Say what you want about our restaurant scene, but boring it's not, and boring it hasn't been for a good long while. Keeping up with the number of openings (and closings) is no easy task and 2018 seemed to be one of the more active years in recent memory. Some highlights: a bump in cozy neighborhood hangs, noodle haunts (no surprise there) and sandwich joints. Oh sure, there were a smattering of splashy openings, mostly at Disney Springs – including Wine Bar George, Terralina and Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill – but we were taken by the smashing street fare coming from mobile and stationary joints alike. Our conversations about dining expanded to court the controversial issues of "authenticity," cultural appropriation, sexual misconduct and mental health – issues sure to linger in 2019 and beyond.
And speaking of next year, there's a lot to look forward to, what with highly anticipated restaurants from José Andrés (Jaleo), Henry Moso (Kabooki Sushi Sand Lake), Chau Trinh (Sushi Pop Winter Park), Sonny Nguyen (Domu Chibi, Tori Tori), Chelsie Savage (Proper & Wild), Trina Gregory-Propst and Va Propst (Sette), Roberto Treviño (Don Julio Mexican Kitchen Ceviche Bar), Shaun Noonan (Curate), Bruno Zacchini (Slice by Pizza Bruno) and Josh Oakley's new concept (name TBA). We might even see a food hall or two. Yeah, we're still anxiously awaiting the day when Bangrak Thai Street Kitchen and Mary Mattern's all-vegan Winter Park Biscuit Co. move into permanent spaces but, until then, let's celebrate what we have.
Here, then, are the very best restaurants to open in 2018.
No. 1: Taste of Chengdu
Chef Xiong "Tiger" Tang's paean to Sichuan cookery (and its capital, Chengdu, in particular) has been the most buzzworthy restaurant to open this year, and with good reason. From technique to plating, this is Sichuan fare at its most exacting and accomplished, not surprising considering Tang's credentials – he went to culinary school in Sichuan Province and helmed the kitchen as executive chef at Zen inside the Omni Orlando Resort for 14 years. Tang's skill and the cuisine's tongue-numbing, gut-burning pleasures are embodied in a stunning platter of pan-fried pompano, all but concealed under a heap of triple chili peppers, peanuts and five-spice sauce. Just as bold is a whole lobster hacked and reassembled with its carapace adorned in an infernal mix of chilies, peppercorns, garlic and cilantro. He doesn't stop there – there's cumin rack of lamb; spicy trotters with sweet potato; poached beef with Sichuan wontons; a Chongqing hotpot with a surf-and-turf bonanza of head-on shrimp, tripe, beef and fried fish mixed with crunchy lotus root and cauliflower. Each masterly meal yields a new texture, a new flavor combination and a new presentation, making Taste of Chengdu the most exciting restaurant to emerge on the scene this year. (2030 W. Colonial Drive, 407-839-1983, facebook.com/tasteofchengdu)
No. 2: Sticky Rice Lao Street Food
The full spectrum of flavors of Laotian cuisine – the sweet, the spicy, the fishy and the fermented – are presented in street snack form at this millennials' delight and, best of all, the entire menu can be ordered for around $65. Scooping wee balls of sticky rice then dipping it into jaew mak len (a charred tomato paste) or jaew bong (sweet chili paste with pork skin) is digital dining at its finest, but it's the spicy cucumber salad that poses a real challenge. Its funky, fishy quintessence is palate-jarring, to put it mildly, but it's a dish much sought after by the fearless. If that's not you, order everything else and indulge in handsy bites of lemongrass pork sausage, sesame beef jerky and pork tapioca dumplings. (1915 E. Colonial Drive 321-800-6532, facebook.com/stickyricestreetfood)
No. 3: Wine Bar George
The main draw at master sommelier George Miliotes' sparkling two-story space in Disney Springs are the 140 wines available by the glass and – hold on to your stemware – by the ounce. That fact alone warrants inclusion on this list and, yes, you can sip two tablespoons of a 1996 Chateau Margaux for a paltry $100. Settle for the 2001 vintage for half the price, then enjoy it with a plate of Japanese A5 Wagyu carpaccio as part of WBG's "Outstanding by the Ounces" menu. There's more substantial fare to be had as well, be it porchetta-spiced pork cheeks or grilled whole Greek sea bass, and it's all deftly presented. It's definitely worth braving the tourist hordes for. After a swirl, a sniff and a swish, you'll likely agree. (Disney Springs, Lake Buena Vista, 407-490-1800, winebargeorge.com)
No. 4: F&D Woodfired Italian Kitchen
As the erstwhile Peppino's Organic Italian Kitchen & Pizzeria, the space bore hints of a cozy intimacy, but as F&D Woodfired Italian Kitchen, that conceit is fully realized. It's one of the more inviting neighborhood restaurants in the city, and Neapolitan pies – we heart the fennel sausage-and-rapini and the traditional margherita – being churned out by the two Mugnaini wood-burning pizza ovens give greater cause for folks to linger. Look out, Pizza Bruno. (2420 Curry Ford Road, 407-751-5697, fdwoodfireditaliankitchen.com)
No. 5: The H Cuisine
This sister resto to the Haci Steakhouse in Kayseri, Turkey, taps into Nusret "Salt Bae" Gökçe's mystique, though the overacting is (thankfully) kept to a minimum when the waiters slice enticing cuts of USDA Prime beef with dramatic flair tableside, then theatrically fleck them with Maldon sea salt. The bone-in rib-eye, aged for 28 days, is a fave, though interesting cuts like lokum and Robespierre can be had as well. An illuminated dry-aging chamber adds a nice ambient touch to the pomo interior. (7512 Dr. Phillips Blvd., 407-930-3020, thehcuisine.com)
Honorable Mention: À La Cart
No, it's not technically a restaurant, but it's not every day we get a food truck park that feels like one. Modeled after the pods in Portland, Oregon, À La Cart brings five mobile food vendors hawking everything from poke and empanadas to picanha and Korean-style chicken wings to their Milk District venue. There's a covered bar area with 15 rotating taps, and a garden of faux grass for games, guzzling and movie screenings. It all serves to breathe new life into a movement that's been idling for a while. (609 Irvington Ave., 407-776-4693, alacart orlando.com)
Other notable 2018 openings
Go try 'em: The Ramen, Bem Bom on Corrine, Kai Asian Street Fare, Naroodle Noodle Shop, Stasio's Italian Deli & Market, La Boucherie, Bawarchi Biryanis, Park Pizza & Brewing Co., Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill.