click to enlarge Downtown Orlando is nice, but are you ready to venture beyond?

Photo by Katie Manning / Unsplash

Downtown Orlando is nice, but are you ready to venture beyond?

Old favorites and new classics in the Orlando-area neighborhoods 

Bored? Wanna explore a new neighborhood? Doing move-in research? Dating someone in a different part of town? Here's our speed-round version of Orlando's main neighborhoods, a one-two punch of old and new that will show you the true nature of every nabe.

DOWNTOWN

Culture, "culture" and cocktails. Lots of cocktails. For all its foibles – snarled traffic, lack of retail, weird smells in the summer – downtown is still where the non-Disney magic happens, whether you're feeling classy – taking in a ballet at the Dr. Phillips Center, for example – or trashy – gargling tequila until you paint the sidewalk with your lunch, say. They say it takes all kinds, and boy does downtown ever take 'em.

Old favorite: Independent Bar, 70 S. Orange Ave. The dance club at the corner of Orange Avenue and Washington Street has gone through several identities over the years – the Beach Club, Barbarella – but those looking for a spot that plays mostly retro, alternative and new wave (and one that has plenty of secluded corners to discover) have kept "I-Bar" chugging along for years now.

New classic: CityArts, 39 S. Magnolia Ave. We're cheating a little bit with the "new classic" label, as CityArts as an institution is far from new, and the Rogers-Kiene building in which it's housed is one of the oldest standing buildings in Orlando. But the partnership is new, as CityArts moved into the building that formerly housed the Gallery at Avalon Island last year when the owner of the building donated it to the city. Stop in every third Thursday of the month to see new collections of cutting- edge art, or keep an eye out for avant-garde musical performances between shows in the well regarded In-Between Series.

MILLS 50

Don't get us wrong: Cool stuff happens all over Orlando. But the neighborhood just northeast of downtown seems to pack it in a little tighter than some areas. You won't find a more diverse neighborhood for cheap multicultural eats, and the walkability factor is super-handy if you're out to sample the bohemian side of Orlando's nightlife.

Old favorite: The Strand, 807 N. Mills Ave. The retro-style sign out front may scream "diner," but chef-owners Joseph and Alda Rees' Mills 50 kitchen is devoted to fresh, seasonal ingredients from local farms and outstanding takes on both classic and modern American fare. If the dinner prices scare you off, note that the lunch menu is a lot more affordable, and the food just as good.

New classic: Wally's Mills Avenue Liquors, 1001 N. Mills Ave. When Wally's closed last year after more than half a century in business, a great wail rose up from the dedicated drinkers of the city. But new owners were able to swoop in and purchase the building. The resulting renovations and changes – more room, weaker pours, nicer décor, no smoking, no jukebox – have not been without controversy, but former patrons (and brand-new ones) should form their own opinions on this new take on an old classic.

THORNTON PARK

A walkable-yet-wild district packed with bars and restaurants is home to gay, straight, young, old and generally accepting, all living side by side in some of Orlando's best-maintained historic bungalows.

Old favorite: Soco, 629 E. Central Blvd. Soco's executive chef and partner Greg Richie's résumé includes working with celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse (Tchoup Chop) and Roy Yamaguchi (Roy's Restaurant). But his Thornton Park creation blends his love of Southern favorites with contemporary cuisine. From chicken-fried cauliflower "steak" to macaroni, bacon & three-cheese cassoulet, you'll find dishes that take classic Southern ingredients and styles and blend them with haute cuisine trends. Good luck walking by the outdoor patio without gawking at the dishes on diners' plates.

New classic: The Greenery Creamery, 420 E. Church St. I scream, you scream – even lactose-intolerant vegans scream – for the ice cream at the Greenery Creamery. The dairy is sourced from local Florida grass-fed cows and turned into creative flavors – lemon-oregano-blueberry, anyone? – and topped with colorful garnishes. And their soft-serve is made from a soy-coconut blend for those who can't or won't consume dairy.

COLLEGE PARK

College Park is one of those Orlando neighborhoods that feels like Pleasantville – for being so close to downtown, it has a remarkably old-fashioned, old-Florida appeal. It's mostly a residential cluster of cozy bungalows, but along Edgewater Drive, the kind of small businesses you only expect in small towns – a clock repair shop, a vacuum store – are interspersed with restaurants and boutiques.

Old favorite: Shakers American Café, 1308 Edgewater Drive. While the rest of the country is still in the throes of a severe brunch addiction, College Park restaurants stay committed to the most important meal of the day: breakfast. Shakers has been serving omelets, pancakes, waffles and benedicts for more than 25 years. They're named for the extensive collection of salt and pepper shakers on the wall, but unless you're lucky, you may not ever see that collection as inside seating fills up fast, especially on the weekends. Thankfully, there are plenty of outside tables where you can quaff your coffee and crunch your bacon with nary an avocado toast in sight.

New classic: Café Linger, 2912 Edgewater Drive. Don't take the "Linger" in this coffeeshop's name lightly: They want you to stick around. Along with the menu of locally roasted coffee, tea, soups, salads and sandwiches, Café Linger is appointed with homey tables, chairs and couches, inviting you to sit for a spell and take a breather. And parents will flip the fudge out when they discover that the café has set aside an area for kids to play in so parents can finally get to enjoy their coffee in peace like they've been complaining about for the past four years.

MILK DISTRICT

In a sequestered neighborhood just east of Thornton Park is the Milk District, a short-but-sweet spot in town known mostly for its Tuesday food truck gatherings but named for its proximity to the cow-topped T.G. Lee Dairy. On this strip you'll find clever themed bars, inventive snacks, vintage clothes and darts aplenty.

Old favorite: The Bull & Bush, 2408 E. Robinson St. Milk District before the Milk District was the Milk District, the Bull & Bush British Pub has been slinging the best Guinness in town since 1987. Popular with darts players, soccer (sorry, "football") fans and comedians – their Shit Sandwich comedy showcase on first and third Saturdays is one of the centerpieces of the local comedy scene – the Bull & Bush has a pretty devoted following. Plus, both of the main bartenders are named "Scott," so you only have to remember one name.

New classic: MX Taco, 207 N. Bumby Ave. Yep, another taco spot. But this one stands out with its focus on using authentic ingredients (no flour tortillas here, hombre) and recipes inspired by pre-Colombian Mayan culture. Plus, Mexican delights like esquites, micheladas, pozole, helado and horchata round out the menu for those who have ascended past mere tacos.

SODO

No other part of Orlando has changed so quickly as SoDo. South of the 408 and along Orange Avenue and Michigan Street, this nascent area was struck hard after the mass shooting at the gay nightclub Pulse. Visitors from all around the world have flocked to SoDo's quiet streets to pay homage to the victims at the site. Despite the grief, SoDo took this newfound attention in stride, reinforcing ties within the old-Orlando community and cementing it as a source of inspiration.

Old favorite: Freshfields Farm, 400 E. Compton St. SoDo has had a number of new supermarkets pop up over the last few years – Lucky's Market, Earth Fare – but Freshfields Farm remains a favorite for both professional and amateur chefs. Featuring meat, produce and cheese sourced as directly from the farm as possible, Freshfields is praised by those looking for fresh, organic or local ingredients.

New classic: Rockpit Brewing, 10 W. Illiana St. We've got plenty of microbreweries and taprooms in town, but none are quite as pretty as the recently opened Rockpit Brewing in SoDo. Inspired by Appalachian coal country, nearly everything in the bar – the tables, the walls, the bar itself – was handmade using repurposed wood and metal, lit by the warm glow of faux Edison bulbs. The house-made beers come in a wide variety of styles – no IPA-only menus here – and to top it all off, the food on the menu comes from Cecil's Texas Style Bar-B-Q next door.

PARRAMORE

Our most historic neighborhood is also the site of some of our newest developments: the Amway Center, the Orlando City Soccer Stadium (now Exploria) and the Creative Village are all part of a slow flowering of business and art that may transform what was once troubled ground.

Old favorite: Re-Runz Records, 310 S. Orange Blossom Trail. Owner Ed Smith opened this version of Re-Runz Records in 2016, but throughout the 1990s, he ran the similarly named Re-Runs Records storefront during Orlando's "electronica" heyday. The bins are full of gems for dedicated cratediggers, with a special focus on funk, soul and hip-hop. If you find yourself in a situation where you absolutely need a James Brown 45 right away – and who hasn't been there? – this should be your first stop.

New classic: Stonewall Bar, 741 W. Church St. Stonewall has been around a little too long to really be considered a "new classic," but the past couple of years have seen a real renaissance at the LGBTQ+ bar. Thanks to its close proximity to Exploria Stadium, the spot has become a hit with thirsty soccer fans, and the music booking under former Spacebar owner Tommy Mot has made it a hot spot for underground post-punk, disco and goth nights. And we can't even begin to describe the boundary-pushing drag nights from Black Haüs.

WINTER PARK

Well-heeled but wide-ranging, our neighbor, Winter Park, can't be called a neighborhood – it's its own city, made up of neighborhoods just like Orlando is. There's the swanky commercial strip of Park Avenue, the up-and-coming Hannibal Square, and various homey pockets long loved by locals. Park Avenue is the place to start, though: Packed with restaurants and boutiques, it's anchored at its tree-lined north end by the renowned Morse Museum of American Art.

Old favorite: Kraft Azalea Garden, 1365 Alabama Drive, Winter Park. Two of the things Winter Park is known for – lush landscaping and the Winter Park Chain of Lakes – can be enjoyed from this park on the south shore of Lake Maitland. A popular wedding and photography spot, the secluded lakefront offers a gorgeous view of wildlife, boats and really expensive houses just across the lake.

New classic: Reel Fish Coastal Kitchen, 1234 N. Orange Ave., Winter Park. Taking over the former location of local culinary kingpin the Ravenous Pig is a daunting exercise, but Reel Fish Coastal Kitchen + Bar has succeeded by focusing on offering fresh seafood inspired by Southern fish camps. Their regular menu has plenty of old favorites, but keep an eye out for their frequent specials that offer up serious bargains on New England-style steamed lobster and clams, the Italian Christmas tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes and more.

AUDUBON PARK/BALDWIN PARK

The bird streets are home to the hippest, most organically developed neighborhood in town – and they butt right up against planned community Baldwin Park. Audubonnies appreciate Baldwin's amenities (grocery, drug store, gorgeous multi-use trails around the lake) but Baldwin revels in Audubon Park's entertainments – restaurants, bars, bakeries and cool shopping.

Old favorite: Lake Baldwin Park, 2000 S. Lakemont Ave., Winter Park. Formerly known as Fleet Peeples Park – and bo-ho-hoy are we not getting into why that name change came about – Lake Baldwin Park is the place to bring your pup. The massive dog-friendly park not only offers plenty of shade for you to enjoy while your dog runs around making new friends (and hopefully not being a dick and embarrassing you), but the dogs get to run around a sandy beach on the shores of Lake Baldwin, getting as filthy as they want. There's even a nice trail through the woods if your best friend needs a little time away from all of the excitement. Make sure you bring some dog shampoo and a towel, because the bath stations near the gate offer the best self-service dog grooming opportunity in town.

New classic: Bem Bom on Corrine, 3101 Corrine Drive. After running the successful Bem Bom food truck for years, the owners finally opened a brick-and-mortar location in Audubon Park recently. The menu focuses on Portuguese and Mexican dishes, like piri piri chicken, mango-painted fish tacos or their highly recommended lamb burger. Leaving without trying their house-made Portuguese egg custard tarts might be a literal sin. Don't take the chance.

IVANHOE VILLAGE

Once an unassuming stretch of old Orlando lakefront loaded almost exclusively with old Orlando furnishings-stores, the recent rehab of Antique Row into something organically (yet cleverly) fashionable has been nothing short of revolutionary – an urban planner's dream.

Old favorite: The Matador, 724 Virginia Drive. Though it started out as a downtown bar, the Matador was a pioneer in transforming Virginia Drive into a strip that people drove to and not through. It's got a dark, romantic atmosphere perfect for dates – or just not being seen – and the cocktail program here is top notch. Drink here often enough and you'll notice that it's the spot that a lot of other bartenders get a drink at on their nights off, which is as ringing an endorsement as any bar could get.

New classic: Grape and the Grain, 1110 Virginia Drive. One of the latest additions to the Virginia Drive corridor is this wine bar with a lovely outdoor patio with comfortable furniture under a Tuscan-inspired pergola. Live music and art, trivia nights and food truck guest appearances aren't uncommon.

CURRY FORD WEST

Yes, we're all calling it "the Hourglass District," but the official name of this Main Street District, centered on the intersection of Bumby Avenue and Curry Ford Road, is technically Curry Ford West. The popularity of the area has exploded after recent redevelopment efforts have brought in new restaurants, a food hall, a new brewery and more.

Old favorite: Roque Pub, 3076 Curry Ford Road. Formerly known as "Rogue Pub," this Curry Ford craft beer bar offers up an extensive menu not just of beers from around the world, but also events like trivia, live music, paint nights and themed parties.

New classic: Forever Naan, 4205 Curry Ford Road. It's hard to believe, but up until Forever Naan opened earlier this year, it was nearly impossible to get a curry on Curry Ford Road. Proprietors Pooja Patel and Jasmeet Kaur make their veg and non-veg sauces from scratch, using recipes passed down by their families, and serve them with plenty of rice and naan.

UCF

The University of Central Florida serves 66,000 students, but it doesn't really feel that way in this close-knit community. Despite being a diverse bunch with interests ranging from engineering affordable prosthetics for children to creating art on the global refugee crisis, the one thing that unites Knights is extreme school spirit. And while local restaurants and coffee shops do cater to overworked and over-caffeinated college students, they're still very much worth the drive from Orlando's downtown core.

Old favorite: The Cloak & Blaster, 875 Woodbury Road. Geeky bars are a real thing in Central Florida, though most of them are focused on the video gaming subgenre of nerdery. Waterford Lakes-area Cloak & Blaster, however, focuses on tabletop gaming. Grab a beer from the extensive tap menu with some friends, pick out a game from their even-more-extensive game library, then spend hours kicking in doors and looting the room in Munchkin, saving humanity from the plague in Pandemic, or just sinking each other's battleships. Frequent special events are worth keeping an eye on.

New classic: The Pinball Lounge, 376 E. Broadway St., Oviedo. While video game bars are a dime a dozen, anyone who's ever looked into buying a pinball table will tell you that it's the more expensive hobby to maintain. Oviedo's Pinball Lounge, just off of Alafaya Trail, features more than 30 different tables, both classic and cutting-edge, up for grabs, plus a full food and bar menu. Take advantage of frequent all-you-can-play specials to get the most value out of your quarters.

I-DRIVE

It's funny how Orlando's biggest industry is also the bane of every resident's existence. For many, International Drive is strictly a workplace – and there's little room to hang out among the millions of tourists who clog the tourism district every year. But avoiding this area of Orlando means missing out on a whole lot of hidden gems, even if they are stuck between two different dinner theaters.

Old favorite: Orlando Improv, 9101 International Drive. Sure, it's a chain, but the Improv keeps its schedule packed with recognizable comics every weekend – and fosters local comedians' growth during the week.

New classic: Andretti Indoor Karting & Games, 9299 Universal Blvd. Featuring the world's longest indoor go-kart track and the most elevation changes, Andretti is a paradise for go-kart enthusiasts (and those who enjoy things like not being out in the blazing heat). Along with the racing, families can enjoy food & drink, gaming, virtual reality, laser tag, bowling and more.



This story is from the Aug. 8, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly's Newcomers Guide 2019. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.

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