Written by Scott Joseph on .

Portillo ext

Not too long ago I told you about my experience visiting the Orlando White Castle and how baffling I found its popularity.

But on the same evening I trekked across the parking lot to another Central Florida newcomer, Portillo’s, the Chicago-style beef and hot doggerie. And I liked it a lot.

Portillo’s began in 1963 when Dick Portillo opened a wiener stand called The Dog House in Villa Park, Ill., in metropolitan Chicago. Eventually he slapped his own name on it and soon after a chain was born. There are now more than 70 locations, most still in Illinois. Besides Orlando, there are Florida Portillo’s in Brandon, Tampa and St. Petersburg.

John & John's

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Johnjohns ext

SoDo seems to be becoming Orlando’s pizza district. It was already home to Brick & Fire and Cornerstone on the eastern edge of the district. In the last year or so we’ve seen the opening of Buttercrust, Frenchy’s Wood-Fired and SoDough Square, which opened just a few months ago.

If you stood in front of SoDough you could throw a ball of mozzarella down Michigan Street and hit the newest pie maker, John & John’s.

The Johns of the name are Markaj and Cavallini (only they know which is the first John and which is the second). They are also the owners of Cavo’s Bar & Kitchen in Thornton Park. John & John’s – subtitled A Pizza Shop – took over the space that was formerly Mediterranean Blue.

Eola Lounge

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Eola Lounge ext

I’ve learned to be leery of the restaurant space that sits midblock in the building that houses the Sanctuary Condominiums. It’s been home to so many restaurants in the past 14 or so years – some with very brief stays and three that announced they would open but never did – that I no longer get my hopes up.

And the name of the latest occupant, Eola Lounge, doesn’t exactly exude culinary confidence or creativity. Such a name tells me the owners are more interested in a drinking clientele so any food served would be secondary. But when I found myself in the area looking for a place to eat after my destination restaurant was unexpectedly closed, I decided to give it a try.

I liked it very much.

Victoria & Albert's

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VA22 entry

Victoria & Albert’s, the crown jewel of Walt Disney Resort restaurants, named for someone who wore the actual Crown Jewels, has finally returned to the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa after its pandemic-forced closure and a renovation that has refreshed and revitalized the 34-year-old dining room.

Other changes have occurred, too.

Now in charge of the kitchen as chef de cuisine in the role that was defined by Scott Hunnel is Matthew Sowers, who was recruited by Hunnel more than a decade ago. (Aimee Rivera was chef de cuisine when the restaurant closed in 2020; she has left the company. Hunnel was promoted to an executive chef position that oversees culinary operations at several resorts, including the Grand Floridian.) The other major personnel change is Kristine Farmer as pasty chef, replacing Erich Herbitschek, who retired.

But we have a long way to go before we talk about pastries because some things about Victoria & Albert’s remain the same, including that dinner here is an evening-long affair.

White Castle

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WhiteCastle ext

I finally broke down and visited the new White Castle that opened a few months ago in the Flamingos Crossing area near Walt Disney World. I intentionally waited until the initial hoopla waned a bit. When it first opened there were rumors of eight hour waits to get food. I will do a lot of things for you, Gentle Diner, but waiting that long for a miniature burger is not among them. Heck, I wouldn’t even wait eight hours to get into Victoria & Albert’s (which, by the way, recently reopened; I’ll have that review next week).

And besides, it isn’t like White Castle isn’t a known commodity. It’s popular for its tiny, square burgers that initially had a reputation of being so small and greasy that they just slid down one’s gullet, bringing the term slider into our lexicon.

Magical Dining Recommendation: Tap Room at Dubsdread

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taproom prime rib

It doesn’t take a lot to convince people to go to the Tap Room at Dubsdread. It’s one of the area’s most popular and most celebrated restaurants, known for its casual atmosphere that belies the high quality of its food.

But of course Visit Orlando’s Magical Dining offers an extra reason to visit the College Park mainstay, especially because the prime rib, which is usually offered only on weekends, is available daily during the promotion.

Fredster's featuring Adrian Mann's Bar & Grill

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I guess it really shouldn’t be too difficult to determine whether Fredster’s, a new venue in Maitland wants to be known as an entertainment spot that serves food or a restaurant with entertainment. It says right there in the logo under the name Fredster’s (in smaller letters), “featuring Adrian Mann’s Bar & Grill.”

You’d think that Mann would warrant higher billing. If truth were to be known, the small chain of restaurants (that also had entertainment) that were known as Dexter’s really probably should have been called Adrian’s. Mann was Dexter Richardson’s partner for many years and in the time that led to the recent breakup and selling of the brand it was Mann who was pretty much running things.

And I was a fan of Dexter’s and its food, which satisfied but didn’t overreach, didn’t try to be more than it needed to be. Unfortunately, the food at Fredster’s needs to be more than it is.

Magical Dining Recommendation: Russell's on Lake Ivanhoe

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Russells exterior

One of the questions I’m asked most frequently – not as much as “What’s your favorite restaurant?” but more than “How come you’re not fat” and “Really, you’re still writing reviews? I thought you were retired/dead.” – is “Is there anything new in town?”

And I’m surprised when I ask in return if they’ve been to Russell’s on Lake Ivanhoe and they say they haven’t heard of it. It’s been open two years, now, so it’s high time you gave it a try. Visit Orlando’s Magical dining is a good excuse.


Written by Scott Joseph on .

Unreserved door

I was invited recently to dine at Unreserved Food Bazaar at the JW Marriott Bonnet Creek and I have to say it wasn’t at all what I was expecting it to be.

I knew that it featured multiple food stations in a marketplace atmosphere, so I was thinking it was going to be like a typical food court where diners go up to a food counter, order and pay and then have a seat to wait for the food to be delivers.

Nope, not that at all.

Magical Dining Recommendation: BoVine

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BoVine is just the sort of restaurant I look for when Visit Orlando’s Magical Dining comes around. It’s an upscale, fine dining restaurant where many of the a la carte menu items are already in the $40 range, so you know you’re going to get a terrific deal with three courses for that price. For many people, this is a great opportunity to try a really good restaurant.

In my original review of BoVine, I mentioned how much I liked the Applewood Smoked Bacon Slab, similar to a popular appetizer at famed Peter Luger Steak House in Brooklyn. It’s one of the starter choices on the Park Avenue restaurant’s Magical Dining menu and I recommend it heartily. Bovine’s Caesar Salad is another good choice.