The Waterfront: Mighty Mouthwatering
Some impressive food heroes team up lakeside to make the reinvented Waterfront a success.
Over the past couple of years we’ve lost several historic landmarks of the Orlando culinary scene. Lido’s Italian, Park Plaza Gardens, Gargi’s Lakeside and Paco’s, legacies from the 1970s and ’80s, all shut their doors due to economic woes or just plain age.
Julie’s Waterfront opened waaaaayyy back in 1988, serving oysters, sandwiches and seafood. Over the decades the casual lakeside eatery on the banks of Lake Jennie Jewel settled like a well-worn pair of slippers into the “funky” category. Even lifelong area residents have only a hazy recollection of passing by the place as they sped along Orange Avenue (blink and you will miss it), but we often used to stop there on our way back home from the airport for an acceptable fish sandwich, a bottle of beer and contemplation over tranquil waters.
Drop the eponymous name, spiff up the interior a bit, and raise the food level far above acceptable, and you have The Waterfront.
Think of the revamped kitchen as “The Avengers” of Orlando food. Pat Kennedy, he of Wall Street Plaza’s WaiTiki bar (which he still oversees), is billed as chef/partner, while chef Matt Wall, the everything-from-scratch artist formerly of North Quarter Tavern; master charcuterie maker A.J. Haines, who fine-tuned the house-cured fare at Wolfie’s Pizzamia; and former Citrus Restaurant executive chef Alex Meyer make up an extraordinary bank of talent, cooking what Kennedy calls “regular, simple American food” that is far from simple.
Everything that can be made in-house, is. Haines says he does most of the butchering and charcuterie, while Wall restates a goal he first told me about back in his North Quarter days: “I want to make the best $15 food in the city.” He refers to his cooking as “half art, half blue-collar.”
Take the burger ($13). It should be a simple thing, but at Waterfront it is the essence, the definition of burger, every component taste cranked into overdrive. From the hand-ground chuck to house-cured bacon, layered with stretchy Swiss, tangy blue cheese and slow-caramelized onion, it comes close to having too much flavor. But it doesn’t.
A superb bit of Atlantic cod stars in the fish and chips ($14), the beer batter crisp but not overpowering the very flavorful fish. Blackened sweet, clean-tasting river-raised catfish ($15.50) is served with sautéed kale and cheddar grits (a critical note: the grits need to be stepped up, there is far better quality available). Cured capicola and smoked fish, fresh made pickles, aged salume, even hot sauce are all made in-house and often complement dishes without overpowering any.
The former Julie’s still has a weathered, fish camp feel that is slowly being updated with fresh floors, new windows and hand-built tables. It’s an odd part of town, south of South Of Downtown Orlando (SODO), where building material yards and auto supply stores share road frontage with Dining Award-winner Beth’s Burger Bar and the legendary Le Coq Au Vin. Kennedy says he’d been trying to buy the spot for four years, finally getting the chance earlier this year. His fiscal partners own several downtown restaurants and clubs, as well as a sports and entertainment production company, so expect community-based outdoor events on the lake to add to the festivities.
The only event I foresee in my future is the eating of a splendid Waterfront catfish sandwich while enjoying the lakeside view.
Most of the time, The Waterfront’s menu extends to the handcrafted staples of sandwich, burger and well-made entrée. But on the last Monday of each month, the chefs are given free rein to leave the menu behind, and the results are impressive. The September Oktoberfest-themed dinner featured rabbit schnitzel, house-made sausage, beef sauerbraten and apple strudel.