Why did they have to call it World of Beer?
Yes, I know, that's the name of the franchise, so when it opens a new location, it tends to use that name.
But if ever there was a name that screamed Joe Six-Pack, it's World of Beer. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but for an establishment that has taken over what was for decades the jewel of the downtown dining scene, you'd expect something a little more extraordinary.
The location in question is the former Lee's Lakeside, which overlooks Lake Eola and its multicolored fountain and Orlando's downtown skyline beyond. Long one of the city's favorite special occasion restaurants, it closed a couple of years after owner Lethia "Lee" Rose, the restaurant's heart and soul, died in 2003. In 2009, Manny Tato, who had taken over Rose's other restaurant, Lake Eola Yacht Club (now Spice Modern), opened Pesca in the moderately remodeled space. But that restaurant never found a following and closed after a brief period.
I'll admit that my heart sank a bit when I heard that it would become a World of Beer location, even though, admittedly, I'd never stepped foot inside one before. But I knew instinctively that it was beer centric — I have a knack for that sort of thing — and I knew, too, that WOB was not known for doing food. Bar snacks, but not much more.
But a couple of things gave me encouragement. One is that it was announced early on that the renovations would include a new patio overlooking the lake. The city had for years tried to get Rose to add a patio, but she didn't see the need. The popularity of the patio at LEYC/Spice Modern showed what a positive addition one could be. Second, this WOB would feature a more ambitious food menu, including full entrees.
The patio was indeed built, and it is indeed a terrific outdoor dining option. And the menu in fact is more extensive than you'll find at most of the other World of Beers (Worlds of Beer?).
The food is, for the most part, less than extraordinary. Take for example the steak frites that I tried on one of my visits. The meat was cooked to the requested medium-rare, sliced into strips, and accompanied by fries, of course, and some broccoli florets. The meat was tender enough, but lacked much seasoning or flavor. The fries, too, were bland. And the broccoli was dry.
But temper all that with knowing the price of 15 bucks and it has to be seen for what it is: An ample amount of food of good-enough quality to help fill the belly of someone who is there primarily to drink beer.
The Chimay burger that I had on a lunch visit, sitting outside with a lovely view of the lake, was a better option as far as food quality. Despite its billing of being a half-pounder, the patty didn't quite match the girth of the toasted brioche bun. But it was a juicy bit of meat, pretty close to the requested temperature, topped with cheese made with Chimay beer, a Belgian brew, sauteed mushrooms and caramelized onions. A gherkin sat on top of the bun with a frilly pick speared into it, Sword-in-the-Stonelike. The accompanying fries this time had some seasonings sprinkled upon. I wouldn't put it on the list of Orlando's best burgers, but it would be my choice the next time I stop in.
And that's a distinct possibility, as this World of Beer has obviously become a fast meeting spot for downtowners. The space fits the theme, if not necessarily the locale. Besides the brilliant addition of the patio, the two-level interior features a bar "upstairs" and another larger, more central one down in the well-windowed main area.
Beers, of course, are the focal point, and there are easily 40-plus draft options at any time. Unfortunately for the bartenders, the taps are distributed between the two bars, so they do a lot of running back and forth. But I quizzed my bartender on my evening visit and her knowledge of the available beers was good. She recommended the beer I would have chosen myself with only a few hints of the type that I usually drink.
I would rather have liked to see a more worthy replacement for Lee's Lakeside, an elegant dining room that could equal the quality of the view. But the days of such restaurant are waning. If it had to be World of Beer, I'm pleased that the owners put enough effort to make it a festive one, and that they are at least offering the option of a full dining experience to accompany the brews.
World of Beer Downtown is at 431 E. Central Blvd., Orlando. It is open for lunch and dinner daily. The website includes beer and food menus, the latter with prices. The online beer list is kept impressively updated. The phone number is 407-270-5541.