This is another in a series of reviews of Central Florida's classic restaurants that have been in operation 25 years or longer.
Linda's La Cantina is the oldest restaurant in Central Florida, and the reason for its longevity and its continued popularity can be attributed to one thing: it serves damn good steaks. It certainly doesn't warrant hour-plus waits based on its ambience or service, but more on that in a moment.
The title of the oldest restaurant comes with an asterisk. There has been a restaurant called La Cantina at 4721 E. Colonial Drive since 1947, but it wasn't always Linda's. We could double-asterisk the title, too, because there was another an Italian restaurant on that spot before Rudy Seng bought it and renamed it Edie and Rudy's La Cantina. Why a steakhouse with an Italian accent had a Spanish name is unknown.
Rudy and Edie had a son named Al who fell in love with a young salad girl named Linda Gilland. They got married. Al took over the restaurant in 1972 after Rudy died and renamed it Al and Linda's La Cantina. Linda bought out Al's share of the business in 1984 and the couple divorced shortly afterwards. Al's name was ripped from the sign and it's been Linda's La Cantina ever since.
Three asterisks: La Cantina's operation has not been continuous. The original restaurant was torn down in 1979 and replaced with a larger building. A fire destroyed that building in December of 1994 and it was replaced with the structure you see today by mid '95.
When I reviewed the risen-from-the-ashes steakhouse in August 1995, I marveled at the phenomenon that is Linda's La Cantina and said, more than once in that same review, "I don't get it."
I still don't.
Remove the excellent steaks from the equation and there's little about the experience that I find enjoyable. On a recent visit, my guests and I were met by a gruff and dismissive man at the host stand, which towers over arriving diners. The main dining room is large and boisterous. The side dining area, where we were seated, is an extension of the bar and is noisy, cramped and devoid of ambience.
Our server seemed to be a longtime employee. He was harried and curt and at one point tossed a bread basket onto our table. And when I say he tossed it I mean it left his hand, was airborne for a moment and then landed on the black-and-white checked tablecloth next to us. (Another time I saw him go by with two glasses of wine in one hand, a cocktail in the other and a bottle of beer crooked in his armpit.) For a good part of our meal a table nearby sat stacked with dirty plates and utensils waiting for someone to take them back to the kitchen.
The menu hasn't changed much over the years, though the appetizer list has grown. It originally had Shrimp Cocktail and Minestrone soup (both still available) along with those venerable appetizers of Grapefruit Juice, Orange Juice and Tomato Juice.
Our meal included a house salad, also tossed but more appropriately so, with a choice of dressings. We each chose steaks, of course, but different cuts. One of my friends had the Filet Mignon, wrapped with bacon, and another chose the Special T-bone, which includes only the strip side, making it special indeed. I went with the Ribeye because I appreciate a fattier cut.
All were cooked perfectly, especially my ribeye, which had a crustier crust. I tasted the other two, but I liked mine best.
And we all liked the Baked Potatoes that we ordered as a side dish, though they needed more butter.
Linda's isn't a cheap night out. That special T-bone that was $3.95 on the original menu is now $32; my Ribeye cost $34. Those are not outrageous prices for good meat nicely prepared. They don't reflect the surroundings or the level of service, however.
The restaurant is run by some of Linda Seng's children and has been for years. Linda stopped going to the restaurant when the state smoking laws changed and she was no longer allowed to have a cigarette in her own bar. She died in 2011.
Judging from the crowds, the smoking laws didn't stop many others from going to La Cantina.
Linda's La Cantina is at 4721 E. Colonial Drive, Orlando. It is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday. The phone number is 407-894-4491.