The Legend Lives on
A classic steakhouse, Linda’s La Cantina is Orlando’s oldest restaurant and, still, one of its best.
There aren’t any billboards, historical markers or flashing neon signs proclaiming the existence of Orlando’s oldest restaurant, just a red and white sign that says “Linda’s La Cantina” and a one-story brown building tucked into the corner of East Colonial Drive and Lake Baldwin Lane. Only a few non-restaurant concerns can claim a longer life: the nearby T.G. Lee Dairy opened in 1925 and kept cows in pastures within sight of La Cantina; Chamberlin’s Market started selling “health food” on East Church Street in 1935.
The La Cantina story began in 1946, when a grocer named Joseph D’Agostino escaped the cold winters of Massachusetts and opened an Italian restaurant (contrary to what most think, La Cantina isn’t Spanish, but Italian for “wine cellar”). He sold it to Rudy Seng in 1947 to start the fabled Villa Nova restaurant in Winter Park, while Seng added his wife’s name and his to the sign and rechristened the business Edie and Rudy’s La Cantina. The menu transformed into full-on steakhouse fare in the 1950s, and the name changed to Al and Linda’s La Cantina when Rudy died in 1972 and his son and daughter-in-law bought the place.
La Cantina was famous for its lack of space. Orlando attorney Hal Morlan remembers standing on the East Colonial sidewalk in the mid-’70s, waiting for a table. “The hosts would bring out a jug of red wine and a stack of Dixie cups and pass them around,” he says. “Everyone would drink and talk and watch the traffic go by.” Al and Linda replaced the tiny pink-and-white building with a larger space in 1979; ultimately, when divorce split the couple in 1985, Linda’s name took eminence. The restaurant was gutted by fire in 1994, then rebuilt by the family.
Linda Seng retired 10 years ago, and her
daughter Karen Hart is now part of the latest generation keeping the tradition alive. “It’s complicated,” she replies when I ask her who runs the restaurant. “It’s a family business.” Sisters Lorie Coley and Debra Tassoni have separate but equal responsibilities, and Hart’s husband, Steve, can be found in the kitchen, where he hand-cuts the famous steaks.
I asked Hart: will it ever become something like Karen’s La Cantina?
“No way!” Hart exclaims. “Not a chance! I’m not interested in reinventing the wheel. We just keep the wheel turning.”
When I visited on a chilly Friday night, the wheel was being steered by a tiny white-haired woman at the front desk, leaning so close to the reservation book that her face practically touched the page. Evelyn Murray, who has been at the restaurant since 1964, found my name and shouted out, “Table for two! It’ll just be a minute, dear, maybe a few.”
La Cantina is old-school steakhouse. Sports-playing televisions and martini-peddling, best-friend-making waiters are conspicuously absent; the Art of the Deal is practiced elsewhere. The menu runs to two pages, there are no specials and the drink options list includes the words “House wine: $5 a glass.” Groups of eight and 10, white hair and jewelry gleaming, fill long tables in the center of the white-walled space, while younger couples with babies perched on knees sit in booths. Hand-drawn murals of mid-20th century Orlando—Lake Eola in 1957, the Naval Training Center in the ’60s—surround the dining room, as do photos from the 1950s and before. The dress code runs from baseball caps turned backwards to golf shirts and well-tailored suits. This is a bustling restaurant with one purpose—eating.
Dinner starts with Creole-seasoned spicy shrimp ($9), a school of six broiled beauties swimming in melted butter, and a wonderfully dark French onion soup ($7), topped with a melted cap of mozzarella hot enough to char that little dangly bit behind your teeth.
Don’t look for Wagyu or Kobe on the menu; USDA choice is as close as La Cantina gets to steak buzz words. I ordered the surf-and-turf combo ($40), an 8-ounce tenderloin filet placed alongside a generous serving of red snapper. They were both lightly seasoned and charred on a very hot grill, simply and perfectly cooked. No $30 bowls of creamed spinach at this steakhouse—the plate comes with a choice of spaghetti, steamed veggies or potato, and I haven’t seen such a perfect specimen of crispy-skinned baked potato in a very long time. Diet be damned, I will take the sour cream and more butter, thank you.
To be inclusive, we tried the yellow fin tuna ($20). A little seasoned salt and scant seconds on the blistering grill were all it took to create a filet of rare fish that was very nice indeed. And all I really need to say is hot, gooey dark chocolate cake for dessert ($6.50).
“We’re the third generation running this restaurant,” Karen Hart says, “and we have third generation customers too.”
To judge from those young couples with babies I saw in La Cantina’s dining room, the fourth and fifth generations are already getting in line, and a wonderful meal will be waiting.
Linda’s La Cantina
ADDRESS 4721 E. Colonial Drive, Orlando