Soul food returns to downtown Orlando with the opening of McKnight’s, which took over the space vacated in 2010 by Johnson’s Diner.
Not the original Johnson’s Diner space, of course. That was a little bit of a shack on a corner of Washington Street in the shadow of the old arena. (Actually, it had been there before there was an arena to cast a shadow.)
It moved, of course, to an area of redevelopment on West Church Street that also would eventually be in the shadow of the new arena. It was a much bigger space, and Johnson’s Diner continued to draw hungry lovers of southern cooking, professional athletes and influential politicians among them. But following the death of the business’s matriarch, and with the increased expenses of the new space (not to mention a possible lack of business acumen), the children who had tried to keep the restaurant opened were forced to close it.
Now McKnight’s has moved in, and good southern soul food is once again available to downtowners.
I visited McKnight’s last month during one of the colder days (remember those?) but was greeted warmly as I waited by the front door. The dining room was almost empty, so I pretty much had my choice of tables.
The menu is not really extensive, but it has enough temptables to keep anyone coming back. I decided on smothered pork chop and was not disappointed. The meat was tender, yet had the distinct flavor of a grilled chop with its mouth-filling juices. It was covered -- smothered, if you will -- by a rich brown gravy and was accompanied by a big mound of fluffy rice and my choices of side dishes: collard greens and black-eyed peas. (The macaroni and cheese was my first choice but it wasn’t ready yet.)
It was a lot of good, filling food, and a bargain at $9.50.
McKnight’s decor features a large suit of armor near the front door and two massive fish tanks in the center of the room. The ceiling tiles alternate black and wood-tone (almost a UCF Knights black and gold), and walls are covered with textured wallpaper. I don’t recall Johnson’s looking this nice.
My server was very nice and welcoming. Owner William McKnight was in the dining room, but seemed to stop only at tables of people he already knew.
Too bad, I was looking forward to thanking him for a fine meal.
McKnight’s is at 595 W. Church St., Orlando. It is open for breakfast Monday through Friday and for lunch and dinner daily (though it closes early; 8 p.m. on weekdays and 6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday). Here’s a link to soulfoodatitsbest.com. The phone number is 407-245-1155.