The splashy, celebrity chef-driven restaurant openings of yesteryear were enjoyable indulgences, no doubt, but in 2017, the pendulum swung. This year marked a return to restraint. It was a year for the neighborhood eatery, the mom-and-pop joint, the cheap eat. Street food, if you'll pardon the pun, made significant inroads (halal cart fare! poké! dumplings!) as did a couple of sandwich joints – AJ's Press and Bad As's Sandwiches – both of which make some of the best sammies you'll have anywhere. The Polite Pig and Paddlefish brought a modicum of buzz down Disney way, but we'll wait to see what the Edison, Maria and Enzo's, and the much-delayed Wine Bar George bring to the Springs next year.
What else can we expect in 2018? Vegan and veg-forward cuisine seem to be about as sure a bet as more tales of transgressions in the workplace; smaller restaurants appear poised to serve cocktails, thanks to newly relaxed liquor regulations; and food halls will continue to pique our interest with their constant flirtations. Personally, I'd like to see more rolled ice cream, more nouveau Indian, and a Peruvian restaurant that'll serve a proper rocoto relleno with alpaca. Until then, I'll just savor this list of 2017's best restaurants. I hope you will too.
1. Kadence1809 E. Winter Park Road, kadenceorlando.com
The all-black, signage-free facade of this nine-seat Japanese restaurant screams big-city cool, but it's the talents of the trio behind the operation – Mark Berdin, Lordfer Lalicon and Jennifer Bañagale – that give Kadence its personality. Their superlative multicourse omakase dinners employing only the finest of seasonal fish (many from Tsukiji) cater to sushi purists and traditionalists, and the lasting memory of the unique experience makes it worth the hefty amount you'll drop.
2. Reyes Mezcaleria821 N. Orange Ave., 407-868-9007, reyesmex.com
Reyes broadens our sightlines of a cuisine suffering from tunnel vision in this city. Standard, everyday Tex-Mex fare this is not, and we wouldn't expect anything less from a restaurant run by Jason Chin and wife Sue. "Because Orlando has matured as a food city, we can offer dishes and an overall style of cuisine that's historically different than what people are used to seeing," Chin says. A bite of the duck breast with mole negro, roasted chayote and poblano is proof positive. And if a pairing of mezcal with chapulines (crispy fried grasshoppers) seems a bit too adventurous, too bad. The Chins don't care much for staid offerings – they're out to expand our perceptions of Mexican food and drink.
3. Shiraz Market185 S. Ronald Reagan Blvd., Longwood, 407-951-8084, facebook.com/ internationalfreshmarket
We desperately need more Persian restaurants in town (IMHO) and, thanks to owner Nas Rajabi and family, Shiraz Market helps fill a portion of the dull, not-so-fragrant void. From inside the market's cramped kitchen come gorgeously charred beef and chicken kebabs and, on any given day, such Iranian staples as ghormeh sabzi (beef stew with herbs), khoresht gheymeh bademjan (eggplant stew) and fesenjan (chicken stew). The fat tubs of house-made bastani (pistachio ice cream) and faloodeh (iced rosewater noodles) available for purchase are just a bonus.
4. Hunger Street Tacos2103 W. Fairbanks Ave., Winter Park, 321-444-6270, hungerstreettacos.com
Owners Joe and David Creech took a liking to Mexican cuisine as the children of missionaries in Guadalajara, Mexico, but their mission took a decidedly gourmet street-taco turn in their adult years, and Winter Park was the beneficiary. The taquería covered in eye-catching murals by Oaxacan art collective Lapiztola is hard to miss, but you'll be pining for it long after your first taste of soft-shelled wonders such as the panko-breaded fried avocado and the protein-filled "El Mañanero," comprising seared brisket, chorizo, refried beans and scrambled egg. Really, there's nothing not to like here.
5. BBB Tofu House5140 W. Colonial Drive, 407-723-8299, bbbtofuhouse88.com
Owner Tony Teng fashions, arguably, the finest soondubu in the city, and a sexier broth you never will see: reddened, fiery and rippling with the fumes of gochugalu (chili powder) and gochujang (chili paste). The house version gurgles with shrimp, clams, squid and pillowy cubes of extra-soft organic tofu, but other equally gratifying renditions are also offered. Korean staples like bibimbap, pajeon and galbi aren't mere afterthoughts either, but the soup here rules! Sure, other area Korean restaurants serve it, but BBB Tofu House makes it their raison d'etre.
El Buda116 W. Church St., 407-203-8171, elbudarest.com
Chef Roberto Treviño's Latin-Asian fusion joint was a late arrival, but our sincere hope is that El Buda stays for good. It'll be tough going in a space that hasn't exactly been kind to restaurants, but if anyone can make a go of it, it's Treviño. The man has some serious kitchen cred, and two of his fusion creations – pork and sweet plantain dumplings and the duck breast with honey-miso potatoes – have become instant classics in my book.
Other notable 2017 openings:
AJ's Press, Bad As's Sandwiches, Gaviota, Glass Knife, Joyful Garden Seafoods Restaurant, Luke's Kitchen & Bar, Millenia 106, Muddy Waters, New General, Orange County Brewers, Orlando Meats, Paddlefish, Peter's Kitchen, Pizzeria Roberti, Reel Fish Coastal Kitchen + Bar, Turkish Bar & Grill, Valkyrie Doughnuts.