Well, that was a year.
The first two and a half months of 2020 were normal enough with the usual openings, closings and restaurant reviews – both positive and not-so. We began the year with news that K Restaurant and Wine Bar was closing because of the owner’s health, and a few days later word came that Urbain 40, the American cafe with a French name at Dellagio Plaza, had closed abruptly.
Review highlights included Spice Indian Grill; Hungry Pants, the meatless-or-not eatery in Sodo; Dexter’s New Standard, the relo of Dexter’s of Winter Park; El Vic’s Kitchen in College Park; a revisit to Stefano’s Trattoria; Elize, the very good Netherlands restaurant that took over the Rusty Spoon space; and Mia’s Italian Kitchen, an excellent Italian trattoria that was worth braving International Drive for.
I recall dining at Mia’s in early March. Word was already circulating that a novel coronavirus was going around. I remember begin careful not to shake hands with anyone. But I shared dishes with my dining companion and no one had come up with the term social distancing yet.
Then a couple of weeks later all hell broke loose.
The virus was more easily transmitted than first thought and large gatherings were ill advised. The first thing that got my attention was the cancellation of Raglan Road’s St. Patrick’s Day festivities. You know something’s amiss when an Irish pub cancels St. Patrick’s Day.
And the Orlando Wine Festival & Auction, which was scheduled to have its second annual event around the same time, announced it was postponing indefinitely. The weekend of festivities was to have included a Magic basketball game, but the NBA had already announced the suspension of the rest of the season.
Then, of course, it was decreed that restaurants, bars and just about every other kind of business be shut down. At the time we were thinking it would only last a couple of weeks.
The next nine months were something of a blur.
I was bracing for a cataclysmic spate of restaurant closings. Most restaurants operate on narrow margins. Having to shut down for weeks would surely have dire consequences. But I underestimated the resiliency of Central Florida’s culinary community.
Instead of chucking it all and giving up, many restaurants changed the way they operated, building the proverbial parachute while in free fall. They pivoted to takeout and delivery, so I switched to reviewing those takeout efforts, emphasizing the positives.
In May, restaurants were allowed to reopen but with limited capacity. Central Florida restaurants had an advantage over much of the rest of the country in that many of them were already geared for outdoor dining. So when winter rolled around, patios could stay open.
I’m pleased to note that a good number of area restaurants remain open, though most are barely hanging on and are operating with reduced staff. The situation is still dire, and even though we were all glad to see 2020 roll over to 2021, the new year didn’t magically mean everything is suddenly better. There is reason to hope that the vaccines will allow us to gather together again, but realistically anything resembling normal is still months away, if not more than a year.
And of course not all area restaurants have survived, but honestly the number of closings is smaller than I expected. And many of them closed for reasons not related to the pandemic.
Among the past year’s closings were:
Luma on Park – the critically acclaimed Winter Park restaurant closed following a dispute over rent, but plans to reopen in another location (as yet unannounced).
Moonfish – the Talk of the Town seafooder also decided not to renew its lease but plans a relocation.
Sette – the Italian from the owners of Se7enBites had been rumored to be planning to close before the pandemic hit.
Elize – this one can be attributed to the shutdown.
Wahlburgers – the celebrity burger joint first closed its downtown location then followed with the Waterford Lakes restaurant.
Downtown businesses were especially affected because so many office workers were sent to work from home. Among the downtown restaurants to close are: a 4Rivers Smokehouse outlet; Market On Magnolia; Lion’s Pride; Dandelion Community Cafe; The Ramen; and Great Harvest Bread Co.
Other notable closings in 2020 included:
Belicoso Cigars and Cafe and neighboring Brass Tap in Mills 50
Sleuth’s Mystery Dinner Theatre
Cork & Fork in Belle Isle
Due Amici in Winter Park
Kim Wu Chinese Restaurant, which had originally announced a closing in 2019
Todo Sushi, Winter Park
Chan’s Chinese Cuisine, the longtime Mills 50 Cantonese restaurant (the property has been sold to a developer).
The list of closings isn’t particularly longer than most other years. But what is surprising is the number of restaurants that opened under the unfavorable conditions of a pandemic.
Tabla, a second location on Park Avenue
Knife & Spoon, the long-anticipated steak and seafood restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton
Tornatore’s Market in College Park
Russell’s on Lake Ivanhoe
Sear + Sea, an excellent new seafood restaurant in the JW Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek
Estefan Kitchen, Capone’s Coal Fired Pizza, Yeoman’s Cask & Lion and other eateries at Promenade at Sunset Walk
Island Fin Poke, Windermere
Git-n-Messy BBQ opened in a Citgo gas station and then moved to Red-Eye Sports Tavern in Winter Springs
Taste of Chengdu opened a second location in Baldwin Park
Bad As’s Sandwiches opened a second location in Winter Park
Osphere, started serving pre-Covid
Papa Llama and Uncommon Catering & Eatery in the Curry Ford West district
Feather and Quill, in a renovated Dexter’s in Windermere
Persimmon Hollow Brewing Company took over the former Lake Eola Panera Bread space
BoVine, the long-planned upscale steakhouse in the former Park Plaza Gardens
Gideon’s Bakeshop, not just a second location but a flagship bakery at Disney Springs
F&D Woodfired Italian Kitchen opened a second location in Longwood (and announced a third coming to Winter Park)
Mason Jar Provisions in Thornton Park
Twisted Handle Bar & Lounge, a rebranding of the Mills 50 Brass Tap
What the Chuck, a burgery in Sanford
Orlando Meats, a relocation to the closed Todo Sushi
Aurora at the Celeste, the new UCF hotel
FK Your Diet, in SoSodo
Chicken Fire, on Colonial Drive at Bumby Avenue
Winter Park Biscuit Co., at East End Market
The Salty, a donut shop in Audubon Park
Matcha Cafe Maiko, Mills 50
Häos on Church, taking over the Lion’s Pride space
And 534 Scratch Kitchen, also on Church
And this year we can look forward to:
Norman’s, still expected to open at Dellagio
Kaya, a Filipino restaurant from the Kadence team
The Monroe, from the owners of the Osprey and Reyes Mezcalaria
Foreigner from Bruno Fonseca
Soseki Modern Omakase
Hunger Street Tacos, a second location in Winter Garden
Outpost Kitchen in Maitland with Nick Sieputowski as chef
A second location for Black Rooster Taqueria in Curry Ford West
Munchie’s Live BBQ from chef Alfred L. Mann in Gotha.
I’m excited about anything with Live in its name.
What else can we expect this year?
I hope restaurants will continue to up their takeout game, adjusting menus to feature foods more suitable for travel and improving packaging. Even as more people are vaccinated and the pandemic finally wanes, many people will be reluctant to jump back into crowded situations. There will be a continued market for takeout and delivery.
I’d like to see a new model for delivery, one that doesn’t take so much of a restaurant’s earnings as current third-party delivery apps do.
I predict we’ll see more ghost kitchens and virtual restaurants. Here’s a possible revenue stream for existing restaurants: subleasing kitchen space to ghost operators.
And we’ll of course see more closings and, thankfully, more openings. And I plan to be here to tell you about them.