Each year, in July, the excellent Web site Theme Park Insider announces its awards for excellence in various categories among the country's theme parks. Best theme park restaurant is one of the categories.
This year, all five finalists are in Orlando theme parks, so TPI founder and editor, Robert Niles, has asked me to post my reviews of those restaurants for his readers, as well as readers of the flog here. I don't have a say in selecting the winner, that's up to you. At the end of each review, I'll give you a link to TPI's listing for that restaurant so you can vote or leave a comment. Robert will announce the winner on July 4th.
This week: Mythos
It's been nearly 10 years since Universal Studios opened Islands of Adventure and, with it, Mythos, one of only two full-service restaurants in the park (Confisco Grille is the other). When I first reviewed Mythos in August of 1999, I concluded that the restaurant was suffering from a bit of an identity crisis. It didn't quite know what kind of restaurant it wanted to be. That shouldn't have been so surprising: Universal was still trying to figure out the identity of its two theme parks and had umbrellaed them under the “Universal Studios Escape” name. Remember that?
But I had expected more from Mythos at the time. It was to have been the showcase for Steven Jayson, the highly respected and much acclaimed chef whose title is vice president and corporate executive chef for Universal Orlando. Even though he wouldn't be stationed in the kitchen, Jayson wanted Mythos to be his special project.
But the grand plan for Mythos didn’t pan out. It may be because Universal and Jayson wanted the restaurant to be one thing and the guests wanted it to be another. The original menu had such things as wood-roasted Maine lobster and tempura shrimp sushi, items you might expect to find in a fine dining venue. But the park goers weren’t looking for fine dining, they just wanted a place to eat where they didn’t have to stand in line for their food.
The need for a fine dining restaurant inside Islands of Adventure is further diminished when you consider that the park closes at 6 on most days and that Mythos takes its last priority seating at 4:30. Even the early bird diners don’t come out that early.
So Mythos today is somewhat different than the restaurant it started out to be. And it’s a better place for it. There are still some of the original items on the menu -- the risotto of the day and individual pizzas, for example -- but it has taken on a more casual air.
I wish I had ordered more wisely on my recent visit. I started off well enough with the tortilla soup ($4.75), a well-spiced tomatoey broth with matchsticks of fried tortillas and a dollop of sour cream.
But I was lured to order a new menu item for my entree, even though the very name -- crab sliders ($12.95) -- should have waved me off. In terms of flavor -- and indeed overall enjoyment -- there wasn’t anything wrong with the sliders. However, the amount of crab contained therein was rather puny, and the texture was soft. The patties were served on two small but fresh-tasting buns and accompanied by a small serving of potato salad (needed salt) and an unusual compote of cubed watermelon and tomatoes that did double duty as a fruity dessert.
What I wish I had ordered was the Mythos burger ($10.95), and by the time 20 or 30 of them had been carried past my table looking huge and charred and with big rashers of applewood bacon draped over them I was kicking myself. Crab sliders -- what was I thinking?
Service was affable and efficient. Many of the servers gave the appearance of actually being happy to be there. Imagine.
The restaurant is set in what appears to be an enchanted cave, the walls of which morph from rocky surfaces to mystical faces and even into voluptuous bodies. If there is a story behind the images and the setting, it isn’t explained anywhere that I could see. This particular enchanted cave also boasts a huge picture window that affords a view of what is known as the Inland Sea. I recall a decade ago thinking that the decor was chintzy. I found it oddly comfortable and pleasant this time.
I took advantage of Universal’s dining pass deal that allows guests to enter the park to dine at the restaurant without paying for admission. Here’s how it works: go to the guest services window and tell them you’d like to dine at Mythos. They’ll ask for a photo id and a credit card. They’ll ring up a charge ticket for the full park admission and give you a pass to enter the park and go to the restaurant. When you’re finished, you present the pass and proof that you purchased a meal at Mythos and they tear up your credit slip.
You’re allowed about 2 and a half hours, which is more time than I needed. Heck, I could have gone for a ride on the Incredible Hulk roller coaster, although that would be ill-advised after a lunch of crab sliders.
But come to think of it, I could have gone back to Mythos for the burger.
Mythos is open daily for lunch and pre-early bird dinner. Reservations are a good idea; call 407-224-4534.
To vote for Mythos as your favorite theme park restaurant, visit Theme Park Insiders.