Orlando Family Dining: A Break from the Chains

Add flavor to your Orlando family dinner by visiting one of these restaurants with personality.

Orlando offers enough chain restaurants to keep you and your family stuffed for your entire vacation. But if you want to transcend these mundane, been-there-done-that family-dining experiences, the city also has several excellent options where the quality of the food and the ambiance will appease more discerning adults, while the visual and entertainment highlights will keep the kids alert. Bonus: The menus go well beyond chicken nuggets and macaroni-and-cheese for the kids.

Columbia Restaurant

Our kids love to gaze at the vintage black and white photos dotting the walls that depict scenes from the early 1900s when Columbia opened its first restaurant in Tampa. Add in the experienced, professional waiters, Spanish background music and eclectic gift shop and, voila, you’ve got a ready made, unpretentious, lunch or dinner cultural experience. The extensive Spanish wine list is impressive. Don’t-miss entrees include the Red Snapper “Alicante” and Palomilla, a marinated top sirloin cut thin. For the kids, the Cuban sandwich is a winner.

Columbia Restaurant, 649 Front Street, Celebration, FL, tel. 407-566-1505, www.columbiarestaurant.com.

Café Tu Tu Tango

With a dining room inspired by a Spanish artist’s bohemian loft, “Tango,” as locals call it, is a tapas restaurant specializing in gourmet finger food enhanced by a guitarist wandering between tables and working artists painting oil and water color masterpieces. (Yes, the artwork is for sale.) My kids, ages 11 and 17, a well-traveled twosome, love the up-tempo atmosphere because it reminds them of the lively restaurants on Las Ramblas in Barcelona. I absolutely, positively order the crispy shrimp skewer served with spicy chili pepper sauce when I visit. Kids love the small, brick oven pizzas.

Café Tu Tu Tango, 8625 International Drive, tel. 407-248-2222, www.cafetututango.com. 

Spoodles at Disney’s Boardwalk 

Spoodles' open kitchen with fire ovens—where kids can see their pizzas being made—provides entertainment as well as the lively Mediterranean background music. Specialties include Mediterranean-inspired pasta and seafood dishes and oak-fired flatbread. Menu highlights for me are the garlic shrimp appetizer and lemon chicken with orzo. The kids menu is eclectic with beef kabobs and chocolate mousse among the more interesting selections. Youngsters can design their own sundaes for dessert and my son’s tends to look like an ice cream volcano covered with nuts, chocolate and cherries.  

Spoodles, 2101 North Epcot Resorts Blvd, Lake Buena Vista, FL, tel. 407-939-3463, www.disneyworld.com.

Emeril’s Tchoup Chop

Set in the Royal Pacific Resort at Universal Orlando,  Emeril's Tchoup Chop (pronounced Chop Chop) has a fun “tiki bar” décor complete with bamboo, waterfalls, sculpted gardens and giant woks. The menu focuses on the islands of the Pacific and two of the most popular selections are the Kona coffee glazed duck breast and grilled pork chops with ginger roasted sweet potatoes. Children’s menu items tend toward the more exotic—with entrees like seared filet mignon with mustard-plum sauce and desserts like Kahlua cake sundae—so older kids with adventurous palates might find it much more enjoyable than pre-kindergarteners.

Emeril's, 6300 Hollywood Way, tel. 407-503-2467, www.emerils.com.

Rainforest Café

With a themed rainforest, mist, waterfalls, and chirping and yelping robotic birds and animals, kids have so much sensory stimulation they almost forget about their meal at the Rainforest Café. The kid’s menu is less than exotic and dotted with classics like grilled cheese on Texas toast and breaded popcorn shrimp. My daughter orders the same thing every time we go to a Rainforest: the charbroiled mini-burgers. Besides the taste, I think she likes them because they’re small, easy to eat and allow her to concentrate on all the jungle mayhem going on around her.

Rainforest Café (two Orlando locations): Downtown Disney Marketplace, tel. 407-827-8500 and Disney’s Animal Kingdom, tel. 407-938-9100, www.rainforestcafe.com

Destinations: Florida, Orlando

Themes: Family Travel

Activities: Eat