To understand the culture and history of a city, the first thing you should do is start planning your restaurant visits. In New Orleans, you wouldn't miss beignets and café au lait at Café du Monde. Russ & Daughters for bagels and whitefish salad is a must when in Manhattan. In Los Angeles, pile your plate high with Cobb salad, French dip sandwiches, pupusas and Oki-Dogs.
Orlando's dining scene is still nascent, though it's been pushed head-first into adolescence by demanding foodists and an internet busting at the seams with food porn. If Seattle, Portland and Chicago have it, why can't we? Public demand has hastened Orlando's adoption of food halls, farm-to-table menus, artisan donuts, brewpubs and supper clubs. There seems to be a different wine dinner or chef collaboration going on every night. Pop-up dinners and food truck gatherings sell out weekly. Chefs are being challenged to create what's new, now and next in every neighborhood from Waterford Lakes to Winter Garden.
But what's the best way to get a bird's-eye view of a city's restaurant scene? The advent of the "restaurant week" (some last just a weekend; some are a full month long) has made that easier than ever. New York City's twice-yearly Restaurant Week features more than 380 restaurants across the five boroughs offering three-course lunch and dinner options to throngs of eager eaters. Chicago hosts an annual event with 350 restaurants and prix fixe dinners for between $33 and $44 per person, even at five-star spots. While the City Beautiful isn't pulling numbers like those, two restaurant events reign in this city: Magical Dining Month in September, sponsored by tourist board Visit Orlando, and Bite 30, sponsored by Orlando Weekly, which starts June 1 and continues throughout the month.
A couple of weeks prior to the events, participating restaurants release their menu choices for prix fixe lunches and dinners. Plan your attack, make your reservations and use these opportunities to find out how vibrant this city's restaurant scene really is. Restaurant weeks are the ideal time to try a spot that's usually out of your budget, or try a cuisine you're unsure of without risking major bucks. Dine out as much as you can, as often as you can. That's the way to know a city.
HOW TO DINE LIKE A PRO: TIPS FROM A PRO DINER
To get the most from Bite 30, which kicks off the day after this issue hits stands and runs through June 30, you'll need a little advice. Fortunately for you, I've been getting paid to eat for more than 10 years, so I know the ropes. Here are some tips for sucking the marrow out of a restaurant event like Bite 30, and saving so much dough on quality comestibles you'll feel like you're getting paid to eat.
STEP 1: MAKE A PLAN. Winging it is not your best option. Peruse the menus listed at bite30.com and identify spots you've enjoyed before and places you've been dying to try. Consider putting a couple of restos you've never heard of on the list, too. Interested in Spanish food? Visit Tapa Toro or Bulla Gastrobar, both on the Bite 30 roster. Adore sushi but rarely branch out from your usual rainbow roll? Umi on Park Avenue is offering a four-course, $30 dinner featuring 13 different options.
STEP 2: CLAIM YOUR SPOT. Some of the restaurants on the Bite 30 list are hot spots where reservations are strongly suggested. Any dining enthusiast knows that reservations are always a good idea, even if the place isn't packed. Generally, restaurants save the best seats (i.e., not the ones near the server stand or the restrooms) for patrons who have planned far enough ahead to make a rezzie.
STEP 3: ORDER LIKE A BOSS. If we're honest, we'll all 'fess up to loving carbs. Starches like pasta and potatoes are what comfort food dreams are made of, but home in on dishes that will make your dining experience worth it, like steaks, seafood and preparations that require intensive labor. At RusTeak in College Park, make a beeline for the flat-iron steak topped with jumbo Cape Canaveral Shrimp and hollandaise. That dish alone could carry the $30 price tag any other month of the year.
STEP 4: TALK ABOUT IT. You like taking pictures of your food; we get it. During Bite 30, we'll even encourage it. Take as many pictures of the food, the restaurant, the chef, your server (with permission) or your cocktail as you like and share them on social media. Tag us @orlandoweekly on Instagram with the hashtags #orlandoweekly and #bite30 and you might even win free stuff.
STEP 5: HIT THE GRAND FINALE. On Monday, June 26, Bite Night goes down at the Orchid Garden on Church Street, with chefs from 20 restaurants dishing out delectable bites. In the past, I've seen people all dressed up in uncomfortable clothes; if you want my advice, skip the Spanx and go full-on stretch pants. By the time you've made your way to the dessert tables, you'll be wishing you had a second stomach.