17 must-try restaurants in Orlando, from Italian to barbecue and ramen

This week marks my one-year anniversary as an Orlando resident. I’ll admit, before moving here, I thought most of the city’s culinary offerings were national chains.

I’ll admit, I was very wrong.

To celebrate my one-year Orlando-versary, I’m sharing 17 spots that truly showcase the local flavor, from half-pound cookies to homemade ramen and barbecue in a bento box. Whether you’re an Orlando local looking for a new date-night locale or just moved into town, here are a few recommendations to add to your list:

Check for seasonal specials at 4 Rivers Smokehouse, like the baked potato piled high with pulled pork (pictured).

(1) 4 Rivers Smokehouse

400 S. Orange Ave., 874 W. Osceola Pkwy., 220 Park Ave., 11764 University Blvd., 1047 South Dillard Street, 1600 W. Fairbanks Ave.

Having moved to Orlando from North Carolina, I immediately set out to find authentic barbecue. 4 Rivers Smokehouse delivers. You’ll find everything from brisket to pulled pork and burnt ends, complete with sides like cornbread, cheese grits, mac and cheese and french fries. While you’re eating, catch the restaurant’s featured episode on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives playing on TVs throughout the space. And don’t forget dessert: The cookies and cupcakes offer a sweet complement to a savory meal.

Order: Burnt Ends (brisket shredded with pulled pork, smothered with signature BBQ sauce and re-smoked to perfection)

Is there anything more satisfying than a chilled cup of ice cream under the Orlando sun?

 (2) Boxi Park

6877 Tavistock Lakes Blvd.

My first official Orlando “meal” was a cup of ice cream from Boxi Park, which, looking back, is exceptionally on-brand. Boxi Park is an outdoor food hall constructed of recycled shipping containers. Here, you’ll find live music, food and drinks all in the heart of the Lake Nona Town Center. From empanadas to seafood to burgers, you can find something for everyone in your party. And if you’re spending the afternoon in the hot Orlando sun, grab a soft serve ice cream from Before It Melts.

Order: Chocolate Monster from Before It Melts (chocolate soft serve, chocolate sauce, chocolate chips, caramelized chocolate)

Canvas Restaurant & Market offers dining with lake views.

(3) Canvas Restaurant & Market 

13615 Sachs Avenue

While I may be biased given my proximity to Canvas, it arguably serves some of the best bar food in town. Here, you can enjoy Latin-inspired Southern favorites like burgers, fried chicken, steak and salad, as well as a whole marketplace stocked with fresh espresso and dessert (think: Oreo brownies and seasonal cheesecake). Canvas doesn’t fit the mold of your typical “neighborhood bar.” There’s live music, lakeside dining, and the friendliest staff you’ll ever meet (looking at you, Jimmy and Leani). 

Order: Buttermilk Fried Chicken Sandwich (crispy fried chicken, house-made garlic dill pickles, chipotle mayo, fries)

Come for the sangria, stay for the food.

(4) Columbia Restaurant

649 Front Street

Nestled in the charming town of Celebration, this is a go-to spot after an afternoon by the lake. While this restaurant isn’t native to Orlando, its history lies in Tampa’s Ybor City, where a small 60-seat corner cafe grew into a dining room that hosted music, dancing and authentic Columbian food. Since then, the restaurant expanded to five locations across Florida, including the local space in Celebration. If you’re stopping in for a quick bite, you can enjoy wine and tapas, or stay for dinner and select from a hearty menu of meat and seafood dishes. 

Order: Sangria (prepared tableside) and Shrimp and Yellow Rice (wild-caught Gulf of Mexico shrimp baked with yellow rice, green peppers, onions, tomatoes, spices and extra virgin olive oil, splashed with white wine)

The secret to Domu’s success is its homemade noodles.

 (5) Domu

3201 Corrine Drive, 7600 Dr. Phillips Blvd.

I’ll admit, I’ve never had ramen before my trip to Domu, and to say I was pleasantly surprised would be an understatement. Located in the East End Market, this busy space is celebrated for its homemade noodles, which absolutely live up to the hype. The term “Domu” is slang for “a dream come true,” and that’s exactly how you’ll feel while inhaling any of the incredible dishes. Start with the Domu wings coated with kimchi butter sauce and the Sichuan cucumbers with sesame oil, fried garlic, sesame seeds and Japanese spices. Come early, the wait is always quite long — and for good reason.

Order: Tokyo (Shoyu chicken broth, fried chicken thigh, ajitama brulee, kikurage, seared garlic chives, infused duck fat, garlic scallion confit)

The perfect cookie resides at Gideon’s Bakehouse in the East End Market.

 (6) Gideon’s Bakehouse

3201 Corrine Dr.

There are truly no words to describe the magic of the cookies from Gideon’s Bakehouse. Let me paint you a picture instead: They weigh in at about a half-pound each. They’re smothered in chocolate chips and Oreo cookie crumbs. They’re essentially a big handful of butter. They’re absolutely the best cookie you will ever consume.

It took owner Steve Lewis 15 years to perfect this recipe, which is unquestionably the only cookie recipe that needs to exist. Look for the monthly specials (think: coffee cake, white chocolate mocha) and pair it with a handcrafted espresso drink from Lineage Coffee, just a few stalls down in the East End Market. Do not buy only one. Drop everything and go there immediately. And early, because they sell out daily.

Order: Original Chocolate Chip (this cookie has been named Best in Orlando and Best on Planet Earth) or Cookies & Cream (known as a “cult cookie” because people obsess over it and try to convert everyone else to do the same)

Start your Hawkers meal with steamed baos and Roti Canai.

 (7) Hawkers

54 W. Church Street, 9100 Conroy Windermere Road

Though there are Hawkers locations in different cities across the country, the original location resides in the Mills 50 district, which was started by four friends with a dream to redefine Asian eating in the States. Now, you can enjoy dishes inspired by “hawkers,” or street vendors who incorporate local ingredients into their dishes. Some of the menu items are even homemade family recipes passed down through the generations. Look for eclectic street fare favorites like the Roti Canai (Malaysian flatbread served with a side of signature curry sauce), steamed baos with Seoul hot chicken, and every noodle dish you could ever want.

Order: Yaki Udon (thick udon noodles with sliced chicken, eggs and veggies in a savory sauce with a chili finish) 

This magical bread is a meal in itself, but save room for the main course.

(8) Highball & Harvest

4012 Central Florida Pkwy.

Located inside The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes, this spot is pricier than the other restaurants on the list, but the ideal space for a fancy celebration. Start with the Parker House Rolls, which come with lemon-herb butter and cajun butter, and order a craft cocktail from mixologist Alexa Delgado, who’s a pretty big deal in the luxury cocktail scene. Tip: After dinner, walk of your meal and catch the sunset over the lake.

Order: Shrimp and Grits (Cape Canaveral rock shrimp, lowcountry broth, braised fennel, scallions)

Holy Grain Coffee has both incredible lattes and the perfect coffee shop ambiance.

(9) Holy Grain Coffee

6735 Conroy Road, Suite 109

I stumbled upon this little gem in Dr. Phillips one afternoon after catching the scent of rich espresso wafting from the storefront. The owner is from Brazil, where coffee is a part of every meal. An extensive menu includes coffees and espressos crafted from Brazilian and Columbian beans, and you can get everything from flavored lattes to cold brew. And if you’re looking for somewhere to spend an afternoon with friends or need the perfect coffee shop ambiance to draft your novel, pull up a chair.

Don’t forget to grab a pint or quart to go, so you can enjoy this homemade ice cream at home.

 (10) Kelly’s Homemade Ice Cream

119 N. Central Ave., 3114 Corrine Dr., 1817 S. Ferncreek Ave.

While I frequent the East End Market for my Gideon’s Bakehouse fix, I’d never noticed the quaint ice cream shop across the street. My realtor, Chris Winn — who’s as passionate about food as I am — recommended Kelly’s Ice Cream, located just steps from the market. The interior is reminiscent of a vintage ice cream shop, complete with 100+ handcrafted flavors and sorbets rotated throughout the seasons. Tip: Enjoy a cone in-store, then purchase a quart to go.

Order: Ore-Dough (vanilla ice cream with Oreo cookies and chocolate chip cookie dough)

mozzarella sticks with marinara sauce
Start your hearty Italian meal with an order of breadsticks, complete with homemade red sauce.

(11) Nonno’s Italian Restaurant

1140 E. Altamonte Drive, #1018, Altamonte

I was born into an Italian family, so finding authentic Italian is essential for survival. This is without a doubt the best Italian near Orlando (though it’s just outside in Altamonte, but worth the drive). If you dine in, you’ll be treated to a cozy space with booths, Frank Sinatra tunes and a neighborhood vibe. Order anything on the menu, because it’s all incredible, though the pasta is always my go-to. The portion sizes are huge (an indication of a true Italian restaurant), but I’d recommend saving room for dessert, because I’ve never enjoyed a more delicious chocolate cake in 27 years of existence.

Order: Shrimp Parmesan (comes with soup of the day, cross your fingers it’s the Italian Wedding because it’s incredible)

It’s healthy AND it tastes great.

(12) Olea Mediterranean Grill

2714 E. Colonial Dr., 1829 WP Ball Blvd., 400 S. Orlando Ave.

This fast-casual spot offers a modern spin on Mediterranean cuisine. Much like Bolay, you can build your own bowl, pita or salad. The real gem here is the homemade hummus, including both garlic and red pepper options. Start with a rice base, choose your protein (chicken, falafel, gyro, steak), then add toppings (feta, onions, pepperonchini) and handmade dressing to finish it off.

Order: Build-Your-Own Bowl

The secret to this magic slice is the cheese-on-cheese layering.

(13) Park Pizza & Brewing Co.

6941 Lake Nona Blvd., Suite 100

While I started ordering here out of convenience given its proximity to my Lake Nona residence, I always return because the wood-fired pizza is delish. Located just outside of Boxi Park in Lake Nona Town Center, this pizzeria doubles as a brewery and offers both indoor and outdoor seating, so you can spend the afternoon in the sunshine with a cold brew and a slice of perfection. The restaurant also recently launched sandwiches, so you can enjoy everything from homemade pies to hearty subs.

Order: Pepperoni Picante (San Marzano tomato sauce, grande mozzarella, pepperoni, banana peppers, chili flakes, parmesan)

Barbecue in a bento box: unique and delicious.

(14) Pig Floyd’s Urban Barbakoa

1326 N. Mills Ave.

Have you always dreamed of eating barbecue in a bento box? I’ll bet you are now that you’ve heard it’s an option. At Pig Floyd’s, you can enjoy a fusion of Asian and homestyle barbecue, which sounds odd at first, but is absolutely necessary. From urban tacos to brisket and bento boxes, you won’t leave hungry, and you’ll be back for more.

Order: #9 Mongolian Brisket Bento Box (served with Jasmine rice and cuban black beans, noodle salad, vegetarian spring rolls and honey sriracha)

Arguably the best meatballs on the planet.

(15) Fresco’s Cucina Italiana

7721 Turkey Lake Road

As I mentioned, authentic Italian is a big deal. I’m a firm believer that the best Italian is served out of strip mall locations, and this (and Nonno’s Italian Restaurant) is no exception. While unassuming from the outside, the inside will draw you in with live music and the smell of homemade spaghetti sauce. Each (massive) meal is crafted with true Italian recipes, and the warm bread served before your meal really seals the deal. Weekends are incredibly busy, so get there early, or make a reservation.

Order: Spaghetti and meatballs (yes, it sounds boring, but you will never have a better meatball. Ever. Just do it.)

Order anything, but make sure it comes with the five-cheese mac.

(16) Se7en Bites

617 Primrose Drive

All you need to know is that Se7en Bites serves five-cheese mac n’ cheese in the heart of Orlando’s Milk District. Like 4 Rivers Smokehouse, this restaurant has been featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, and once you eat there, you’ll understand why. The menu is the epitome of Southern comfort food, from homemade buttermilk biscuits to mac and cheese crafted with swiss, parm, mozzarella, cream cheese and cheddar blend. Yeah, exactly. Plus, you can grab dessert to take home (I recommend the three-layer chocolate cake) and a Barney’s Coffee & Tea Co. latte to enjoy with your brunch. The line will be long, but your meal will be worth it.

Order: 7th Trimester (buttermilk garlic biscuit, over-medium egg, applewood smoked bacon, five-cheese mac n’ cheese, topped with potato chip bacon crumble)

I can’t believe I ever consumed tacos without parmesan-crusted tortilla shells. Game-changing.

(17) Tin & Taco

40 W. Washington St., 419 E. Michigan St., 2429 Edgewater Drive, 223 W. Fairbanks Ave.

Tired of soggy tacos? Same. Tin & Taco’s Instagram-worthy delights should be next on your list for creative food. Each of the soft shells is crusted in parmesan cheese, a perfect balance between soft and crispy. And the offerings are anything but ordinary, from options with locally sourced chorizo to burritos and the iconic taco-in-a-bag served in —you guessed it — a bag of nacho cheese doritos. Plus, they serve craft beer, so it’s a great spot to stop in the afternoon or during an evening out. Do NOT forget an order of queso. 

Order: Mac Attack (seasoned ground beef, craft beer mac and cheese, applewood smoked bacon, green onion)

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