There's no arguing that 2011 was a stellar year for restaurant openings in our fair city, what with such well-received eateries as Prato, Armando's, Tamarind, Deep Blu, the Table, the Rusty Spoon, Cocina 214, Tako Cheena, Hawkers and a number of food trucks opening their doors (and windows). Repeating the performance in 2012 was going to be a tall order, a reality reflected in the relatively short list below. We saw a rise in smaller, chef-run restaurants to complement a trend toward smaller portions, not double-down gutbusters. Better burger joints caught our attention, and local sourcing, I'm happy to say, became a de rigueur practice. Here, then, are my favorite restaurant openings of 2012.
Peperoncino Cucina (opened Jan. 7) Prior to chef-owner Barbara Alfano opening her cheerily comfortable Dr. Phillips eatery, replicating a Roman, Venetian, Florentine or Calabrian repast was a next-to-impossible task in Orlando, but Peperoncino's deftly rendered rustic and contemporary dishes from il bel paese have garnered a loyal following among cognoscenti in la bella città. Her daily-changing menu spotlights regional preparations, so on any given day, you can enjoy a wild boar stew with Arborio rice or a branzino baked in parchment paper with acqua pazza. No matter what's offered, Alfano keeps her native Calabrian peperoncini nearby, along with a great selection of Italian wines. The restaurant is so popular that elbow-to-elbow seating is a common sight – and a testament to Alfano's prowess in the kitchen. (7988 Via Dellagio Way, 407-440-2856; peperoncinocucina.com)
Spork Café (opened May 14) Tisse and Joyce Mallon's "Happy Food Café" may occupy a small corner inside Urban ReThink's creative space, but the duo come up big with feel-good renditions of fresh, made-to-order, organic when possible, non-processed fare. Mushroom field soup and vegan corn chowder are eye-openingly good; wraps and sandwiches, be they of the vegetarian portobello or roast beef-and-provolone variety, certainly aren't as hackneyed as they sound; and a fresh raw juice bar is always a plus. But it's the passion the sister act brings to their work and the buoyant mood they foster that makes Spork Café such a draw. You can't help but trust that they truly care for your well-being. (625 E. Central Blvd., 407-476-6250; thesporkcafe.com)
Fresh (opened Sept. 5) Situated among such upscale and settled restaurants as Dexter's, Chez Vincent, Mi Tomatina and Armando's, Fresh offers an anti-establishment alternative to Hannibal Square's trendy dining scene. Gina Bugayong's café is approachable, über-intimate and down-to-earth, and her focused daily-changing menu reflects her and her partner's diverse backgrounds. (Bugayong is Filipino-Italian and her partner Panamanian-Lebanese.) Along with the talent, vision and humility coming from this kitchen is a desire to grow and broaden, and that should keep things fresh on Hannibal Square for some time. (535 W. New England Ave., Winter Park, 321-295-7837; freshcafe-wp.com)
Cask & Larder (opened Sept. 5) The latest venture by celeb culinarians James and Julie Petrakis was, arguably, the most anticipated restaurant opening of the year, and their "Southern public house" didn't disappoint. The perpetual busy-ness of the dining space can result in service quirks, but there are no such hiccups coming from the back of the house. Guests are often heard uttering superlatives after sampling innovative takes on down-home fare, be it braised lamb neck, foie gras-stuffed quail, grilled lamb heart or a country ham tasting plate. Beer selections are always interesting, thanks to in-house brewmaster Ron Raike, and the modern-rustic interior is as linger-conducive as Grandma's kitchen. (565 W. Fairbanks Ave., Winter Park, 321-280-4200; caskandlarder.com)
Galopin (opened Sept. 22) It took a couple of months for Galopin to work out its proverbial kinks, but when it did, Guillermo Zayas spurred the kitchen on to spirited heights. Meals can encompass French-leaning small plates, or stretch into three-course affairs featuring a garde-manger, crudités and a duck tasting. (The latter is a must for any canard connoisseur.) With its urbane, ultra-modern decor, Galopin is undoubtedly one of the sexier resto-lounges on Park Avenue, and it's poised to rid the hex on this space and become the dining destination on the northern periphery of this tony strip. (358 N. Park Ave., Winter Park, 407-951-5790; galopinwinterpark.com)
Notable mention: B&B Junction (opened Dec. 1) In the "Looks Promising but It's Too Early to Tell" department, B&B Junction gets my nod for best better burger, with apologies to BurgerFi, Burger 21 and Red Robin. B&B ("Burgers & Beer") moved into the space vacated by the original 4 Rivers Smokehouse and after a couple of visits, they've filled those big shoes admirably. Yes, there are wrinkles to iron out, but both the 10-ounce grass-fed beef burger (specifically, the No. 6 with awesome ghost chili cheese) and the No. 13 bison burger were impressive, and that's a good sign. So are the craft beers available on tap. (2103 W. Fairbanks Ave., Winter Park, 407- 513-4134; bbjunction.com)