It's a sure sign that summer has passed into oblivion, and fall has arrived: All across Orlando, sidewalk cafe tables are being snapped up again.
The good news is that there are plenty of sun-dappled patio restaurants and courtyard cafes where you can savor the autumn atmosphere along with whatever is on the menu.
This is an ideal time to hit one of the most well-traveled sidewalk eateries in town: Bravissimo Wine Bar Cafe. Due to an old zoning fluke, it's located in the middle of a residential neighborhood. A front porch table overlooking Shine Avenue is a prime people-watching spot as downtown denizens stroll in from blocks around. A wealth of freshly-made pasta dishes will keep you happy, particularly an eye-popping version of gnocchi dumplings tossed with plum tomatoes, mozzarella and basil.
In fact, downtown in general is well represented by outdoor dining possibilities. Cafe Trastevere is set on a busy street across from an office tower, but the restaurant has an adjoining brick courtyard that is as romantic and secluded as an Italian villa. After the sun goes down, the patio comes alive with a firmament of tiny white lights which are strung up everywhere.
Nearby in Thornton Park, a cluster of cafes rub shoulders to represent a variety of dining experiences. Among the most popular: Dexter's. Good luck snagging a table out front, especially during happy hour. They dish a mean veggie peanut pasta and their selected wine specials are more provocative than predictable. Next door, a trickling fountain is the centerpiece at La Fontanella da Nino, an open-air Italian eatery that is weather-proofed by a pavilion style tent. (Try "pollo Scarpariello," a chicken pasta dish tossed with Italian sausage and cream sauce.) Chez Jose Mexican Cuisine charms with a patio deck that's shaded by a rustic roof, and the Cal-Mex menu is reflected by burritos stuffed with jumbo prawns. Across the street, Anthony's Pizza Cafe is bordered by inviting umbrella-topped tables overlooking Summerlin Avenue. The menu includes oven-fired pizzas topped generously with real Italian sausage and all the fixings.
Park Avenue in Winter Park is another enclave that brims with options. 310 Park South is a relatively new arrival which offers a mixed grill menu. It's a casual counterpart to Park Plaza Gardens, a marbled bistro across the street which teams martinis and new world cuisine. Up the block, Briar Patch offers a front porch atmosphere where you can dive into enormous burgers nestled in piles of chips, plus high-stacked wedges of chocolate layer cake. Nearby on New England Avenue, West End Grill resembles a highly organized barbecue with its picnic tables lined up under a pavilion. On a good day, the aroma of the smoked ribs is like a siren that beckons passersby from up and down the block.
In the Ivanhoe Row area, aim for a marble slab table in front of White Wolf Cafe; from that vantage point, even Orange Avenue traffic has ambience. A small crowd of people are typically slumped over cappuccinos there, talking for hours and picking at hummous platters. A few blocks north, Athenian Garden Cafe is bordered by a fluttery awning that guards a handful of tables. Classic Greek entrees start at just $5, from creamy moussaka with bechamel sauce to the smartly seasoned lamb souvlaki.
In College Park, the wraparound porch at Village Bistro exudes a peacefulness that's hard to come by on Edgewater Drive. Continental classics are rendered in fresh ways: Try "penne Portofino" ($13.50) chicken pasta with diced apples in Parmesan sauce.
No matter which of several Panera Bread locations you visit (downtown, Winter Park and the University of Central Florida area), expect to find coffee and conversation happening at all hours at the cafe tables out front. The chargrilled Tuscan chicken sandwiches are sublime, and the asiago cheese bagels will drag you into a carbohydrate-induced state of bliss. For a more clandestine setting, slip into Pebbles Cafe at Saks Fifth Avenue. The location sneaks up on you, tucked in the back of the department store at Florida Mall. A cluster of tables are topped by crisp, white canvas umbrellas, and they're bordered by a high wall of fountains. The location surprises the same way the food does: Try the citrus-glazed grilled chicken sandwich with pineapple on brioche.
If it's waterfront atmosphere that you crave, head for the Black Hammock Fish Camp in Oviedo. A screened lounge offers the ultimate in weatherproof dining. Watch sunsets over Lake Jessup while the kitchen whips up fried catfish dinners and a variety of seafood. As a bonus, this restaurant is far enough from city lights that you can actually see stars at night. Gina's on the Water in Altamonte Springs is more of a meet market with its live jazz and bar. But if you head upstairs to one of the more quiet balcony tables overlooking Crane's Roost Lake, you can focus on upscale Venetian pasta dishes, killer Caesar salads and extensive wine selections. Once you get a taste of fall atmosphere at any of these restaurants, expect to be lured back again and again. Just don't forget that sweater.