I’m always surprised at the success of a restaurant despite the apparent ineptitude of its management and ownership. The restaurant that brings that question up most recently is Hillstone. Or is that Houston’s? You see? Right there, that’s what I’m talking about.
Houston’s opened in the second half of 1996 in a beautiful new building on the shore of Lake Killarney, and I don’t think there have been many nights since that the restaurant hasn’t been on a wait list. It’s a favorite of many, and a regular hangout of numerous Winter Parkers and others who go for the casually upscale atmosphere, which features a view of the lake from every table, and the uncomplicated menu of steak, prime rib, fish and burgers. Ask any number of locals what they consider their favorite restaurant, the one they go to without even thinking about it, and the answer is likely to be Houston’s.
So of course the parent company decided that it should change the name to Hillstone. And why not? During the entire time the restaurant was known as Houston’s, anyone looking for its website would have to know that the address is hillstone.com. Makes perfect sense. (And the website doesn’t see the need to offer such information as hours of operation or anything useful like that, but don’t get me started.)
You may not be aware that the name change has taken place. You certainly won’t get it from the sign out front, not unless you look closely and squint. The neon sign next to Orlando Avenue that once read Houston’s Restaurant now reads Hillstone Restaurant. But apparently the company didn’t want to shell out for new neon, or even a replacement name the same size as the existing sign, so what you see is closer to Hillstone Restaurant.
But just about everyone still refers to it as Houston’s. And, once you’re inside, there’s little about the place to make you think anything else has changed, including the menu. There are some small tweaks here and there, but it’s largely the same as it has been for years.
It still has an almost non-existent appetizer list -- only three items, including the now infamous wood-grilled artichoke. This is the appetizer that a man in South Florida is suing the company about because they did not warn him -- and keep in mind that the man is a doctor by profession -- that he shouldn’t have eaten the whole artichoke, leathery, spiny leaves and all. Well, it certainly is a tasty appetizer, and I could see why someone would want to eat as much of it as he could, but still. It’s better to use your teeth to scrape the tasty flesh from the leaves and then discard them, making your way to the wonderful choke. And please don’t take that designation seriously. Good, yes, but $13 good? I’m going to say no.
My dinner guest had the prime rib entree, a generous cut of tender and buttery beef, a fine specimen -- as well it should be for $32, even with a baked potato included.
My double-cut pork chop ($26) was not as good, mainly due to saltiness. I wonder if perhaps the pork had been brined and then seasoned again during cooking. Whatever, it was largely inedible.
If anything has changed about the interior, I couldn’t spot it. The bar is still slightly more popular than the dining room, and there was live music the night I dined. Unfortunately, only the percussion was pumped into the dining room, so no one there could hear the melody from the piano.
Our server was fine but a manager was a bit of a boor, approaching me while I took a photo and saying, “We don’t really allow pictures in here.” When I was leaving the restaurant I had to pass this same manager, who did not bother to say anything to me. Made me feel welcome!
Parking has always been a problem here, and it’s usually best to avail yourself of the complimentary valet. When I pulled up and got out of my car, the valet handed me something and said, “Press this a few minutes before you’re ready.” Ready for what? I asked. It turns out it was a little device that, when pressed, alerts the valet to bring your car around. (Therefore, a few minutes before you’re ready to leave is the complete sentence.) Neat little device.
Hillstone/Houston’s still does not take reservations. Why should they when they’re so busy and people are willing to wait for a table to pay handsomely for food of spotty quality? Maybe they’re not so dumb after all.
Hillstone is at 215 S. Orlando Ave., Winter Park. It is open for lunch and dinner daily. This link will take you to the company’s anemic website, wherein you’ll find a link to the even more anemic listing for the Winter Park restaurant. If all you’re looking for is the menu, you can download that by clicking here . The phone number is 740-4005.