Onboard SunRail — The people running the new SunRail service, and by that I mean the administrators and not the folks up front at the controls of engine, want to emphasize that this is meant to be a commuter service. Its main purpose is moving workers from outlying communities to their places of business and then back again at the end of the work day. And only during the conventional Monday to Friday work week. But some others of us also would like the opportunity to use it recreationally, especially to go to restaurants, right?
So I'm riding today to check out what eateries are nearby the stations along the way. Although it's meant for the commuters, there's nothing to stop us from using it for fun, too.
Sand Lake Road — I'm starting at the southernmost station, which in a perfect world would be in Key West but which is actually at Sand Lake Road. Unfortunately, this isn't the Restaurant Row section of Sand Lake Road, it's at Orange Avenue. There are the usual big fast fooders here, and I stopped in to the McDonald's for a large coffee to go. (Covered beverages are allowed on the trains, but no food is allowed.) The only "real" restaurant nearby is Bauern Stube, the long — looonnng — time German restaurant. It hasn't always been in this location, and it hasn't always been a place I can recommend, but it seems to be holding its own these days. It's right across the street from the station's parking lot, but crossing Orange Avenue at that spot could be life threatening.
Orlando Health/Amtrak — The SunRail station shares the platform that has forever been the downtown Amtrak stop, and since it is also by the massive Orlando Health campus it has always had small cafes to serve travelers and medical workers. Unfortunately, these businesses tend to change hands directly. Directly across from the station you'll find Lucy Bleuz, which used to be known as Genuine Yum Cafe. If you're thirsty, Orlando Brewing is close by (remember: covered beverages only!) And if you walk to the east side of Orlando Health and cross Orange Avenue, you'll find Doc's Streetside Grille.
Church Street Station — Now the options grow greatly. Here you can disembark — detrain? disentrain? — and visit The Rusty Spoon, which is sure to be a destination for many people. Other choices include Hamburger Mary's, Kres, Artisan's Table, and, just a couple of blocks north along the tracks, Super Rico Colombinan.
Central Station — Despite being the stop for the Lynx bus main station, Central Station has fewer eatery options than just a couple of minutes down the track. Eastside Cafe, in the Bank of America building, has salads and sandwiches. There's a new location for the very good Tacos el Rancho over on Orange Avenue, and Cafe Annie, which at one time had the best falafel sandwich in town (though I've not had it again for a long time). And if anything opens in the Terrace 390/Harvey's Bistro space, this will be the stop for that.
Health Village/Florida Hospital — This is the stop for the other major medical complex along the route, but there are fewer options here. There's a Panera at Florida Hospital, though I can't tell you why. But if you don't mind walking a few blocks you can find Wolfie's Pizzamia and White Wolf Cafe, less than a quarter mile away. Go a bit farther and you've got Gargi's Italian on Lake Ivanhoe.
Winter Park/Park Avenue — Restaurant manna if not heaven. Just across Central Park you'll find all that Park Avenue, the area's original restaurant row, has to offer: Bistro on Park, Luma on Park, Prato, Paris Bistro, Bospherous, Cafe 118, Cocina 214, Orchid Thai and Park Plaza Gardens (which has a new chef, Rocky Tarentello — I'll have a review soon). Several of the people seated near me are planning to get off at Winter Park.
Maitland Station — About the only thing close is Kappy's, which is something of local institution but nothing close to fine dining. You'll find good sandwiches, and burgers of the pre-gourmet period.
Altamonte Springs — A Bubbalou's Bodacious Bar-b-que is the closest restaurant to the station. You'll also find a place called Mom's Kitchen, but I've not been so I can't give you any guidance. But it's called Mom's, so how bad can it be? (Don't answer that.)
Longwood Station — Right around the corner from this stop is Thai Delight, which is now called New Thai Delight (it changed ownership a few months ago). Zorba's Eatery is also nearby.
Lake Mary Station— I visited Lonnie's Fusion a few months ago, and I wish I could say I had a terrific experience, but it was only so-so. The people dining at 4th Street Bar and Grill looked happy and content, so I'll try that the next time I'm in the area.
Sanford Station — Unfortunately, the train station is far from the downtown dining options like Hollerbach's Willow Tree Cafe and Marco Dino's. According to the "What's Nearby" function of the Urbanspoon app on my iPhone, St. John's Bar & Grille is .77 miles away, the closest thing.
DeBary Station — Nothing. At all. For miles.
Of course, you can increase your options at each stop by utilizing bus service. But anyone who has used the Lynx system knows that its infrequency makes it an unattractive alternative. You may also extend your options by bringing a bicycle along. But anyone who follows local news knows that that can be a dangerous undertaking.
But things are bound to get better at most of the stations. Local entrepreneurs will step up to meet any demand that becomes evident. And why haven't I seen any food trucks along the way? Are the various municipalities allowing them in the parking lots, or have the truck owners not yet figured out there's an opportunity to be had? (I seriously doubt it's the latter — those food truck owners are pretty savvy about finding clientele.)
The other caveat I have for anyone who might want to use SunRail to go out dining is that the schedule isn't "evening entertainment" friendly. Remember, this is a service designed for commuters (you can check the SunRail schedule here). Wait a little too long to get back to the station and you might miss the last train out.
Maybe I should ride again and look for early bird specials.
Some other observations from my trip: I went roundtrip from Sand Lake Road in exactly one and half hours. The ride was comfortable and smooth. I had a seat with a table where I was able to place my laptop, and there was an electrical outlet just below the table to keep me powered up. Not once going north or coming back did I lose the Internet connection. (I heard that there were connection problems on the inaugural day, but I'm guessing that all the logged-in media types overstressed the system).
I'm not sure there were any actual commuters anywhere near me on my trip, but there were a lot of people who were very excited about the new rail service. And I overheard many of them expressing a desire to use the service to go downtown to visit restaurants or go to events at the arena. I heard them. The question is, can SunRail officials hear them?
SunRail service is free through May 16. Go out and take it for a spin.