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    As Einstein said, time is relative. It can be measured in dog years, Internet years and restaurant-in-Central-Florida years. Using that gauge, being around for almost two years makes 310 Park South an area veteran.

    The restaurant, glass doors open wide on to the hustle of Park Avenue, can be called what few others in the area can: cozy. The long room, with tables out on the sidewalk and a piano to the back, felt quite comfortable to me, and judging by the unrestrained conversation in the room, to everyone else as well. You have to applaud any restaurant that can generate real atmosphere.

    Chef Angel Pereira grew up in the family food business in Spain and trained in Italy, and the influences show in dishes like "grilled grouper with linguine in a black-olive pesto sauce and artichoke hearts" ($11.95). Some choices are quite ordinary: the chicken piccata ($10.95) is prepared very traditionally in a white wine and garlic butter; while others like "horseradish encrusted salmon" ($17.95), a thick pillow of flaky fish under a horseradish and whole-grain mustard shell, are eclectic in design. All are a pleasure to eat.

    However. not every dish hits the mark. The exercise afforded by chewing the fairly rubbery fried calamari appetizer ($8.95) is certainly cheaper than a facelift but not much more enjoyable. I will give an enthusiastic thumbs up to the "gator tail," sautéed 3-inch medallions under mustard sauce that will give you a new appreciation for lizard – and no, it doesn't taste like chicken.

    If the place is crowded, as it was the night we were there, resign yourself to the fact that you'll be in line. Our 15-minute wait turned into 30 before we were seated, and our server was very long in coming for our orders and even longer to serve.

    My companion had one of the evening's specials, a venison steak ($20.95). The good news is that the meat, which can be very easy to cook badly, was superbly done; fork-tender, moist and flavorful, a true credit to the capabilities of the chef. The bad news is that she didn't ask for the venison. After a 45-minute wait for the main course, the prime rib that was ordered had transformed into Bambi. Good Bambi, yes, but our server's reaction ("Gee, it would take a very long time to redo it.") put an unfortunate taste in both our mouths. Good service is a big part of enjoying a meal, and the quality of service at 310 Park South is a real failing.

    Take note that 310 Park South participates in the overlooked and very welcome Winter Park Valet parking on the next corner (New England Avenue), and is a darned sight better than cruising for parking. Save that time for waiting for a table.

    If you've ever lived south of the East-West Expressway, in the vicinity of Lake Davis, you probably remember El Rincon, a beer-in-a-bag kind of market at the corner of Mills Avenue and Gore Street. If your timing was good and you caught the place when it was open, which was frustratingly rare, you might find a loaf of white bread and a copy of the paper to go with your tallboy. But only the foolhardy would actually order a sandwich from the place.

    How things have changed since Jim Ellis and Nick Massoni took over in September. El Rincon is now the 903 Mills Market, and it is the heart of a quickly gentrifying neighborhood. The once-dark grocery with bars on the windows is now brightly lit and inviting. You can have lunch or a beer at one of the outside tables and watch the traffic on Mills whiz by. Or sit inside and chat with neighbors as they come and go.

    How things have changed since Jim Ellis and Nick Massoni took over in September. El Rincon is now the 903 Mills Market, and it is the heart of a quickly gentrifying neighborhood. The once-dark grocery with bars on the windows is now brightly lit and inviting. You can have lunch or a beer at one of the outside tables and watch the traffic on Mills whiz by. Or sit inside and chat with neighbors as they come and go.

    903 Mills serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the food is worth a stop. I have yet to eat breakfast there, but the sandwiches are creative, tasty and huge (the "Grateful Bread," a combination of turkey, blue cheese, stuffing, onions and cranberry mayo on sourdough is a personal favorite); the dinner blue plates don't disappoint, and there's always a kettle of soup on.

    903 Mills serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the food is worth a stop. I have yet to eat breakfast there, but the sandwiches are creative, tasty and huge (the "Grateful Bread," a combination of turkey, blue cheese, stuffing, onions and cranberry mayo on sourdough is a personal favorite); the dinner blue plates don't disappoint, and there's always a kettle of soup on.

    Tipplers will appreciate what has to be one of the best beer selections in town. I've never seen He'Brew, Dogfish Head, Flying Dog and White Hawk together in one place before, let alone in a single cooler in a tiny neighborhood store. Wine heads (as distinguished from winos) will dig the monthly tastings.

    Tipplers will appreciate what has to be one of the best beer selections in town. I've never seen He'Brew, Dogfish Head, Flying Dog and White Hawk together in one place before, let alone in a single cooler in a tiny neighborhood store. Wine heads (as distinguished from winos) will dig the monthly tastings.

    In the age of the 7-Eleven, community grocery stores are a rare and wonderful thing, and this one is a gem.

    Seemingly everything is imported from Italy, from the glassware to the tile. Drink prices are the usual Sand Lake high, but low traffic to this second-floor restaurant means you'll have the bartender's undivided attention. The bar features a walk-in wine closet and flat-screen TVs, and there's live entertainment on weekends.

    Inviting neighborhood pub with a refreshing lack of pretense takes bar-fare standbys to higher gustatory levels. Delectable mac & cheese-rubbed chicken wings and the 10-ounce Bloodhoung burger will stick to one's ribs, no doubt, while excellent street tacos and friend chicken and biscuits on a stick also stand out. A decent beer selection is offset by indifferently executed dessert options. Live music every day.


    Teaser: Inviting neighborhood pub with a refreshing lack of pretense takes bar-fare standbys to higher gustatory levels. Delectable mac & cheese-rubbed chicken wings and the 10-ounce Bloodhoung burger will stick to one's ribs, no doubt, while excellent street tacos and friend chicken and biscuits on a stick also stand out. A decent beer selection is offset by indifferently executed dessert options. Live music every day.

    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.

    With an attractive wait staff, eclectic art and 30-plus wines and champagnes, Dexter's makes you feel cool even if you're not. The unique selection of international beers is popular at this wine bar and café; the concrete floor means it can get noisy as hell.

    The new Dexter's in Winter Park no longer sells wine for retail, a practice left behind when the hot spot relocated to west Winter Park. Still, the reinvented landmark offers a more elevated wine experience than before, with a sommelier on staff to advance the "captain's list" of rare vintages, stored in a smart, white-washed Chicago-brick vault.

    With the oversized French doors open to the streetscape, the dining area is far more roomy. The butcher-block tables and stools have been replaced by low, cherry-wood tables with Art Deco chairs. And there's no shortage of parking (a problem that plagues Dexter's in Thornton Park). The dinner menu remains constant, and the "cafe menu" adds variety with seasonal items, such as the current hickory-smoked tuna tartare ($9.95). And from the buffed cement bar you can try 30 wines by the glass.

    Enzian Theater

    Food and film: It's an odd combination, but it works, even if there are a few interruptions while watching the movie. Order staples like buttered popcorn, soft pretzels or chocolate-chip cookies, or get fancy with creative salads, sandwiches and pizzas. The al fresco Eden bar is a good place to grab a cocktail before the show.

    I wasn't thrilled with the prospect of eating an entire meal at a pub. Past experiences with pub grub – here and abroad – led me to believe that "authentic" doesn't necessarily mean "great." But the proprietors of Fiddler's Green prove that a focus on flavor, presentation and service can spell "gourmet" for traditional Irish cuisine.

    The restaurant retains the cozy atmosphere of its predecessors, Mulvaney's and Prince of Wales. It's got the same ornate woodwork, dart boards, Irish-themed knickknacks and entertainment stage. Now, there's a separate dining room that's upscale and intimate in a country-inn sort of way.

    Fiddler's Green offers a full selection of draft ales, lagers and stouts, which you can order by the pint or half-pint. While my guest and I waited, our server brought us a basket of thick, crumbly scones, which nicely offset the beer.

    We split an order of lightly browned potato pancakes with grated cheddar and scallions ($6.50; $5.95) topped with smoked salmon or sour cream and chives. Other appetizers include steamed mussels ($7.50) and smoked fish spread ($5.50). Dieters will be glad to know that the menu also includes your basic salad assortment.

    Along with a variety of sandwiches and burgers ($5.25-$8.95), Fiddler's entrees include standbys like corned beef and cabbage ($9.95); fish and chips, and "bangers and mash" (both $8.95). Among the more gourmet fare: grilled salmon with champagne sauce ($14.95) and roast duck ($15.95).

    I ordered the "Hen in a Pot" ($7.95), a scrumptious variation on chicken pot pie. Instead of pie crust, the "pot" was topped, hat-like, with a flaky pastry. The stew below was piping hot with big chunks of tender chicken and vegetables, seasoned just right.

    My companion stuck with another basic-but-hearty dish, Irish stew ($9.95). Once again, the seasonings – thyme, in this case – made this dish a standout. Presentation of both entrees was excellent, with extras like huge plates, fresh herbs and doilies. Desserts include bread and butter pudding, and blackberry/apple crumble ($3.95-$4.50). We were way too full to sample them.

    Great service and excellent food mean Fiddler's Green is not like most Irish pubs; it's better.

    Fish on Fire
    If you’re into fishing and boating around the Conway chain of lakes, you’re sure to make friends here – a lot of the patrons are Belle Isle and Conway residents who appreciate this place for its completely unpretentious, laid-back Florida fish camp kind of feel.

    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.

    Belle Isle is no bastion of elegant eats, but there are plenty of places to get your grub on happily - like the Gnarly Barley. A roadhouse that happens to serve great food, the brewpub features 10 beers on tap and a menu full of hangover preventers (or cures) like the "Snack Attack", a mound of kettle chips buried under shredded chicken, blue cheese, and salsa, and the "Johnnie Mac'n Cheese" sandwich, a bombshell take on the French dip.


    Teaser: Belle Isle is no bastion of elegant eats, but there are plenty of places to get your grub on happily - like the Gnarly Barley. A roadhouse that happens to serve great food, the brewpub features 10 beers on tap and a menu full of hangover preventers (or cures) like the "Snack Attack", a mound of kettle chips buried under shredded chicken, blue cheese, and salsa, and the "Johnnie Mac'n Cheese" sandwich, a bombshell take on the French dip.

    Way back in 1988, when sushi was considered more of a punchline than a serious dinner option, Ichiban bravely opened on Orange Avenue, offering sushi and sashimi along with tempura and grilled fare. Ten years later, this spunky downtown pioneer is like the woman scorned in the Gloria Gaynor song -- it has survived. And, its dance card is still filled up with admirers.

    Not everyone knows this, and those are the uninformed who show up on Friday and Saturday nights without reservations. There was a whole flock of them waiting outside when we visited. But with reservations, we were whisked into the dining area. It's the same as always -- soothing and casually elegant, with kimonos displayed on blond-brick walls, and a translucent glow thrown off by rice paper lanterns.

    Not everyone knows this, and those are the uninformed who show up on Friday and Saturday nights without reservations. There was a whole flock of them waiting outside when we visited. But with reservations, we were whisked into the dining area. It's the same as always -- soothing and casually elegant, with kimonos displayed on blond-brick walls, and a translucent glow thrown off by rice paper lanterns.

    Seated on tatami mats in one of the booths, we decided we were in a sushi mood and perused the options: rolls made with gator meat ($4.50), asparagus tempura ($3.95), sea urchin ($5) and even quail egg ($1.50). My guest gave up and chose the special ($9.50): tuna, cucumber and California rolls. Ichiban turned this sushi cliché into quite a presentation, slicing the rolls diagonally and arranging them like blossoms on a chop block.

    Seated on tatami mats in one of the booths, we decided we were in a sushi mood and perused the options: rolls made with gator meat ($4.50), asparagus tempura ($3.95), sea urchin ($5) and even quail egg ($1.50). My guest gave up and chose the special ($9.50): tuna, cucumber and California rolls. Ichiban turned this sushi cliché into quite a presentation, slicing the rolls diagonally and arranging them like blossoms on a chop block.

    "Dancing eel" turned out to be a happy surprise as well, if an expensive one ($11.95). Crab, cucumber, avocado and flying-fish eggs were rolled up together, bonded by cream cheese and topped with barbecued eel boldly glazed with a dark caramel sauce. Teamed with robust jolts of wasabi, the sushi did exactly what we wanted it to do: primed us for the main course.

    "Dancing eel" turned out to be a happy surprise as well, if an expensive one ($11.95). Crab, cucumber, avocado and flying-fish eggs were rolled up together, bonded by cream cheese and topped with barbecued eel boldly glazed with a dark caramel sauce. Teamed with robust jolts of wasabi, the sushi did exactly what we wanted it to do: primed us for the main course.

    For dinner, seafood tempura ($12.99) has to be one of the best deals in town. An abundance of shrimp, scallops and grouper fingers were deep-fried in a fine, frothy batter that melted in your mouth. Teamed with broccoli and zucchini tempura, and even a fried banana, they were artfully propped against a lacy "fan" of fried rice noodles.

    For dinner, seafood tempura ($12.99) has to be one of the best deals in town. An abundance of shrimp, scallops and grouper fingers were deep-fried in a fine, frothy batter that melted in your mouth. Teamed with broccoli and zucchini tempura, and even a fried banana, they were artfully propped against a lacy "fan" of fried rice noodles.

    And the "Ichiban special," while pricey at $20.99, was a solid investment. A polished black box was divided into quarters, which were heaped with delicacies sized just-right for chopsticks: grilled lobster tips nestled into a split lobster tail; chargrilled shrimp and scallops that cast off a sweet, oceanic perfume; slivers of sweet teriyaki steak; and mixed grilled vegetables.

    And the "Ichiban special," while pricey at $20.99, was a solid investment. A polished black box was divided into quarters, which were heaped with delicacies sized just-right for chopsticks: grilled lobster tips nestled into a split lobster tail; chargrilled shrimp and scallops that cast off a sweet, oceanic perfume; slivers of sweet teriyaki steak; and mixed grilled vegetables.

    Ichiban offers the kind of choices that sushi and sashimi adventurers crave, along with tempura and grilled fare more agreeable with mainstream tastes. It may not break culinary ground, but it's good food, prepared skillfully, and served with attention and a sense of fun. Ichiban continues to inspires quiet confidence.

    When you want to soak up the flavor of Key West -- the last link in the archipelago that reaches from south Miami to the open seas -- but don't want to travel, a visit to Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville might satisfy at least the drink-and-be-merry craving. Some tricky navigation is necessary, though, to find the way through the maze of parking garages and electronic people-movers at Universal Studios Escape. Just when you're ready to give up, you arrive in the heart of glitzy CityWalk, where the Jimmy Buffet-inspired party house fits right in.

    For another paradigm shift, step inside the re-created Margaritaville, which is steeped in the icons of Key West. If you could accuse this restaurant of any one thing, it would be the cartoonish, commercialization of the romanticized hideaway Buffet paid homage to in his '70s song. Witness the margarita volcano that erupts over the bar periodically and the well-stocked gift shop. The sherbet shades of gingerbread houses are perfectly refabricated here, minus the morning-after stench of Duval Street and the stray pop-tops underfoot. Safe, clean and wholesome, it's certainly not the real Key West, but then we went there for the food.

    For another paradigm shift, step inside the re-created Margaritaville, which is steeped in the icons of Key West. If you could accuse this restaurant of any one thing, it would be the cartoonish, commercialization of the romanticized hideaway Buffet paid homage to in his '70s song. Witness the margarita volcano that erupts over the bar periodically and the well-stocked gift shop. The sherbet shades of gingerbread houses are perfectly refabricated here, minus the morning-after stench of Duval Street and the stray pop-tops underfoot. Safe, clean and wholesome, it's certainly not the real Key West, but then we went there for the food.

    On a previous visit, the conch fritters ($6.45) were in top form: sizzling, sweet, meaty and blissfully free of chewy, unidentified objects. This time, they were a disappointment -- overly battered and weak on the conch. Fortunately, the "pink crustaceans" crab cakes ($16.95) were loaded with blue crabmeat, pan-sautéed with spices, fresh mixed vegetables and potatoes to perfection.

    On a previous visit, the conch fritters ($6.45) were in top form: sizzling, sweet, meaty and blissfully free of chewy, unidentified objects. This time, they were a disappointment -- overly battered and weak on the conch. Fortunately, the "pink crustaceans" crab cakes ($16.95) were loaded with blue crabmeat, pan-sautéed with spices, fresh mixed vegetables and potatoes to perfection.

    While my guest loved "Jimmy's jammin' jambalaya" ($12.95), I thought the spices were far too tame. Still, there were generous amounts of shrimp, chicken, andouille sausage and Cajun rice.

    While my guest loved "Jimmy's jammin' jambalaya" ($12.95), I thought the spices were far too tame. Still, there were generous amounts of shrimp, chicken, andouille sausage and Cajun rice.

    When dessert arrived, my guest was skeptical. True Key lime pie ($4.95) should never be weighed down with a cream-based preparation, she said, as was the case here -- it makes it too heavy and oily. This version was prepared with a 100-year-old lime-juice recipe from the famed Joe & Nellie's factory in Key West, and it was properly tart and tangy without too much of the pucker factor. It sported a fluffy meringue and crisp graham-cracker crust, but I had to admit it didn't pass the ultimate dessert test, which is to say, I probably would not order it next time.

    When dessert arrived, my guest was skeptical. True Key lime pie ($4.95) should never be weighed down with a cream-based preparation, she said, as was the case here -- it makes it too heavy and oily. This version was prepared with a 100-year-old lime-juice recipe from the famed Joe & Nellie's factory in Key West, and it was properly tart and tangy without too much of the pucker factor. It sported a fluffy meringue and crisp graham-cracker crust, but I had to admit it didn't pass the ultimate dessert test, which is to say, I probably would not order it next time.

    Our waiter was knowledgeable about the menu, and he had a casual, friendly efficiency without interfering. In the end, our trip to the theme-park Margaritaville was all flash with just a little substance. It was noisy. It was crowded. The food was OK. But there was an ocean of margarita varieties. What more could a Parrothead want?

    Sometimes it seems like beef lovers might end up with smokers and cell phone users -- out on the sidewalk (the cell phone part is wishful thinking). But there is at least one place where the burger connoisseur can indulge without fear of vegan reprisal.

    Johnny's Fillin' Station (2631 S. Fern Creek Ave., 407-894-6900) has been serving beer, burgers and baseball for over a decade. And those who throw oaths at such things swear by the half-pound bombers that come off Johnny's grill. Everything from patties plain and bacon-laden, to those served on Texas toast or grilled rye bread, to "The Roy," complete with sour cream, jalapeños and cheese, is on the menu.

    Johnny's Fillin' Station (2631 S. Fern Creek Ave., 407-894-6900) has been serving beer, burgers and baseball for over a decade. And those who throw oaths at such things swear by the half-pound bombers that come off Johnny's grill. Everything from patties plain and bacon-laden, to those served on Texas toast or grilled rye bread, to "The Roy," complete with sour cream, jalapeños and cheese, is on the menu.

    The odd few customers not accustomed to beef on a roll can order the Philly-cheesesteak-like "Station chicken," salads or nachos. But eight beers on tap should keep everyone happy.

    'I feel like a 5-year-old!â?� says my wife, who, though certainly young, has at least graduated from kindergarten.

    Dwarfed by the epic-sized slices of pizza at Lazy Moon Pizza (12269 University Blvd., 407-658-2396), she was reminded what it's like to be a miniature person, when everything seems outsized. The wide variety of toppings make for endless flavor combinations, but it's the thin, crispy crust that allows one to devour these ridiculously mammoth pieces without exploding. (And, with the honey decanters on the table, it also makes for a cheap dessert.)

    The collegiate crowd that packs the place for said slices is able to wash down the pizza with an impressive selection of imports and microbrews, and the soups and salads on offer put Lazy Moon quite a few notches above the average pies-and-beer joints that dot college campuses. Keep in mind, however, that the median age of the UCF clientele may have some of you feeling the opposite of 'young.â?�

    When I lived in Atlanta in the early 1990s, I was one broke-ass sucker. Before I began my illustrious career in alternative journalism, I was sleeping on a friend's floor, working various jobs, avoiding responsibility and managing to drink most of my paycheck. Therefore, despite all the wonderful dining options around town, my stomach had to endure the standard bohemian rations of cheap ramen and 99-cent fast-food menus.

    Occasionally, though, minor financial windfalls would come my way, and whatever wasn't spent in pursuit of entertainment was splurged on one of two meals: fried chicken at the Silver Grill (the best fried chicken on the planet) or pizza at Mellow Mushroom. And Mellow Mushroom was the first place I ever encountered a tofu anything that tasted good. Yeah, tofu on your pizza. Weird, right? But the, um, mellow vibe at the Mushroom helped keep the hippie leanings of its pizza menu from turning the joint into some sort of granola factory. The mood was communal, the beer was cheap and the pizza – with meat or without – was always excellent.

    Not surprisingly, the restaurant was successful to the point of being an institution. The first Mellow Mushroom opened in the '70s near Georgia Tech; there are now more than 50 locations throughout the Southeast. So when construction began on a Mellow Mushroom outpost – near my house even! – I was eager for a chance to see what happens when a restaurant whose identity is intertwined with its city of origin branches out into foreign territory. Would the atmosphere be as convivial? Would they have good beer? Would this charming and wonderful part of my own personal history have been turned into an Olive Garden-style commodity? Most importantly, would they have good pizza?

    Answers: Yes, but with effort. Hell, yes. Yes, but not in a bad way. Absolutely.

    As with any new restaurant in Winter Park, interest in Mellow Mushroom's opening was high. We went just a few days after it opened and were greeted by a polite hostess who informed us there was a 15-minute wait, which was surprising, but would have been fine if there had actually been a place to wait. The restaurant is squeezed into a tiny plot of land in the Publix shopping plaza on Aloma Avenue, and there's precious little room for parking near the restaurant (unless you count the plaza's huge parking lot nearby). With no real waiting area, this means the parking lot also functions as an ersatz holding pen for those on the list.

    That's the only thing I found wrong with the new Mellow Mushroom.

    Though it shone with a sparkly freshness that was a little off-putting, the classic-rock soundtrack and quasi-psychedelic artwork (right down to the "plasticine porter" bathroom-door markers) were all hallmarks of the relaxed, counter-culture Mushroom environment. A reassuringly long line of beer taps at the bar was a great sight; the fact that they all poured excellent Shipyard products made me giddy.

    Our waitress was one of those sit-at-the-table types, which is usually annoying, but when she served our food, it could have been brought to us by Dick Cheney and we would have left a good tip. Huge chunks of fresh, moist mozzarella and tomato slices topped a massive bed of fresh field greens in the Capri salad ($7). The teriyaki-marinated tofu in our half-hoagie ($3.75) was accented by grilled onions, peppers and sprouts and slathered with mayonnaise. The pretzels ($3.70) were made with superfresh dough and baked on a pizza stone.

    Oh yeah, the pizza. The 10-inch "Magical Mystery Tour" ($10.75) pie – spinach, feta, mozzarella, portobello mushrooms on a pesto (rather than marinara) base – was simply astounding, with copious toppings and a buttery, Parmesan-topped crust. Despite the other excellent offerings on the menu, the pizza's what it's all about here, and I'm pleased to report that expansion has done nothing to diminish the quality.

    Sure, the slick new surroundings don't have the same scrappy appeal as the original shops, but the pizza's still great and, hey, I don't have the same scrappy appeal I had a decade ago either. I guess that's a fair trade.

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