Festival food on the fly

Timing is everything in theater -- that goes for the actors as well as the patrons who arrive just as the lights go down. And there's nothing more embarrassing than missing the curtain, which is especially annoying if the delay was caused by waiting for the check after a rushed dinner.

Tens of thousands of people will be competing for parking spaces and dining tables downtown this month for the coinciding Orlando International Fringe Festival (April 16-25) and Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival's performances of Twelfth Night (March 31-May 9) and Henry V (April 7-May 7). So here are suggestions -- some familiar, some off the beaten path -- to help plan a timely afternoon or evening of fine food and theater in the downtown sector.

Obvious players

Pebbles Restaurant tends to be clamorous and crowded, a testament to its popular menu; and when all else fails, there's the triumvirate of standbys at Church Street Marketplace: Olive Garden (648-1098), Pizzeria Uno (839-3900) and Jungle Jim's (872-3111). They're all cheerfully accommodating, if predictable.

Fish tales

There are more adventurous choices closer to the amphitheater at Lake Eola Park where the Shakespeare productions are staged. When thinking about sushi, Ichiban always comes to mind -- too many minds -- because it's been on Orange Avenue forever. But smaller, more low-key Sushi Hatsu on Washington Avenue is even closer to the lake and does an equally fine job.

French farce

French can be festive, and an upscale option is Le Provence(CHECK - WE HAVE NO REVIEW. BUT IT HAS SIMPLY CHANGED OWNERS AND IS UP FOR REREVIEW. JUST REMOVE LINK BUT MAYBE YOU CAN REWORK THE PARAGRAPH AS THE PLACE IS STILL THERE ). on Pine Street. But it's not necessarily formal; in fact, on festival nights, theater-goers show up in everything from jeans to black tie. Dinner can be pricey, with entrees around $20, like the excellent osso bucco for $18. There are ways around the cost, though, like snacking on sumptuous appetizers such as the chicken terrine ($7.95).

East side story

Commuting Shakespeare fans may not be clued into the hip dining colony just east of Lake Eola in the revitalized historic Thornton Park neighborhood. Several eateries are an easy 10-minute stroll from the ampitheater. Anthony's Pizza Café on Summerlin Avenue tends to be crowded on Friday nights, but the wait's usually not longer than 15 minutes. Don't miss the "VIP stuffed pizza," by the slice or by the pie.

Across the street, Chez Jose Mexican(THIS IS THE ONE THAT HAS HAD MOOS BROTHERS REMOVED. TO KEEP IT YOU NEED TO REEDIT THAT REVIEW) sizzles with healthy grilled burritos and quesadillas. Dexter's of Thorton Park on Washington Avenue is always happening, so the wait may be 20 minutes or more. But the garlic buccatini or veggie peanut pasta will fuel the energy needed to ward off those numbing breezes that can come in off the lake as the night wears on.

In the wings

Even closer to Lake Eola is Lee's Lakeside, which is generally overpriced and overrated, but it's a perennial favorite for special occasions, mostly because of the picturesque lake view.

A less expensive option is Metro Espresso Pizza Café right next door in The Plaza apartments. It's open for dinner until 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and if all the tables are taken, order takeout and be on your way in less than 10 minutes. A picnic in the park, adjacent to the ampitheater, would be well-timed at 7 p.m. That's when the festival's "Renaissance Revels," the free preshow entertainment, begins with Elizabethan-style comedy, music, juggling, dance and puppetry. It's an event in itself that's just enough of a show for kids and others with short attention spans.

Main stage

Because the Fringe Festival venues will be situated on Church Street this year, dinner won't be a problem. Dozens of restaurants are open into the wee hours throughout the immediate area. One spot overlooked by seafood fans is Martini's Bar and Grill(CLOSED), which serves an outrageous pan-seared Chilean sea bass. If it's turf you crave, head over to spiffed-up Tanqueray's Bar and Grill, now a more sophisticated steak parlor. Tasca Tacón(CLOSED), hidden away on Pine Street, offers an exotic, romantic foray into upscale Spanish cuisine, further enhanced by the strains of flamenco guitar and the flavors of sweet sangria.

Between acts

Lunching between Fringe Festival shows can be a challenge on weekends, when many downtown restaurants that are normally open for lunch on weekdays close up shop. On Saturdays, stick to the Church Street corridor and head to Amura for sushi and sashimi. And Gossip's, a hot spot for gourmet Caribbean fare at give-away prices, opens at 11 a.m.

Extended runs

Otherwise, you'll have to venture two blocks north to the Central Boulevard area. On Saturdays, try the Dublin burgers with capers and Irish sauce at Kate O'Brien's Irish Pub & Restaurant or muffelatas at Po' Boys Creole Café. On Saturdays and Sundays, you can't go wrong with the Tex-Mex and nacho platters at Wall Street Cantina, or with deli sandwiches and pita pizzas at Jax Fifth Avenue Deli & Alehouse.

Early shows

Sunday brunch is always a reasonably priced option at First Watch on Pine Street, just around the corner from Fringe Central. For something more upscale, at $12.95 a head, sip mimosas at the champagne brunch at Cafe Europa(CLOSED), with gourmet eclectic such as citrus-baked red snapper, Hungarian goulash and omelets, or at Lili Marlene's Aviator Pub & Restaurant, which features a carving station, omelets and Belgian waffles.

Just don't be late for the show.