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Some of my greatest meal memories are from the original Dexter's in Winter Park. It was there that I discovered my love of sitting around a table for hours with friends, eating, drinking and conversing. The original Dexter's on Fairbanks Avenue was magnificent for this discovery, an absolutely pleasurable spot where you could linger and listen to music, sip wine and enjoy enlivening food.

Then came Dexter's in Thornton Park, which became my morning-after remedy from long nights at the Go Lounge. I loved getting up and riding my bike over to Washington Street to have brunch. There was no better way to nurse a hangover than with a basket of sweet potato chips and a Dexter's "special" – a honey-cured mesquite-smoked turkey sandwich. When the original Dexter's moved to another location, in west Winter Park, I went a couple of times, mostly on dates before the movies or to grab a quick sandwich and tasty salad.

I guess you could say that Dexter's and I have grown up together. Dexter's kind of supplied the comfort food of my early adult life, introducing me to such favorites as buccatini, jerk spice and smoked cheese. So when I heard Dexter's was growing again and moving north to the suburbs, I wasn't sure what to think. I mean, I'm not ready for the suburbs yet. And would it have the same cool warehouse-space feel? Would the food be just as simple and pleasing?

The new Dexter's in Lake Mary suffers a little from what I like to call Multiple Growth Restaurant Syndrome, the pesky disorder that occurs when a restaurant has been getting it right for so long that they become formulaic. Don't worry, though. Dexter's is up and running and handling this minor affliction quite well. The first sign of MGRS is in the restaurant's sterile location in a spanking-new shopping plaza. To get to the restaurant, I had to navigate I-4 up to the Lake Mary exit, then pass by the marquee of a shopping mall and drive past endless rows of parking spaces. There's not much of a chance that I'll wake up on a breezy morning and hop on my bike for a ride over here. Each of the other Dexter's locations is unique in the way the business molds itself to the surroundings. The new entry offers a more manufactured ambience, but my friends and I still found the experience enjoyable in every way. This Dexter's was still the Dexter's I knew and loved.

A beautiful glass wine-storage closet nestled in nicely by the bar, creating the fun, sophisticated flair Dexter's is so well known for. All of the comfort foods I crave were on the new menu, so I had to start with the basket of delicious "cha-cha" chips mixed with sweet chips ($1.95), which always kicks up my appetite.

From the café menu, my friends ordered my beloved garlic buccatini with fresh pesto ($6.95), a delectable mix of Alfredo sauce, basil, pine nuts and thick, hollow egg noodles. We also tried the "low country crab cakes" ($11.95) and our resident Marylander gave them the thumbs-up – flaky and tender, packed with sweet crab flavor and piqued by plenty of fresh red pepper and onion.

We tried some items from the chef's special menu and found them delicious, as well. The chef here has the familiar Dexter's flair for giving comfort-food ingredients an exciting twist. The "chipotle marinated pork tenderloin" ($17.95) was bursting with heady spices such as cumin and cilantro, complementing the smoky aroma of the chipotle pepper. The "grilled filet with Stilton-bacon-demi glace" ($22.95) was steak and potatoes at its best. The fillet, juicy and served medium rare, was compatibly married to the opulent flavors of bacon and blue cheese. All of the dishes were enhanced by the accompaniment of a reasonably priced bottle of Acacia pinot noir. To finish our dinner off, we virtually scarfed the very satisfying and solid crème brûlée ($4.50) and the decadently chocolate "two mousse brownie" ($4.50).

When I got up from my meal I realized that I had, once again, passed a lively two hours with friends at Dexter's. So even if Dexter's has become a bit formulaic, hey, the formula works.

Formerly Tom and Mony's Backroom, the new name didn’t change the inside: a basic (but cheap!) beer/liquor selection, a pool table, video games, bar food, friendly service and a splash of regulars. They do offer a pale McWells ale made by Budweiser; it tastes OK and only costs $1.50, so forgive the subterfuge.


Teaser: Formerly Tom and Mony's Backroom, the new name didn't change the inside: a basic (but cheap!) beer/liquor selection, a pool table, video games, bar food, friendly service and a splash of regulars. They do offer a pale McWells ale made by Budweiser; it tastes OK and only costs $1.50, so forgive the subterfuge.

There are some restaurants in Orlando that should have a revolving door installed. Or an erasable sign, at least. Take this one place in Casselberry, for example. In the past 16 years it has been Melon's, Crickets, Spirits, Heckle 'n Jeckle's, and now, Holly & Dolly's, which leads us to the one continuous factor that has tied them all together.

Actually, there are several continuous factors – mostly being beer, bar food and televisions – but the main one is spelled out over the front, nonrevolving door, and that is Dolly and her twin sister, Holly.

Actually, there are several continuous factors – mostly being beer, bar food and televisions – but the main one is spelled out over the front, nonrevolving door, and that is Dolly and her twin sister, Holly.

You'll see one or the other running around behind the bar or checking on a table (you might see both of them, but it's hard to tell), athletic women with masses of dark hair and a great deal of energy. They started their joint working careers that included four years as mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs, spending wrinkly hours underwater for your tourist pleasure. Apparently tiring of cavorting with the clams, they discovered, Ariel-like, the existence of their legs, and spent 10 years dancing le cancan at Rosie O'Grady's, obviously in rebellion of their fish ancestry.

You'll see one or the other running around behind the bar or checking on a table (you might see both of them, but it's hard to tell), athletic women with masses of dark hair and a great deal of energy. They started their joint working careers that included four years as mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs, spending wrinkly hours underwater for your tourist pleasure. Apparently tiring of cavorting with the clams, they discovered, Ariel-like, the existence of their legs, and spent 10 years dancing le cancan at Rosie O'Grady's, obviously in rebellion of their fish ancestry.

It was a short spin-and-kick to Melon's, and the dual barmaid gig seemed to be the right one for Dolly Heltsley and Holly Hall. When the place and its liquor license went up for sale, H and D took the bait (no pun intended) and Holly & Dolly's was born. Is it a dream come true? "No," Dolly says honestly, "but it's a steady business and we have a built-in clientele."

It was a short spin-and-kick to Melon's, and the dual barmaid gig seemed to be the right one for Dolly Heltsley and Holly Hall. When the place and its liquor license went up for sale, H and D took the bait (no pun intended) and Holly & Dolly's was born. Is it a dream come true? "No," Dolly says honestly, "but it's a steady business and we have a built-in clientele."

The sports bar/restaurant/neighborhood hangout looks typical, the bar being the focal point of the room, stools occupied by truckers and old farmers and students alike. Most of them are nursing beers and staring at the NTN trivia screens, punching half-hearted guesses about Shakespeare and sports into little keyboards. There are tables and booths on both sides, and the atmosphere is definitely more family place than meat market.

The sports bar/restaurant/neighborhood hangout looks typical, the bar being the focal point of the room, stools occupied by truckers and old farmers and students alike. Most of them are nursing beers and staring at the NTN trivia screens, punching half-hearted guesses about Shakespeare and sports into little keyboards. There are tables and booths on both sides, and the atmosphere is definitely more family place than meat market.

I would have expected more seafood on the menu, but the offerings do go beyond bar fare. Grilled grouper or fried tempura shrimp ($8.95 each) come with veggies and rice pilaf, and the kitchen does tuna steak as rare as you want it ($12.95). They also have pasta, sandwiches and a surprisingly long list of steaks available – try to get that at the corner saloon. Of course, bar food is available, but with little twists, like nibbles of gator or chunks of chicken breast served in wings sauce.

I would have expected more seafood on the menu, but the offerings do go beyond bar fare. Grilled grouper or fried tempura shrimp ($8.95 each) come with veggies and rice pilaf, and the kitchen does tuna steak as rare as you want it ($12.95). They also have pasta, sandwiches and a surprisingly long list of steaks available – try to get that at the corner saloon. Of course, bar food is available, but with little twists, like nibbles of gator or chunks of chicken breast served in wings sauce.

DJs on Saturday nights and live bands on Fridays crank up the volume and the crowd, but all in all it's a little "Cheers"-like, with food. "Hi Ed, how are you?" Dolly yells out from the bar, proving my point.

Karma Korner is a unique party place with a variety of parties and events. The club boasts an extra large dance floor and an airy atmosphere.

I've always considered Irish food to be similar to British food in the sense that it's something you eat because you're already at the pub, have had a few pints and don't feel like driving somewhere else to get a real meal. So it's bangers and mash, maybe a shepherd's pie, to soak up the hooch and settle the stomach; not bad, but not stellar. It'll do.

Now that I have been to Raglan Road, an Irish pub and restaurant at Disney's Pleasure Island, however, I'm going to have to reconsider that assessment. Their Irish fare is tasty enough to entice a teetotaler into a pub, and I now understand that there is no excuse for mediocre Irish food.

My expectations of the place, frankly, were low. Given the location, I assumed they were slinging the same old Emerald Isle standards at the tourists and doubling the prices. Surely the menu would be nothing but boiled this and cabbage that, heavy on the corned beef and a crock of stew on the side.

But once inside the place, I quickly sensed that it was not a typical Americanized Irish pub, and it turned out that it wasn't. While walking back to our table after a short wait, the chatty hostess informed us that the room we were dining in was actually an Irish estate house, disassembled there and shipped here piece by piece. The furniture is all antique, and the framed photos hanging on the dark wooden walls are authentic. The result is an amazingly cozy atmosphere for such a large restaurant.

We started with an appetizer named "Smokie City" ($10.95) which sounded sketchy ("oven baked layers of smoked cod with mature Wexford cheddar and double cream") but turned out to be brilliant. The smoked cod, dense and lovely, was offset perfectly by the tangy cheddar sauce in which it swam. We lapped up every bite, smearing it like a spread on large slices of crusty sourdough, then turned the crock over to get the last few drops.

Entree No. 1 was "Planxty" ($19.95), a dish that I ordered because I liked the name. What I got was roast pork shank poking up out of a bed of mashed potatoes, with a side of apple chutney. About that roast pork: When the meat falls off the bone before you can get it on the fork, it's tender. And this was tender. The chutney added a note of sweetness, and the potatoes were nice and lumpy, so no complaints at all. It was a very satisfying dish.

Entree No. 2, "It's Not Bleedin' Chowder," was similarly expensive ($19.95) and just as good. The name is supposedly a quote from the chef when he was asked exactly what the dish was, which is a rich mix of scallops, fish, mussels and prawns, mixed in a white wine sauce infused with saffron and finished with cream. At that price it better not be bleedin' chowder, and it better not look like anything that came out of a can. It wasn't, and it didn't. The seafood was fresh, the sauce was tangy and lively, and I can't recall having tasted a better fish stew, if you can call it that.

The only item that disappointed was the bowl of "Down the Middle" ($5.50), a hearty but bland tomato and vegetable broth soup. That was for the vegetarian in the family, because there wasn't much else on the menu she could eat.

Dessert, which took almost 20 minutes to get to the table for some reason, was "Ger's Bread & Butter Pudding" ($7.99). I'm not much of a bread pudding fan, which is exactly why I ordered it. So far the meal had exceeded all my expectations. Would dessert disappoint? Not a chance. Ger, whoever he/she may be, has concocted a heavenly bread pudding. It comes out in a warm crock with tiny pitchers of butter and butterscotch that you add yourself, as much or as little as you like. The sourdough bread soaks it up, and you get a raisin-infused mush that's sweet, rich and cinnamony. Once again I upended the serving dish to coax out the last drop.

This being Disney, there's entertainment in the form of table dancing and an Irish band. But that's just dressing. This is a pub you can come into for dinner, and maybe hang around to grab a Guinness or two or three.

Some images naturally evoke romance – not the Harlequin variety, but a more decadent version made up of long, luscious nights of freedom and beauty, love and passion. For me, this fantasy is colored in a tropical patina that conjures Havana in the 1950s, something the Samba Room also effects. OK, so you're not exactly sitting oceanfront at a deco hotel sipping mojitos: You know you're in a suburban strip mall that sidles up to a sinkhole. But you don't really care because you're having fun, eating good food, and the atmosphere is convivial and very romantic.

Samba Room's change of ownership back in 2003, from Carlson Restaurant Group (TGI Fridays) to E-Brands Restaurants, has done it justice. E-Brands has a careful hand in the kitchen and a wonderful way of creating ambience.

"Would you like to sit inside," the smiley hostess asked, "or out by the lake?"

Inside was festive and enticing with loud Latin music and brightly colored Diego Rivera-esque murals. Airy white curtains, so gossamer that every draft becomes a tropical breeze, bring life to the darkest corners. But it was a beautiful night, so we chose to dine outside by the lake. We sat, sipping cocktails beneath white rattan paddle fans, and peered inside at larger parties crowded around tables, talking loudly, laughing, engaged in each others' company under russet-orange lights. This is what you call casual elegance.

We started with an order of Samba ceviche ($8.95), which mixed market-fresh fish, shrimp, red onions and colorful peppers in a lime marinade. Pleasantly tangy, the dish swelled with flavor, balancing acidity and salinity. My mouth never puckered with displeasure. The roasted hominy on the side added satisfying texture to the delicious dish.

The empanada sampler ($7.95) consisted of both sweet corn and pork varieties. Surprisingly, we liked the nontraditional sweet corn because it had fuller flavor and more filling. Both of the delicious sauces served with the empanadas were delicate fusions. Listed as "sofrito" (annatto-infused lard with vegetable garniture) and "aji amarillo" (a lemony capsicum from Latin America), they were modern streaks of emulsified flavor, distant cousins to the traditional varieties, running down an edge of the plate.

For my main course, I tried Spanish paella ($25.50). Tiny red strands of saffron spattered the mound of rice laced with calamari, shrimp, white fish, chicken and some of the biggest mussels I've ever seen. The deep, earthy, subtle perfume of saffron followed the dish out of the open kitchen into the air. Half of a Maine lobster was the crown jewel of the dish.

My partner got the pork barbacoa ($18.95), marinated and roasted in banana leaves. Unwrapping the leaves, he found a tender piece of pork nestled under a blanket of sweet, citrusy barbecue sauce.

We were intrigued by the shiitake mushrooms al ajillo ($3.95) that spectacularly showcased traditional Asian mushrooms in Latin garlic sauce.

I was about to burst when the espresso tres leches ($6) and guava cheesecake ($6) were delivered. I ate half of the excellent Kahlua-spiked tres leches before switching plates for a bite or two of the zesty cheesecake. The server brought café con leche ($4.50) to end our meal, and we sat looking over the still Florida water, slowly sipping the creamy, sweet coffee.

"We should plan a trip to Cuba," I said, as we walked under industrial fluorescents across the vast suburban parking lot.

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