Locations in College Park with Kid Friendly

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    In the face of a landscape burgeoning with whitewashed rejuvenation, Christo's Cafe stands as a fixture in defiance. So while progress in the guise of urban renewal encroaches on College Park's historic streets, the recusant little diner flaunts its 'this is your grandfather's greasy spoon' charm and, in so doing, has achieved a venerated standing in the community -- a standing reinforced with every new brick laid along Edgewater Drive.

    Not that the scruffy little sit-down is overrun by patrons long in the tooth, though members of that demographic, along with diners broad in the beam and raw in the bone, have all been known to indulge in Christo's hash-house classics. Most of my visits here have been to enjoy hearty breakfasts on their plastic tables outside and, personally, I know of no better place to have a pre-noon meal. That sentiment has less to do with the food than with the utterly calming environs, though a recent breakfast on a cool morn amid a light drizzle was made all the more memorable by the lamb and feta-filled Greek omelet ($7.25), a stack of silver dollar pancakes ($2.50), deep-fried French toast with bananas ($5.25) and bottomless cups of coffee.

    On weekends, the place fills up with the hungry and hungover, many lingering under the weathered green awning, awaiting some blood-thickening goodness. Tables inside and out fill up quickly, and it's not unusual to see diners waiting it out in the parking lot. The summer heat, however, dictates grabbing a vinyl-topped table inside, or one of the six seats at the counter where you'll compete for elbow room with dessert cases.

    Fancy they're not. Trimmings and decorations are kept simple, and a similar no-frills position is taken in the kitchen, from where equally simple treasures emerge. The hot open-face turkey sandwich ($8.70), for example, was adorned with a turbid slather of salted gravy and a side of thick mashed potatoes. A starter of blazing jalapeno poppers ($4.50) prepped my palate for the fowl-and-gravy onslaught. The breaded outer layer had the right amount of crisp and the cheese filling the right amount of ooze, but especially good was the kick of the homemade salsa dip.

    A mug of chili ($3.50) was a boon for bean-lovers, and a bane for those who sleep next to them. A heaped ladling of thick five-bean sauce topped with a generous layer of grated cheddar was given a pungent intensity by a further topping of diced Spanish onions.

    As if that didn't satisfy my craving for ground beef, my eyes were set on devouring the 'super big mouth' cheeseburger ($10), though my stomach knew full well that wasn't going to happen. Undaunted, I clasped the intimidating one-pound, kaiser-rolled monstrosity and managed about five feeble bites before succumbing to its immensity. Resisting the temptation to sample a burger purporting to be the 'best in town' has always been a challenging feat for me; in this particular case, the claim wasn't without merit.

    Carrot cake ($2.95) and coconut cake ($2.75), both of which my effusive waitress said were freshly baked, validates the kitchen's sweeter side, the latter being a soft, moist and ideal accompaniment for a cuppa joe.

    Greek-themed items like lamb and chicken gyros pay tribute to Christo's (the original owner, before he sold the joint to the current proprietors back in the early 1980s) Hellenic roots. The diner has since retained its throwback image and proudly adheres to a classical approach to diner fare. Epicurus would be proud.

    A satisfying dark-roasted brew works well in expresso  drinks (lattes, macchiato, cappuccino) and as  a straight-up drip coffee is served in a room as simple and satisfying as the menu, with clean lines, comfortable modern furniture and just enough embellishment to make the space appealing. The pay-what-you-will model is intriguing; we hope it works out for them.

    Sitting at Infusion Tea on Edgewater Drive, sipping Assam black tea ($2) and munching on delicious vegetarian hummus ($6), I reflect on what this place has in common with my favorite hot dog counter in the East Village: They are both what sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls "Third Places." Naturally the First Place is home; the second is work (damn). Third Places are the gems, providing us the precious community we so often lack in our lives.

    I went to Infusion for the third time in four days last night. I met up with a friend I hadn't seen in a while, and we closed ourselves off to the outside world to concern ourselves only with conversation and the vast menu of tea before us. Suddenly the choice of black, oolong, white, green or herbal seemed the most important thing in the world. Jasmine pearls? Or monkey-picked oolong?

    Some places can just sweep you off your overworked and/or bored-at-home feet, and Infusion has the charm to do it. The quaint corner spot in a little retro building on Edgewater begs you to bike over and stay for hours. Owner Christina Cowherd is interesting and kind, and has created a special atmosphere where visiting and lingering reign over efficiency and the bottom line. She and her husband, Brad, got the idea to open Infusion Tea while in the Peace Corps in Guatemala, and moved back to College Park to be near their families and down the street from their alma mater, Edgewater High School. Incorporating into their business many of the lifestyle changes they learned in Guatemala, they are avid recyclers, conscientious organic-food buyers and dedicated composters. Among their fantastic food choices are banana bread ($1.75) and gazpacho ($5) – recipes that Christina created with her Guatemalan students – and delightful organic tea-time bites such as scones ($1.75) with fresh cream and jam (add 75 cents).

    I couldn't help but ask about their goal in opening the tea shop. "This may sound hokey," Christina said, "but I read this book called Great Good Places by Ray Oldenburg …"

    "The one about Third Places?" I asked.

    "That was my primary goal," she said.

    Doesn't sound hokey to me at all. In fact, I'm happy to switch my affection from all-beef kosher dogs to Assam tea when it provides me with something nourishing that I crave: community.

    What a difference a letter makes. Back in February, Café Allegre chef and owner Kevin Fonzo told me of his plan to renovate the existing space, add tables and a private dining room next door, and adopt a new name. "Something with 'Kevin' in it, to make my mother happy," he said. What he came up with was K Restaurant and Wine Bar. What he has in K is a superb restaurant, one that took me quite by surprise.

    People have been saying wonderful things about Café Allegre in College Park for years, something I'd attributed to the fact that there are very few restaurants in the area. On the site of the former Babycakes Restaurant, Allegre opened in May 1997. When then owner Maria Bonomo-Do Pico recruited Fonzo (a Culinary Institute of America graduate) from Atlanta's Phoenix Brewing Co., in 1999, the place turned from casual to upscale. Deep-red walls held paintings by local artists, the wine list expanded, and the menu added ingredients like venison and saffron.

    Blame it on phases of the moon, but on every occasion I was there, food was miscooked, substitutions were made without discussion, and service was mediocre.

    Well, same chef, same room, but in my recent experience dining at K, the quality of both food and service have skyrocketed. The meal was pleasurable from beginning to end.

    A heady mixture of intensely flavored grilled quail ($7) on a bed of mache (a green similar to cress) and a puree of Vidalia onion -- so sweet I thought it was apple -- started me off. The seared scallop with sesame noodles ($6) was perfectly done, but note the singular form -- one scallop, not quite the bargain the quail was. Even a simple house salad of greens and mushrooms was a delicacy, sprinkled with balsamic and the right touch of shaved grainy Romano.

    The main courses are seasonal; the menu on this visit featured grouper "picatta" ($19). People passing by the window actually came in to ask what I was eating -- it was that pretty. The slightly tangy pan-seared fish sat atop potatoes whipped with artichoke, and it was covered with a mélange of diced peppers and summer squash. It was exceptional. Equally good, the tender marinated chicken ($14) had its own potato mound, this time mixed with roasted garlic, plus more of the veggies, with a deep herb-flavored gravy.

    Even if you loved the old cafe, it's an even better restaurant now. And I'll be back.

    Tucked away on Edgewater Drive, the tiny cottage called Shakers has served its tried-and-true breakfast and lunch menu for ages without becoming outdated. It's the kind of place that can be counted on like clockwork, opening every morning at 7 a.m., except for Sunday.

    Named for the kitschy collection of salt and pepper shakers that contribute to a modest dŽcor that's part diner and part country kitchen, Shakers holds less than 20 tables and by 11:30 a.m. on a weekday, those tables fill up fast for the lunch crowd.

    Named for the kitschy collection of salt and pepper shakers that contribute to a modest dŽcor that's part diner and part country kitchen, Shakers holds less than 20 tables and by 11:30 a.m. on a weekday, those tables fill up fast for the lunch crowd.

    Now remember, breakfast is only served until 10:30 a.m., and the choices cover the gamut of familiar day-starters. A variety of three-egg omelets are offered, such as the "chef's omelet" ($5.25), filled with mushrooms, ham, bacon, tomato, potato and cheddar cheese. Add a small stack of blueberry pancakes ($2.75) or biscuits and gravy ($2.15), or choose from side items that range from kielbasa ($2.10) to grits (45 cents).

    Now remember, breakfast is only served until 10:30 a.m., and the choices cover the gamut of familiar day-starters. A variety of three-egg omelets are offered, such as the "chef's omelet" ($5.25), filled with mushrooms, ham, bacon, tomato, potato and cheddar cheese. Add a small stack of blueberry pancakes ($2.75) or biscuits and gravy ($2.15), or choose from side items that range from kielbasa ($2.10) to grits (45 cents).

    Lunch can be ordered all day, and the options are impressive. There's a full menu of "gourmet" salads, sandwiches, soups and quiches, along with daily specials that can be as fancy as fresh grilled fish (grouper $7.95, salmon $7.50).

    Lunch can be ordered all day, and the options are impressive. There's a full menu of "gourmet" salads, sandwiches, soups and quiches, along with daily specials that can be as fancy as fresh grilled fish (grouper $7.95, salmon $7.50).

    The slice of artichoke-broccoli quiche ($6.35) we ordered arrived with a fresh fruit salad. The thick quiche filling was topped with a layer of melted cheddar cheese – heavy but satisfying. The egg salad sandwich ($3.75) was a lighter item, but also amply loaded and dressed with crisp lettuce and juicy tomatoes.

    The slice of artichoke-broccoli quiche ($6.35) we ordered arrived with a fresh fruit salad. The thick quiche filling was topped with a layer of melted cheddar cheese – heavy but satisfying. The egg salad sandwich ($3.75) was a lighter item, but also amply loaded and dressed with crisp lettuce and juicy tomatoes.

    There's not enough space inside Shakers to satisfy their customers' demands, so they do a lot of takeout and catering business. Just go to the website, www.shakerscafe.com, for a listing of that day's specials, plus all the other details needed to place a mother of a takeout order. They handle mega lunch orders like clockwork, too.

    The first Thai food I ever had in Orlando was at the Oriental Market on Edgewater Drive several years ago. It was mostly a specialty shop with huge bags of jasmine rice; those long, light-purple eggplants, and boxes of lotus root and galangal. There were things that even a sophisticated city boy such as myself was puzzled by, like sapota and Chinese matrimonial tea, makok and perilla leaves. And they had what is still my favorite -- cans of sweet gelatinous mutant coconut balls.

    Squeezed on one side of the room were a few tables where you could sit and have terrific pad thai, and spring rolls wrapped in transparent rice noodles. Apparently, the restaurant business was doing better than the grocery because -- not long after my introduction -- the market moved next door. The owners sold it to focus solely on serving the dishes of Thailand, a cuisine that is said to be 1,000 years older than Chinese food.

    Not much has changed since the restaurant took over; there is a panel of color around the room and a few pictures of Thailand on the walls. While everyone is pleasant, there are no waitresses dressed in mudmee sarongs to greet you: This is a place to sit down and eat. And since the restaurant changed hands in January, the dishes may be different than you've become familiar with, now leaning toward the flavors of Isan, in northeastern Thailand.

    Appetizers like som tam, a shredded papaya salad ($5.99), and gai yang, barbecued chicken in a chili sauce ($2.99), are very typical of this style, which tends to be casual and served quickly -- something of a Thai fast food. And fast it is. We ordered rice-noodle spring rolls ($1.99 for two) and pad thai ($5.99) for old times' sake, and they appeared before we could even get the cream stirred in our iced tea. The pad thai is drenched in lime, a little sweet and a little spicy -- very good.

    Entrees migrate from other parts of Thailand as well. There are more familiar central dishes, such as chicken or seafood pad kaprao -- stir-fried with basil leaves and green curries ($6.99-$7.99). You also can get hotter, potentially dangerous Southern fare, with a particularly good example being the musaman gai ($6.99), which literally means "Muslim curry" (an influence from Indonesia). It's a complicated mixture of chilis, garlic, lemon grass, peanut sauce and coconut milk that accomplishes the goal of Thai food -- bitter, sour, salty and sweet all at once.

    If you go to restaurants for the food and not the surroundings, try Thai Cuisine.

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