The first time I visited Draft, a new beer, bar and restaurant directly across from Amway Center, was on its opening night, which, let’s be honest, is never a very good indication of what a place is like. The spacious, multi-room venue was in party mode, and it wasn’t exactly conducive to dining.
The last time I visited was on a recent Wednesday. I made the trip downtown without knowing that on Wednesdays Draft has a promotional event with discounts on appetizers and drinks. The place was packed, mostly with people availing of the special pricing. Still, I managed to get a seat at a high-top table and order dinner.
In between those visits I went for lunch and had an extremely different experience, at least in terms of the atmosphere. What had not changed between dinner and lunch visits was the quality of the food, which was very good.
If I sound slightly surprised when I say that it’s only because the overall look and feel of Draft is one that screams bar and lounge, not restaurant. As the name suggests, this is another in the current trend of places offering long rows of beers on draught. Or draft, if you will. There are tables for dining, and even a banquette along one end of the main room. But those dining areas look out of place with the splashy prominence of the bar and drinking areas.
But don’t let that stop you. You’ll find some good things to eat here. On a lunch visit I took advantage of the half salad/half sandwich deal and had the pina colada salad and the PBLAT, which stands for pork belly, lettuce, avocado and tomato. I was a little concerned that the salad might be a tad too sweet -- you know, like the drink itself -- but it wasn’t. It featured baby lettuce leaves dressed in a rum-based vinaigrette, with a little roasted pineapple, toasted coconut and a handful of rich macadamia nuts. The sandwich had just the sort of delicious fatty mouthfeel you expect from pork belly, and the bun, lettuce and tomato all tasted fresh.
My lunch companion had the jumbo lump crab cake sliders, little fried cakes on two-bite buns (three bites if you’re trying to be polite). I liked the crispiness of the little cakes.
On the crowded dinner visit I had the drunken chicken, which had been recommended by our server at lunch. It was a half chicken, braised in beer and then crisply finished, served atop gorgonzola mashed potatoes with a piquant chimichurri sauce on the side. Our server was right -- it was delicious. I also liked the grilled baby bok choy that accompanied the dish. What a nice change from the usual veggies.
Our lunchtime server was friendly and knowledgable. It was difficult to gauge the evening servers because of the crush of guests.
It was very nice to see Draft so crowded. There was not an event in the arena that night, so there was nothing to draw people in. Draft incorporates a space in the parking garage on the corner of Church Street and Hughey Avenue that has seen a number of restaurants over the years. I first reviewed a restaurant called Goodtimes Diner here in late 1990. It has also been home to downtown’s first attempt at Indian cuisine (Bombay Diner) and a few others. It has been empty for many years. The new owners have taken that original space and combined with with a passage way of sorts, now another bar area, that leads to another lounge. It has an ultralounge sort of feel, with lots of backlit panels that change colors to set the mood. As far as I can determine, the main room on the corner is the only one where food is served. Because it is in a parking garage, there is plenty of nearby spaces. And if there is nothing going on at the Amway Center, it’s very possible to find a free parking space out front.
In fact, I would choose a non-event night to visit. It would probably be more conducive to leisurely dining. Unless, of course, it’s a Wednesday. I’m not telling you to stay away -- just be ready to join a fun-loving crowd.
Draft is at 301 W. Church St., Orlando. It’s open for lunch and dinner daily, until midnight Sunday through Wednesday and 2 a.m. the rest of the time. Dinner entrees range from $10 to $25; my chicken entree was a very reasonable $16. Here is a link to the Draft Orlando website. The phone number is 407-826-1872.