It's here! Visit Orlando's Magical Dining Month, which somehow defies all principles of the modern Gregorian calendar by running more than five weeks, begins Aug. 25 and runs through Oct. 1.
More than 100 restaurants are participating this year, up from 65 in 2016, including for the first time some well-known Disney restaurants. So even with 38 days, you're not going to be able to visit them all. (No. NO. Stop arguing, you just can't do it.) Also up this year is the cost, $35, two bucks more than 2016, and they're not even paying Emeril Lagasse an endorsement fee this year.
So you're going to have to do some research to narrow your decision. Here's how I go about choosing which Magical Dining Month restaurants I'll visit. (Watch the video below.)
First, I go to the official MagDinMo website and look over the list of restaurants. I'm looking for newcomers, places I'm going to want to visit for a review anyway. (Hey, I like saving money, too.) I also look for the restaurants that I know to have higher price points. (I repeat, I like saving money.)
This year, Visit Orlando has provided a downloadable checklist. As you go through the list of restaurants, put a checkmark next to the ones you want to take a closer look at. You'll notice that the restaurants are grouped geographically, though some of the designations are odd. RusTeak of College Park, for instance, is listed under Winter Park and North, while K Restaurant, also in College Park, is under the nebulous heading "Surrounding Areas." (They've got K on the checklist under Downtown, which is where it -- and RusTeak -- should be.)
Back at the MagDinMo website, click on the listing for one of your choices. Let's take a look at our friends at Urban Tide, for instance. You'll see the available options for each of the three courses of the Magical Dining Month Menu, or MagDinMoMu. If nothing sounds good to you, you might as well move on. But just about everything at Urban Tide is terrific, and this is a pretty good lineup.
Now go to the restaurant's own webpage -- Visit Orlando is nice enough to give you a direct link -- and compare the rack-rate, a la carte prices.
In this case, you'll see that the Southern Fried Grouper Cheek is a $15 appetizer. And the Scottish Loch Duarte Salmon Oscar is regularly $32. Even if you were the worst student in math class, you can see right away that just those two courses total more than $35, even before dessert.
Urban's desserts are on another page and, curiously, neither of the Magical Dining desserts are on the regular menu. But given that they're usually priced at $10, I think we can declare Urban Tide a good Magical Dining Month bargain.
None of my research came up with a restaurant offering less than the $35 charge, though Bulla, the Spanish restaurant in Winter Park came close. The Huevos Bulla are regularly $10.50 and the Churrasco Moruno is $24. Desserts are listed online.
Now let's take a look at deep blu, another seafood restaurant. It's Crab Cake appetizer is listed at $18 retail, and the Cioppino is $45. But wait. Take a closer look at the Cioppino on the MagDinMoMu -- no lobster, an ingredient on the regular menu.
I think it's unwise for restaurants to substantially change their menus for the promotion. And I'm especially wary of those that have menus with dishes not on the regular menu at all. I'm not so concerned with different portion sizes, though many of the participating restaurants serve the full portion. This is an opportunity to show customers who may not be familiar with your restaurant what you can do. If they like it, perhaps they'll return some other time and pay full price.
Speaking of prices, you'll find some of the restaurants don't have prices on their online menus. I usually just move on or, in some cases, call the restaurant and ask if a current menu with prices could be emailed.
One exception you might want to consider is Sharks Underwater Grill at Sea World. Its menu does not have prices, but get this: You don't have to buy a ticket to get into the theme park if you have a reservation at Sharks. And, following your dinner, you're allowed to linger in the park as long as you like until closing. I would, however, wait a while before you ride the roller coaster. Just a suggestion. (Based on previous visits to Sharks, I'd probably steer you away even with the free admission, but with a new chef at the park, I'm optimistic and have Sharks on my short list this year.)
Others that I'm considering this year include Urbain 40 and K, also with new chefs I want to check out; Jiko the Cooking Place, one of those Disney restaurants I mentioned; and Umi Japanese Restaurant, which actually offers more than three courses.
A couple of boilerplate notes. First, you may have to specifically request the Magical Dining Month Menu if it isn't automatically offered when you are seated. Don't just go to your notes and order the MagDinMo items from the regular menu and expect to be charged only $35; it doesn't work that way.
Also, your check is going to be more than $35. That price does not include tax and beverages. Expect to pay more than $50 per person with a modest glass of wine.
And finally, please don't shortchange your servers. Take the total amount of the courses from the regular menu and tip on that figure.
Here are a few other restaurants for you to consider:
Oceanaire Seafood Room
Two Chefs Seafood Oyster Bar
Big Fin Seafood Kitchen
Eddie V's Prime Seafood
1921 by Norman Van Aken
Chroma Modern Bar + Kitchen
Antonio's La Fiamma
A Land Remembered