During the holidays Orlando's Restaurant Row on Sand Lake Road is a mecca for tourists and locals. With a season full of bowl games and special events at theme parks, the busy thoroughfare is a great place to meet family and friends for meals. From casual to upscale, restaurants along this roadway offer vareity for both the palate and pocketbook. Here are some tips for navigating the sea of neon signs (and keep in mind that menus change often):
•Christini's Ristorante Italiano, 7600 Dr. Phillips Blvd., Orlando; 407-345-8770; christinis.com: Chris Christini came to Orlando in 1982 to work for the owners of Alfredo of Rome in Epcot's Italy pavilion. He left in 1983 and opened his namesake eatery in 1984. The veal chop has a sultry calvados reduction. The rigatoni alla zozzona showcases a creamy fennel sauce with shredded sausage. With an impeccable waitstaff, Christini's is the kind of place where everyone feels like a celebrity.
•Ocean Prime, 7339 W. Sand Lake Road, Orlando; 407-781-4880; oceanprimeorlando.com: The interior is prairie elegant with a hint of Frank Lloyd Wright. The waitstaff's white dinner jackets add to the ambience. The menu is a compendium of modern twists on supper-club favorites. Seafood and meats are the focus here. The Chilean sea bass is softly bathed in a champagne truffle sauce and the 16-ounce Kansas City Strip is expertly broiled.
•Chatham's Place, 7575 Dr. Phillips Blvd., Orlando; 407-345-2992; ChathamsPlace.com: There is more to fine dining than great food. It's about the setting. It's about the people who greet you at the door, the person who brings your food and all of the essential team members in between. And it's about creating an environment in which every customer feels special. Chatham's Place has been the total package since 1989. Signature dishes include the grouper crowned with pecan butter and the rack of lamb bathed in rosemary au jus.
•Roy's, 7760 W. Sand Lake Road, Orlando; 407-352-4844; roysrestaurant.com: Chef Roy Yamaguchi's signature style is Hawaiian fusion cuisine. The staff is well-trained, almost to a fault. Drop in for dishes such as roasted macadamia nut-crusted mahi mahi and Yamaguchi sushi. Meat lovers will like the porcini-dusted hanger steak and braised beef short ribs.
•Seasons 52, 7700 W. Sand Lake Road, Orlando; 407-354-5212; seasons52.com: The menu at Seasons 52 changes with the seasons, hence the name. Every item on the menu is created to have no more than 475 calories. Try the grilled pork with polenta or the filet mignon. If you start feeling too goody-goody, go crazy and order all the mini desserts.
•Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, 8030 Via Dellagio Way, Orlando; 407-352-5706; FlemingsSteakhouse.com: Your first "gulp" may be from the prices and not the wine list. Seafood and shellfish are served here. But, let's face it, you come to a steakhouse for the beef. Cuts are seasoned with salt and pepper, then finished with butter and freshly chopped parsley. Try the petite filet mignon and the bone-in rib-eye. Both were luxurious in flavor and texture.
Food with a side of fun
•Big Fin Seafood Kitchen, 8046 Via Dellagio Way, Orlando; 407-615-8888; bigfinseafood.com: The rotating globe in the main dining room has a Universal Studios meets Planet Hollywood feel. And there is an energetic buzz. The eatery excels at straightforward seafood presentations. For those who prefer something from the land, try the scallops wrapped in thick bacon and placed over mashed potatoes or the blackened beef tenderloin tips with blue cheese.
•Rocco's Tacos and Tequila Bar, 7468 W. Sand Lake Road, Orlando; 407-226-0550; Roccostacos.com: Combine a bar with 225 tequilas, a menu of authentic Mexican flavors and a concept that sizzles, and you begin to paint a picture of this eatery. Rocco's is a party palace. Try the esquites, grilled corn topped with tangy cotija cheese and cilantro; grilled skirt steak paired with red rice and black beans; or the molcajete seafood, a bubbling hot show-stopper.
•Bar Louie, 7335 W. Sand Lake Road, Orlando; 407-608-5190; BarLouieAmerica.com: Bar Louie is a bar first and foremost. But its extensive menu of comfort foods and quick bites makes it a dining destination, too. Maybe it's the hustle and bustle, but the experience seems to work best on Friday and Saturday nights when the place is packed and the volume on high. Entrees range from comfort foods (pot roast, pork ribs and mac and cheese) to fabulous sandwiches.