Orlando North, Seminole County is having its homegrown culinary moment. Actually, it’s more of a movement. An area that was once dominated by chain restaurants and corner mom ‘n’ pops has in the last few years seen a surge of dining and drinking establishments developed and owned by local business people. And adding even more effervescence is a burgeoning craft beer scene that now includes several microbreweries, some of which double as first-rate, family-friendly restaurants.
These establishments are chef- and owner-driven, and strive to be unique and innovative. They use fresh ingredients, and source produce from local farms whenever possible. They have a sense of community, and feel a strong connection with the area’s growing arts, entertainment and cultural offerings. Rather than worry about competition coming in, they welcome new concepts. But they do recognize the need to keep up the quality standards that have become a hallmark of the scene.
There are gastro-pups, upscale wine restaurants, intimate cafes, places that serve authentic German, Korean, Greek, Italian, Belgian, Jamaican, and other ethnic styles.
The movement is taking hold throughout the county, but its hubs are Sanford, the county seat, and Lake Mary, just five miles away. In fact, Sanford’s historic district has become a nexus of culinary activity, with an array of locally owned restaurants within walking distance.
Perhaps the person with the best perspective on the development of the destination’s culinary scene is Theo Hollerbach, chef/owner of Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Café, an award-winning German restaurant and beer garden that opened in Sanford in 2001. “We used to play soccer in the streets; there were no cars,” he says of the early days. “We were one of the first restaurants to open at night, and we’ve gone from seven employees to more than a hundred. But the growth in restaurants overall has been remarkable. Sanford has become very ownership-driven. It’s not a corporate place.”
Willow Tree’s restaurant neighbors include: Buster’s Bistro (Belgian), Best Fish and Chicken Wings (Korean), Zorbas (Greek), Negril Spice (Jamaican), Christo’s (Italian), The Smiling Bison (gastro-pup).
Less than four miles west of this restaurant cluster is Route 46 Entertainment District, a 10-acre area with 25,000 square feet of eating, drinking, partying and entertainment space — all themed around American roadway culture. The district includes three restaurants: Smokehouse, The Saloon, and Garage Bar. “Orlando North is a perfect place to have a venue like this,” says co-owner Don Hackenberger. “We’re close to the Disney corridor. It’s like the next stop. There are all sorts of new restaurants and venues coming on line.”
That certainly includes breweries, which is an even more recent phenomenon. “It’s almost like Central Florida is the last frontier of beer,” says Bo Hallowes, partner in Sanford Brewing Company, which is also a restaurant. “Word is catching on with people who are coming to Orlando from across the country.”
Joining Sanford Brewing in town are Wop’s Hops Brewing Co. and Celery City (with more than 50 crafts on tap). Bo says that three more breweries are due to open in Sanford within the next year, bringing the total to six. These beer meccas are joined by Hourglass Brewing in Longwood, Red Cypress in Winter Springs and Bowigens Beer Company in Casselberry, which are part of the 17-stop Central Florida Ale Trail.
Brewers are known as a tight-knit community, and in Orlando North, Seminole County they are reaching out to other purveyors. “We take the spent grains we use to make beers and give it to local farmers,” Bo says. “In exchange, we get eggs, sausage and bacon from the farms. We’re trying to grow that program.”
The Smiling Bison, known for its house-made meats — sausages, bolognas, salamis, prosciutto — changes its menu every week. In fact, chef/owner Josh Oakley reckons his place has served some 500 different dishes in four years. “As famous as we are for our meats, it’s the local produce that drives our menu,” he says. “We work with over a dozen local farms, and when we find out what produce is available, we decide what meat, fish or pasta will go with it.”
If it’s wine that tickles your palette, The Vineyard Wine Company awaits in Lake Mary. Wine Spectator has put The Vineyard on its “Best Restaurants for Wine” list. The upscale/casual place has a thousand wine selections and an inventory of 8,700 bottles.
All told, the energy is palpable in the Orlando North, Seminole County dining and drinking scene. So is the optimism. “I see us having the potential to get where Asheville is,” says Bo Hallowes of Sanford Brewing Company.