I’m a travel writer, so you rely on me to discover the undiscovered. A boutique hotel on a private island. Secret savings for, or way to skip the lines at, a major attraction. A hole-in-the-wall eatery that only the locals frequent.
Doing my job means each meal is an uncertain foray into uncharted territory. For every recommended restaurant, my stomach endures tens if not hundreds of genuinely awful meals.
Which makes a really good chain restaurant my guilty pleasure. It”s the same feeling as discovering "Crossing Jordan" or "ER" playing, in English, on your Tokyo hotel room TV — the good-enough-ness that comes with familiarity.
For those nights when you want a known quantity, here are our top picks in Orlando. Their food quality is good, the predictability even better. And in some cases, e.g. the Rainforest Cafe, the atmosphere fabulous!
On my way to get a sweet potato, I had to nudge my way through a small clutch of teens waiting anxiously near the bread station. Ruling out the possibility Sting was the guest baker that evening or that bran intake had suddenly become the hottest facebook topic, I leaned in and learned they were waiting for that night’s special dessert item: peanut butter chocolate chip muffin cookies.
I share their enthusiasm about this $8 all-you-can-eat soup and salad buffet, if for reasons best understood by those who distinguish deep green lettuce from nutrient-devoid white ones. The wide variety of fruits and vegetables are very fresh and fairly ripe, and everything is presented in a pristinely clean environment. If a pea falls out of the bowl, or salad dressing is dripped on to the counter, a staff member cleans it almost immediately.
There are always at least four varieties of muffins, soups, pastas, prepared salads and desserts including mac & cheese, Indian lentil, potato leek, deep kettle chili, tangy lemon muffins, sourdough bread, potatoes, soft-serve ice cream, and Jello. I’m less enthusiastic about the quality of the pasta and soups, yet still, they are steps above packaged foods.
So many concept restaurants, so little time … My mother jumped when the thunder cracked, the rain began and the gorillas began their UHG-UHGing. She had never been through one of the cafe’s simulated storms. My daughter, thrilled at being the one with more experience, for once, proceeded to take her on a tour of the entire restaurant — the big neon globe, the brightly colored fish reminiscent of a Disney movie, the animals crouching amongst the foliage and, of course, the gift shop.
After ordering tropical drinks in light-up souvenir cups and entrees that had more flair than the usual theme restaurant, we marveled at how good the set design was, how friendly and knowledgeable the service staff were — especially considering the unbelievable crowds. The food turned out to be much better than expected. We had a crisp green salad, fresh cheese quesadillas and a very very spicy pasta dish.
Of all the kid-focused theme restaurants, this is one of my daughter’s absolute favorites.
A few words of wisdom:
- Ask your Orlando hotel concierge if they have a little Rainforest Cafe VIP card for you. This cuts your wait time in half if not more. If you plan on coming at least three times, join their club, as this entitles you to a discount and also a jump in the line.
- The portions are huge. Unless you regularly eat Texas-size plates all by yourself, consider splitting an entrée.
The Hard Rock can stake a claim no other chain restaurant can — each location is very unique because of the individual music memorabilia adorning the walls. The Orlando location is even more unique than most because it has a secret John Lennon room accessible only to private parties and an occasional adoring fan who convinces a tour guide the time taken will be appreciated.
Despite the 45-minute wait you are sure to encounter (go way before you are hungry), any music fan should eat at this particular location at least once. It’s the world’s biggest HRC, which makes it the one that has the most memorabilia, including one of Roger Daltrey‘s outfits (he was quite thin), the Red Fender Mustang used by Jimi Hendrix, the hand-written lyrics to "Let It Be," and the original Woodstock poster. There’s also plenty for modern listeners, but since that’s not my era you have to go and check it out for yourself.
For the truly devout, it might drive you crazy to know the Hard Rock Memorabilia warehouse is tucked away in a nondescript office building just a few miles from the restaurant.
The food is fine, but with all the music videos blaring, tomorrow’s Sid Vicious serving (yes parents, your kids will love the Goth multi-pierced looks sported by almost all the staff) and logo merch, you don’t come here for the meal anyway.
A San Franciscan wouldn’t go just anywhere for their sourdough, a Sox fan wouldn’t watch any old baseball game, and a New Yorker certainly isn’t going to settle for just any slice.
CPK’s pizza is more California gourmet than thick New York or deep Chicago with a relatively thin crust and broad choice of innovative topping combos. I stick with the boring 5-cheese, but the rest of my family loves the Cajun (with Andouille sausage and a Creole sauce) and Santa Fe Chicken. There is also an extensive choice of salads and pastas with equally eclectic flavors.
The kids menu is reasonably priced ($3.99) with the usual suspects and a few refreshing options for kids, unlike mine, who will actually eat something that is not white, fried or completely bland.
Its location in an upscale mall a few exits beyond Theme Park Orlando means there is rarely a wait.
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Samantha Chapnick is a New York writer who scours international destinations looking for what hasn’t been found.