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Long derided as a cultural wasteland, Orlando’s restaurant and performing arts scene has grown up in recent years, and it is starting to attract attention from national arbiters of taste.
Wine Enthusiast magazine recently named Orlando as one of the nation’s top wine travel destinations, and The New York Times singled out the city’s food scene when it placed the city at No. 13 on its list of “52 Places to Go in 2015.”
Wise Bread, a website dedicated to penny-pinchers, calls Orlando the nation’s top city for frugal foodies, and the real estate blog Movoto ranked Orlando the nation’s No. 2 city for creative people.
The rankings barely mentioned what the city is best known for: theme parks.
“Orlando was very synonymous, and still is, with the Mouse, and Disney, and people didn’t really look outside of Disney,” said James Petrakis, owner of The Ravenous Pig in the tony Orlando suburb, Winter Park. “Now with some of these newer restaurants, people are looking at some of the smaller suburbs outside Disney for a true local culture.”
Adding to the buzz about the cultural scene: a new $500 million performing arts center downtown, and an international hunt for a new symphony conductor that’s attracted some well-known names.
“We’ve gotten some national validation for things that we already thought were cool, but we thought they were cool just because it was something different for us. But now we know it’s cool here and it would be cool if it were in New York or San Francisco,” said Kamrin Rife, who with her husband, John, and others, opened the East End Market, which houses a collection of artisanal bakers, coffee brewers, sushi chefs and a Basque restaurant.
Orlando always has had a strong theater scene, thanks to the many actors who work at theme parks, and also several acclaimed annual festivals, such as the Bach Festival of Winter Park and a fringe theater festival. But the construction of the Dr. Phillips Center, financed partially with taxes on tourists, gives the city a world-class venue for local performing arts groups and national touring acts.
The hunt for a new musical director has led to sold-out shows as each of five finalists performs. Audiences get to vote for their favorite in what locals are joking is the classical music equivalent of “American Idol.” The finalists include Eric Jacobsen, a member of Brooklyn Rider, one of the best known and most cutting-edge string quartets around, and Mexican-American conductor Alondra de la Parra.
“All the candidates see the cultural community as on the cusp of something great,” said David Schillhammer, executive director of the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra.
There’s a pent-up demand for more dynamic cultural events, said Glen Gentele, director of the Orlando Museum of Art, which is exhibiting the work of sculpture and landscape artist Maya Lin, and Orlando’s arts patrons “are open and receptive to change.”
Orlando used to be known as the chain-restaurant capital, a place where corporate restaurant companies would try out new concepts on the regular flow of tourists, and where every chain seemed to have planted a flag along the tourist corridor in the metro area’s southwest region.
There always have been top chefs drawn to the kitchens at Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and nearby resorts, but it has only been in the last decade that food entrepreneurs catering to locals have flourished, thanks to the low cost of setting up in Orlando, a vibrant food truck scene and the growth of local farms providing a variety of fresh meats and produce.
In the process, those gastronomical efforts have produced seven James Beard “Best Chef of the South” semi-finalists from central Florida in the past three years.
Orlando’s food truck community also has become a launching pad for new restaurateurs who want to test out new concepts with less than $15,000, build a base of supporters and launch their own restaurant. The economics of scale leveraged by Disney World and its dozens of restaurants and sommeliers has opened up the Orlando market to wine distributors who ordinarily wouldn’t bother with a market of the size of metro Orlando, which stands at 2.2 million residents or the 26th largest in the country. Quantum Leap Winery also has changed how wine is produced in Orlando by finishing, blending and packaging wine shipped to the winery.
Orlando’s food scene has Southern roots as well as multicultural influences, thanks to a large Hispanic and Vietnamese population. The food scene is also quite collegial: Last year, more than 100 restaurant owners, local farmers, food writers and suppliers signed a “Sunshine Plate” manifesto, pledging to support farm-to-table efforts.
A decade ago, “the perception of Orlando was that there were a lot of chains and there weren’t a lot of people taking risks, and there weren’t a lot of restaurants trying to push the envelope or be different,” Petrakis said. “Now there is competition. There are a lot of young cooks who are getting good training. Now, they’re pushing the envelope. There’s getting to be so much competition now, that everyone is really trying to up their game. That’s only going to generate better restaurants, service.”