You Can Have a Foodie Orlando Theme Park Vacation, Here’s How

No theme park restaurants and no chain restaurants was the mandate from my wife. But take her to SeaWorld and Universal Orlando.

We had an expiring Holiday Inn Package from last year’s IHG promotion that because of off-season they extended from 3 nights to 5 at the Holiday Inn Across from Universal.

Our theme park visit strategy is morning visit, midday lunch and rest, with optional late afternoon return. The crowds choose the hottest part of the day that we avoid.

Our prior visits to Orlando we thought it a food wasteland. We found vegetables at dumpy Chinese buffets and brought Golden Corral into our lives. This time would be different.

I brought out my father’s style from his Brooklyn upbringing in talking to everyone starting with the local flight attendant, to the rental car rep, to hotel check-in, and then diners as we ate through Orlando. There were some great finds. This is geared to non-Disney, because those parks are more isolated and not on our agenda this trip.

Lunchtime around SeaWorld/Universal/International Drive:

Pio Pio is awesome Peruvian. The fruit drinks, with or without milk are awesome, try blackberry, passion fruit or my favorite, soursop. Excellent roast chicken, tostones, and on and on. The white sauce is a local favorite. If you can handle serious pork belly, get the chicharrón necklace. It is a 5 minute drive from the Universal gate. We had 5 meals here.

Pio Pio Orlando 01Pio Pio Orlando 02

Hidden in a small strip mall on International drive is New Punjab, recommended by a diner at Pio Pio that makes the drive for both. It claims to be Orlando’s oldest Indian restaurant. They eschew the typical buffet, instead having excellent value lunch and dinner sets.

New Punjab Orlando 01New Punjab Orlando 02

Both work for a quick lunch from the parks and are rock-bottom priced.

Doctor Phillips ‘Restaurant Row’:

This area is a 15-20 minute drive southwest of Universal. Most of the restaurants are upscale chain restaurants.

Bosphorous Turkish Cuisine has two locations, this the closest to the parks. Evening outdoor seating. The meats were well-seasoned though a tad dry. The desserts are the standouts. We were ecstatic at the baklava cheesecake.

Bosphorous Orlando 01Bosphorous Orlando 02Bosphorous Orlando 03

Stefano’s Grill, an Italian steakhouse was the dining disappointment of the trip. The restaurant was unprepared for a large Monday evening crowd. We waited over 90 minutes for our food, the restaurant eventually sending a free appetizer. The steaks are renowned and much larger than listed portions, though come at steep prices. We went with the simpler Italian dishes and there were no winners, most were bland. The table next to us had a swordfish steak that the diner sent back. We might consider returning for steaks, but not the rest of the menu.

Stefano's Grill Orlando 01

Winter Park:

A tony suburb northeast of downtown Orlando, with the distance and traffic it is best to go after 7 pm to limit the drive to around half an hour. Beautiful area to stroll. The other Bosphorous is up here.

Luma on Park is modern American and the creative dishes all worked.

Luma on Park Orlando 01Luma on Park Orlando 02

The grand prize goes to Roadfood find Winter Park Fish Co. My nominee for best American seafood restaurant. More on that in the next post.

Winter Park Fish Co Orlando 01Winter Park Fish Co Orlando 03

Readers, what are your foodie recommendations for Orlando?

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  • rick b

    Those aren’t exactly foodie restaurants. I’d recommend Ravenous Pig or Oceanaire instead.

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @rick b – maybe I don’t know the nuances, I use the term ‘foodie’ as in places with darn good food, however humble or fancy, whether the staff have old-timey beards or whatever. How do you define it?

  • rick b

    To me it’s something interesting and beyond the norm….that you can get just about anywhere else. Steakhouses and run of the mill ethnic restaurants aren’t generally considered interesting by foodies, but to each his own I suppose 🙂

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @rick b – next time in the area we will try those you recommended. Either way, it is good to give ideas beyond the theme park junk many end up eating.

  • Sorry I don’t have any recommendations but I did want to ask you if your touring plan worked out.

    Sounds like you would be out of the park from about 12-4?

  • MichaelJ

    Definitely agree about Pio Pio (its about a 2 min drive from my work) …is great!
    In Winter Park, among many others you definitely want to hit up Prato, Ravenous Pig, Cask and Larder,
    Rusteak, K Restaurant, and Paxia in College Park (right across I4 from Winter Park. Also, can go to Infusion Tea for some healthier fair and the Soda Fountain for some local ice cream treats.
    The Mills50 area (between College Park and Winter Park) has many foodie joints (Santiago’s Bodega, Tako Cheena, Mamak, etc).

  • Cma

    Orlando has tons of good food, you just have to know where to look. (Most isn’t by the parks which is unfortunate for visitors but great for locals.)

    Ceviche (tapas) and Rusty Spoon (farm to table) are two other good downtown places. Txokos in Audubon Park is great too but maybe a bit far from the parks. Tons of good places in Winter Park as you mentioned, especially on Park Ave.

  • Farnorthtrader

    Another fairly close to Universal, the Nile Ethiopian Restaurant, right on I-drive. It is often toned down a little bit for North American palates, but it is still pretty good Ethiopian food.

  • Singapore Flyer

    If you are willing to drive, some of the best Vietnamese (Pho and other dishes) are near downtown Orlando. There are quite a few Asian supermarkets around there for snacks and groceries if you have a kitchen. We always plan for two meals around traffic every trip down to the parks with our kids. Favorite being Pho Hoa. Good friend recommended it to us (cousin works there.)

  • Zippy Pam

    Living in Orlando gives us the insight on the places that are never seen by tourists. I agree with most of the other comments but would particularly like to second Luma, Rusty Spoon, Ravenous Pig, and Santiago’s Bodega. Yuki Hana for Japanese fusion is fabulous. Barnie’s in Winter Park for breakfast, lunch or dinner (check which days are open) is a surprising gem. 4 Rivers for good BBQ.with a more extensive BBQ menu is always delicious and fun. The East End Market is terrific for grazing. The surprising deficit is in pizza and Italian (don’t agree about Prato).

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  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @Plane2port – worked pretty well. Park closings were at 7. Morning sessions we got in to bigger attractions before little legs could reach them. Evenings there were even no lines at Harry Potter attractions as most kids had already been wiped out by the sun. SeaWorld is a bit harder since many of the shows cluster noon-4, we missed the sea lions and didn’t go back in the evening.

  • Jamie

    Thanks for the recommendations, Stefan and all of the commenters. We hit up Pio Pio after a couple of days of Disney. It was great!
    This post is bookmarked for future, inevitable, trips to Orlando.

  • Yay, Pio Pio!