Orlando foodie district face-off: Mills 50 vs. I-Drive 

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click to enlarge Tapa Toro - PHOTO BY ROB BARTLETT
  • Photo by Rob Bartlett
  • Tapa Toro


PAELLA PARTY Group dining isn't a difficult sell on the I-Drive strip; conventions and family vacationers pack private dining rooms and long tables in restaurants. But for a fun and interactive chef's table, sit around the half-moon paella "pit" at Tapa Toro, where executive chef Wendy Lopez and her crew fill pans with shellfish, seasoned short-grain rice and saffron. Bonus: free parking at the I-Drive 360 garage.

LAVISH & LEGENDARY There are only a few temples of haute cuisine left in New York City, and one of them has made its way down to Orlando to set up shop on a new parking garage going up on Sand Lake Road and International Drive. Circo, the little sister of NYC legend Le Cirque, will open later this year between the neon Orlando Eye to the east and Universal fireworks to the west (though you won't be able to see the show from the restaurant).

TURNING TABLES The food at Taverna Opa at Pointe Orlando, the street's original dining and shopping destination, is beyond reproach – lemony grilled lamb ribs and braised lamb shanks are favorite plates – but it's the nightly belly-dancing and napkin-throwing that have us coming back for seconds.

THROW A BONE Carnivores will cheer for the prime steak list at Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse on the west side of I-Drive. Oenophiles will adore dining in the private cellar dining room with wine "elevator" that plucks bottles from the two-story tower.

WINE DOWN The menu at Cooper's Hawk Winery & Restaurant is lengthy, but not even as extensive as its wine list. Locals love the Waterford Lakes and Sanford locations, but the I-Drive version is walking distance to the Orlando Eye. If you loved your bottle, pick it up at the in-house wine shop for at-home imbibing.

PROTEIN-PALOOZA Orlando gets enough Brazilian tourist traffic to justify an all-you-can-eat churrascaria chain on every corner. Texas de Brazil, on the north end of International Drive might be the go-to with its NASCAR-regulation oval buffet, but Fogo de Chão is equally delicious, and their gauchos ask (and remember!) what temperature you prefer your steak when they come around to slice.

EAT AT TONY'S Don't roll your eyes just yet. This ain't the 1970s rib joint you remember. Tony Roma's parent company is based right here in Orlando, and they've made the I-Drive location a flagship and testing ground for new recipes and craft cocktails. The fare is still crowd-pleasing; just think less Brady Bunch and more Modern Family.

MEET AT THE MONKEY The last remaining vestige of the formerly vast Funky Monkey empire is located at Pointe Orlando, and has been the proving ground for many of Orlando's top chefs, including Hell's Kitchen alum Ashley Nickell.

SEE FOOD Throw on your most elegant frock, order a chilly dry martini and prepare yourself for classic seafood preparations at present-day prices at Oceanaire Seafood Room. The oyster bar features 10 different oysters from around the globe, flown in fresh daily. We're almost certain the Oceanaire is the only place where baked Alaska is still a regular on the dessert menu.

MAMBO ITALIANO For plates piled high with pasta, you'll want to head to Maggiano's Little Italy at Pointe Orlando. Just north of Buca di Beppo's price point, this carbo-chain is famous for family-style dishes of eggplant parmigiana and flash-fried calamari. These guys are used to crowds, too, so for a big party, service will be a cinch. Just call ahead.

DEEP SOUTH DISHES She-crab soup is what you should start with when you sit down in the upscale-rustic digs at Itta Bena Food & Spirits on Pointe Orlando's upper level. Get there early to taste your pick of dozens of bourbons at the bar while the pianist takes requests. Once you've dined, head across the sidewalk to Lafayette's for live Dixieland, rock and jazz until the wee hours.

BEACH BITES The seafood-centric Tommy Bahama restaurant is a themed restaurant that tries really hard not to be a themed restaurant. But you just can't get around the khaki-clad, island-shirted "adventure casual" crowd here. The Maui-inspired menu is anything but casual, though, sporting Kona coffee-crusted ribeye and macadamia-crusted red snapper.

CHOP CHOP What you won't get at Spencer's for Steaks and Chops at the Hilton Orlando: frills. What you will get: a damn good steak. The minimalist chophouse is favored for its aged, hand-cut Florida beef, but also flaunts lamb, pork and elk chops on its one-page menu. Steak sides are à la carte, and the celeriac au gratin shouldn't be overlooked.


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