I've lost track of all the businesses that have occupied the space at 4315 N. Orange Blossom Trail in Orlando. I'm pretty sure my first encounter with the massive property on the shore of Lake Fairview was with Shooters Waterfront, an Orlando version of the Intracoastal Waterway hot spot from Ft. Lauderdale that opened here in 1990.
I know that it was a nightclub called Park Avenue, and I seem to remember that it was also known as Empire at one point.
Tim Webber, who operated a popular catering business for years in Orlando took over the space in 1996. Tim Webber's Pavilion by the Lake was a catering commissary as well as a place for private functions and parties. When I wrote in the Orlando Sentinel in November 1996 about a Sunday brunch he offered at his new place, I began the review, "What a smart thing Tim Webber has done." Two months later he filed for bankruptcy.
So to say that the property has had a troubled past is perhaps an understatement.
Even the new tenant, Grills Lakeside Seafood Deck & Tiki Bar, hasn't had an easy go of things. Finally opening just after the first of the year, Grills has been more than two years in the making. I think it may have been worth the wait.
Of the businesses that have preceded it, Grills is probably closest in concept to Shooters in that it is an inland location of an open water eatery that counts among its draws a constant flotilla of boats large and small. The Grills in Port Canaveral has massive cruise ships float by; the Melbourne location is on the Indian River with various pleasure craft that go by or dock for dinner. The Orlando Grills has to make do with the boats of neighbors who live on the lake.
But Grills differs from the old Shooters in one major aspect: It offers good food to go with the view.
Because of its proximity to water, Grills has always counted seafood as its forte. That continues even without counting on a Lake Fairview catch. I ordered the mahi mahi that was offered as one of the fish of the day. It was nicely grilled and slathered with a buttery sauce. It was served with a rather curious medley of vegetables -- zucchini, onions, corn -- and some tasty fries.
For those with tastes other than seafood, the Cat 5 Hurricane Cheeseburger is pretty darned good. It's immense -- described cheekily on the menu as a "whale of a burger" -- and the one I sampled was grilled to a perfect medium rare. Beside a side of beef, it had melted cheese (both cheddar and swiss at my companion's request), chewy rashers of bacon, grilled onions and mushrooms, some lettuce and tomato. Why a burger this good would be served with pedestrian ruffled potato chips instead of fries is beyond me, but there you go.
Service was better than I have come to expect at big places like this. All of the people I had contact with were knowledgable and friendly. (The person who answered the phone on a couple of occasions, however, could use some training, but that's another story.)
If you were familiar with any of the other businesses I listed above, you won't recognize the place. That may be because little of the original structure remains. Or maybe some of it is still there -- no one involved with the project seems to know or is willing to talk about it. Some money was clearly spent.
Whatever. The spaces that are there now make good use of the lakefront locale, with large windows for water views if you're dining inside (perhaps sitting beneath a boat hanging from the rafters) and plenty of seats if you choose to dine outside. There is even a thoughtful wind-break wall and partial covering over the outdoor deck. (Whoever thought that the long benches at the outdoor bar that require people to mount them like a pommel horse would be a fun idea was wrong about that.)
But once you're up on the bench, you'll have a pleasant view. And thanks to Grills' kitchen crew, you can also have some good food.
Grills Lakeside Seafood Deck & Tiki Bar is at 4315 N. Orange Blossom Trail, Orlando. It is open for lunch and dinner daily. The phone number is 407-291-8881 (best of luck if you call).