently they're greater epicures than many of us imagined, which is why this restaurant experience totally threw us off guard. The restaurant is gorgeous and warmly radiant like the castle feast scenes in Arthurian movies, an intimacy aided by imagining how cozy this place would be if it really were frigid outside. The drinks help out a lot here, too. If everything in Norway is as exponentially large as their beers, I will look into getting us passports if you check prices on the air fare. Also, the shots we were encouraged to drink -- some sort of minty flavored shnapps whose name we couldn't pronounce even before drinking -- may have contributed to the room's inviting glow.

The staff that coaxes you into these drinks, by the way, is stunning, and could coax a vegetarian into eating a herd of cows. Which brings us to food. Yes, there is herring. There are lots of things on the cold buffet, cheese you've never even heard of before, marvelous breads, meats, vegetable salads and that herring (plus other fish) done in enough tangy, salty, marinated-y ways to make your mouth water. There are hot dishes, too, venison among them as we recall, all very good, but for the sheer novelty and delectbility, the cold stuff is what we preferred at Restaurant Akershus.

See, when you're a kid, tattoos and nose piercings are, like, real alternative. When you get old, real alternative is eating Norweigian. In fact, it's so obscure there's only one place to try it and we suggest, for a real change, that you do.

Liz Langley