Orlando’s Hottest Dining Trends Right Now

A necessary shift away from in-person dining may forever revolutionize restaurants in Central Florida.

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Plant Street Market, Winter Garden, Photo By Roberto Gonzalez

Plant Street Market, Winter Garden, photo by Roberto Gonzalez

It’s been a strange two years for the food scene. Dalgona coffee and homemade bread satisfied culinary cravings during the first few months of 2020, but what the fads offered in fun, they lacked in true local flavor. When dining rooms reopened and resumed normal operations throughout the end of last year and into 2021, the local food scene was already knee-deep in new trends, but this time without the sourdough starter.

Diners traded indoor dining room seats for patio tables overlooking lakes, parks and vibrant city streets. Ghost kitchens made takeout more accessible and offered operators smaller overhead. Restaurants shifted—and maintained—to-go operations, even offering cocktails for at-home consumption. For those who wished to gather with friends they hadn’t seen for a while, food halls took the stress out of finding a spot everyone agreed upon. When the pandemic complicated day-to-day life, Orlando responded with a simple solution: accessible food.

The Rise of the Ghost Kitchen

The best new spot to get a fresh-from-the-kitchen meal isn’t a true “spot” at all. The pandemic accelerated the growth of the ghost kitchen, a concept that operates solely on delivery and takeout with no dine-in space.

Take TenderShack. This new concept serves crispy chicken tenders and an array of sauces without a storefront. Instead, these comfort food delicacies are crafted in the same kitchen where Carrabba’s prepares its Italian dishes on Vineland Road. Similarly, Guy Fieri’s Flavortown Kitchen isn’t found beside Chicken Guy at Disney Springs. Instead, chefs sling burgers and sandwiches at Bravo! Italian Kitchen in Maitland before sending them out for delivery.

Although a recent trend, the ghost kitchen isn’t new to Orlando. Kitchen AF has been preparing a variety of dishes for pickup or delivery out of Winter Park and Lake Mary since 2019, and Ghost Kitchen Orlando offers scratch-made meals from a space on Southland Boulevard. This year, Dollins Food Hall, a virtual food hall, added White Castle, Birria1983, Yugiri Ramen Project and more to the mix.

Dollins Food Hall, Photo By Roberto Gonzalez

Dollins Food Hall, photo by Roberto Gonzalez

A Focus on Al Fresco Dining

Yes, Central Florida is hot much of the year. But after months of dining isolation, clothed in sweatpants and surrounded by crumbs on the couch, sweltering temps somehow feel like less of a deterrent than they previously were. Even as some dining rooms opened for full or limited operations, Orlando diners took to patio tables in droves to support their favorite local spots.

Of course, the heat is also more tolerable when dinner comes with a view. From the sprawling Wine Bar George at Disney Springs, complete with 140 wines and a front row seat to the action below and lake views beyond, to spots with small town charm, like historic-home-turned-restaurant 1921 Mount Dora, there are myriad options for a bite outdoors.

For sparkling lake vistas, Canvas in Lake Nona delivers. Complete with romantic market lights, this casual spot serves homestyle favorites such as sweet-tea-brined fried chicken sandwiches and refreshing salads, all with the added bonus of sunset views. Similarly, The Waterfront, nestled on Lake Jennie Jewel, offers a reprieve from the sun under a covered patio, where diners can enjoy a variety of fresh fish and a selection of cold brews.

On cooler evenings, a hearty meal awaits on the cozy covered patio of Yellow Dog Eats. This Gotha hotspot is known for its scratch-made barbecue, best enjoyed in a sandwich, wrap or taco. A similar vibe—and tacos!—can be found at The Whole Enchilada in Winter Garden. The local favorite slings burritos, crunch wraps and quesadillas on an eclectic patio where the heat is best tackled with an ice-cold margarita and views of charming Plant Street below.

Handcrafted Cocktails at Home

When the restaurant industry threatened to crash at the dawn of the pandemic, legislation soon allowed food service businesses to package cocktails to-go. Central Florida applauded the move with glasses raised.

Happy hour at home became the standard. The Courtesy, a craft cocktail bar in the heart of the city, pivoted operations from stirring drinks indoors to sending them out the doors into the homes of faithful patrons.

To recreate the ambiance delivered by an evening of wine and cocktails on Park Avenue, Prato added spirited beverages to its takeout menu. In addition to a selection of wine by the bottle, the to-go menu features seasonal cocktails to accompany scratch-made pizza and pasta.

In the Mills 50 area, Sunroom offered a selection of specialty cocktails, as well as t-shirts and tote bags at the bottle shop, open from 4 p.m. to midnight daily. Tip: Call ahead to confirm availability.

A margarita always tastes better when prepared by professionals, and Hunger Street Tacos ensured their tamales and quesadillas wouldn’t be delivered without something to wash them down. In addition to Mexican-style street fare, the restaurant’s to-go menu was adapted to include house-made drinks, such as prickly pear margaritas and red and white sangria.

All that’s missing is the fancy—or not—glass of choice. When at home, anything goes.

Supporting Local From the Couch

Although takeout meals are by no means a new concept, the past two years saw a rise in food pickup and delivery. As dining rooms closed, takeout became the preferred method in supporting local businesses to ensure their longevity on the other side of the storm. Many restaurants have kept pickup and delivery options for their menus even as dining rooms reopen, proving the value in catering to customers both in-person and at home.

Local delis continue to be a staple for grab-and-go meals. At Stasio’s Italian Deli & Market in the Milk District and Corelli’s Restaurant in Clermont, options include meatball subs that weigh in at a couple of pounds to big-as-your-face pizza slices. As an added bonus, there are pantry supplies to craft gourmet Italian meals at home, including cheeses, fresh-from-the-oven bread, pasta, oils and more. 

Four Rivers Smokehouse also offers a selection of hearty takeout meals to feed the family. Burnt ends, pulled pork and homestyle sides deliver comfort food that warms diners to their very cores. For those who play host during the holidays, meal packages take the pressure off by providing smoked turkey, mashed potatoes and ready-to-serve sides.

In the Mills 50 district, Pig Floyd’s adds a bit of flair to the ordinary bento box through offerings such as oak wood-smoked pulled pork and ribs or chopped chicken. And while there’s also the option to get bento boxes from Bento Asian Kitchen + Sushi’s several locations around Orlando, the build-your-own-poke bowls present plenty of options to easily customize a variety of meals.

One Space, More Choices

As Orlando returns to in-person gatherings with friends, food halls continue to grow in popularity. The wide selection of fast-casual favorites takes the stress out of coordinating a restaurant option that suits everyone’s dietary needs, so there’s no need to leave anyone out.

East End Market, Orlando’s first true food hall concept, can be found in a charming building in Audubon Park. Home to cult-favorite, half-pound Gideon’s Bakehouse cookies and locally roasted Lineage Coffee, this eclectic spot is ideal for an afternoon picnic at the outdoor tables.

Skyebird Juice Bar prepares fresh smoothies, juices and plant-based meals, and Farm & Haus serves healthy comfort food. For not-so-healthy comfort food, consider a Japanese mochi doughnut from Dochi or a bite from the newly opened Winter Park Biscuit Company, serving diner-style vegan food like Chik biscuit sandwiches and plant-based burgers. 

Further south at Lake Nona Town Center, a collection of vibrant shipping containers continue to draw evening and weekend crowds to Boxi Park for burgers, brews and seafood set to the backdrop of live music. When you visit, be sure to snap a photo with the colorful wings across the street, painted by artist Colette Miller as part of the Global Angel Wings Project.

Across town in the heart of Historic Winter Garden, Plant Street Market offers shopping, dining and drinks all in one spot. From a quick caffeine stop at Axum Coffee to happy hour at the award-winning Crooked Can Brewery, there’s a variety of offerings to satisfy all parties.

Given the popularity of the existing food halls, it’s no surprise that this trend is here to stay. Marketplace at Avalon Park recently opened in East Orlando and five more spots are slated to open soon, including Bumby Arcade (downtown), Gatlin Hall Brewing (SoDo), The Food Factory (Oviedo), Hall on the Yard (Ivanhoe) and Milkhouse (Milk District).

Now, more than ever, eating local is more accessible. A dinner date could be as easy as ordering takeout from a favorite spot or ghost kitchen, complete with a side of cocktails to-go. And for those times when a meal would simply taste better with friends, al fresco dining and food halls present alternatives to traditional restaurant settings. Supporting the local culinary scene has never been easier—or more delicious.

Categories: Dining Awards