At Jernigan’s, Game On!

For a certain type of person, dining at Amway Center’s glitzy flagship restaurant is even better than watching the Magic play.

I’ll come right out and say it: I’m not a sports fan.

I don’t follow teams, and I can’t get excited about who won what game when. Honestly, the last time I was in a stadium at all was in 1963, when my father took me to the final game at the Polo Grounds in New York, and we sat in the bleachers while I watched rabid Mets fans tear the seats out of the place. Now, that’s entertainment! The actual game, not so much.

So it was a revelation to walk into the brand-spanking-new, expensive and expansive Amway Center, with its $480-million price tag showing in every glistening detail and open space. Being the dining guy, I was struck by the food options at every turn as I walked—briskly, it’s really big—along the five well-lit and spacious concourse levels. It takes a lot to feed upwards of 18,000 cheering fans a night from the center’s eight bars, two dozen concession stands, catering service (for private suites) and the big restaurant called Jernigan’s. And the folks at the Amway do it so well that it’s almost like a high-end mall that just happens to have an arena in the middle.

Jernigan’s is a 300-seat, multi-leveled space offering food at “chef’s tables,” a fancy way of saying buffet, with an open carving station kitchen and several serving areas with a revolving menu.

There is a sense of Orlando history in the restaurant, with vestiges of Church Street’s past scattered throughout the décor: a sign from Rosie O’Grady’s Good Time Emporium, the beloved saloon in the old Church Street Station entertainment complex, and a window rescued from Lili Marlene’s, a once-famous restaurant next door to Rosie’s. The Amway restaurant’s name itself refers to the original name of Orlando and its first settler, Aaron Jernigan.

But it’s hard to keep all that history in mind when you walk into the restaurant. Tables on three glass-bordered levels extend right out into the enormous technology-filled arena space (there was a small blimp inside!). Practically every seat has an unobstructed and—when combined with the towering high-definition, 360-degree scoreboard spaceship thing hanging mid-court—sensory-overloading view. Forget Hollywood, this is 3-D! Even I paid attention to the game, partially because when the home team scores the noise is enough to knock the food out of your mouth, and you need to be prepared. And I mean that in a good way.

Executive chef John Nicely oversees the food service throughout the Center, but takes special pride in this flagship space, seeking out local ingredients when available, such as Zellwood corn, Winter Park Dairy cheese and decadent cakes from Orlando’s own Dessert Lady (whose café is on West Church Street).

The bill at Jernigan’s is a surprisingly affordable $35.95 for unlimited plates, not including desserts ($10 each) or wine. The high point on my visit: the Butchers Block station, with savory hickory-smoked beef tenderloin as succulent as the best steak house offering, hand-carved Niman Ranch turkey (I went back three times) and a wild mushroom ragout I’ve been trying to duplicate at home ever since. The Orlando Farmers Market station showcased the WPD cheeses, local fruits and lovely roasted beets, and the Taste of Italy stand served up very rich rigatoni with vodka sauce and a perfectly executed squash risotto. Unfortunately, the Asian Celebrations station was a miss, not much better than food court-level dishes, and I hope it will improve.

Jernigan’s is on the Club Level of the Amway, where seat prices are rather high, but even a $5 Promenade section ticket lets you reserve at Jernigan’s. There are two seatings, the first 90 minutes prior to game time; servers and managers are extremely polite but persuasive when suggesting that tables might be needed for that second, game-starting-time seating. So I recommend buying one of the nosebleed tickets, then making a reservation for tip-off and having a lovely meal from some eye-popping seats.

Jernigan’s is open for an hour after game time, but stops serving alcohol after the third period, as do all the concession areas except the Amway’s two outdoor bars, the upper-deck One 80 and the mid-level Gentleman Jack Terrace bar. Both offer views of the skyline and serve nightcaps, so you can end an enjoyable evening with a refreshingly big-city feel.

I walked into the new arena looking for a meal, not a basketball game. But I was surprised to find that I enjoyed both, and dining at Jernigan’s is worth the price of admission.

Categories: Dining