Sunday, June 27, 2004

Dining in Downtown Celebration

One of the good things about living in the Kissimmee/Orlando area (or a bad thing if you pack on the pounds easily) is the fact that just about any kind of cuisine imaginable is available within a reasonable striking distance. From Chinese to Japanese to Indian to German to Cuban, that's all here and more. You can flash back to the 70s with fondue or eat in a tropical rainforest. You can watch an Arabian show, a jousting battle, or a friendly rivalry between the North and South, all while stuffing your face at the same time.

For most of these experiences, you have to leave Celebration and venture out into Tourist Land. But our fair town offers its own delicious cuisine choices. Often my husband and I are feeling lazy and don't want to venture too far. It's nice to know that we can head to Market Street and still have a plethora of choices without travelling more than five minutes from our home.

In this blog entry, I'll share my review of Celebration's restaurants. Keep in mind that all opinions expressed are solely my own, based on my fussy and particular tastes. Your experience may vary, so take what I say with a grain of salt. But for what it's worth, here goes:

Market Street Cafe: The Market Street Cafe, formerly known as Max's, was the first place I ever dined in Celebration. It's very easy to find, right on the corner of Market and Front Streets, across from the lake. It's an old-fashioned diner, complete with Art Deco decor and counter seating, in addition to booths and tables. There is also an outdoor dining area, which is a Godsend to smokers since Florida law prohibits all smoking inside restaurants. Personally, I love that law because now I don't have to sit in a "non-smoking" area that is right next to smoking; the smoke doesn't know it's supposed to stop at that invisible "wall" between the two tables.

The menu at Market Street Cafe is heavy on comfort foods, but there are some "fru fru" items, too, such as coconut breaded shrimp (one of my favorites). You can see a few of the menu items by clicking here. The entrees are missing from that link, but they include lots of burgers, chicken, meat loaf, etc.

The appetizers tend to be large enough for a meal, so often I order one or two of those instead of a traditional entree. Besides the shrimp, I love the nachos, and the pot stickers are quite delicious too. Try them with the orange sauce that is usually served with the shrimp. My husband is a big fan of the quesadillas.

I am an iced tea lover, and Market Street Cafe gets a big thumbs up for serving the fresh brewed variety rather than the Nestea swill that comes out of a tap. That crap is on a par with a true Southerner eating instant grits (those of you who have seen the movie "My Cousin Vinnie" will know what I'm talking about). Better yet, the iced tea is flavored. I don't like it sweetened, but a hint of flavor is fine. It goes down so fine on a hot summer day.

For entrees, I often opt for the taco salad, but with nachos instead of the taco shell bowl. It is huge and I almost always end up taking leftovers home. Another favorite, which is not on the menu, is the pulled pork sandwich. I've had it as a special, and it was fabulous! I wish that it was a regular menu item. Speaking of sandwiches, they have a Cuban sandwich that is a good choice, too. When you have a choice of soup or salad with your meal, you can never go wrong ordering the mushroom soup.

I am partial to ice cream sodas for dessert, but my husband usually opts for the fruit cobbler of the day. We used to be quite addicted to the cappuccino smoothie, but a while back they changed something; I don't remember whether it was the machine they use or the type of mix, but the quality declined. That drink used to be as smooth as velvet, but then we had a couple that were loaded with ice chunks. Finally we gave up, and I have replaced that addiction with Barnie's iced coffees.

Market Street Cafe serves breakfast, too. We are not typically breakfast people, but we've had it there once, and the chocolate chip pancakes were scrumptious.

At peak tourist times, there can be a lengthy wait to be seated, and they don't take reservations. I wish that there was some sort of Celebration resident priority seating, but no such luck. They do pass out beepers so you can wander a bit down the street while waiting for a table.

Once you are seated, you can count on decent and usually prompt service. My iced tea glass is almost always kept filled, and our food and desserts show up in a reasonable amount of time.

Market Street Cafe also has a free rewards program. You sign up and receive a card that earns you points for every purchase. When you reach certain levels, you get a freebie such as a drink, appetizer, or lunch entree. We have already worked our way through three or four levels.

Overall, Market Street Cafe is a keeper. When we just can't decide where to go, that's almost always where we end up, and we've never regretted it.

The Columbia: Before Florida's no-smoking law went into effect, we avoided the Columbia because it had a cigar bar. Even when a cigar area is separate, the stench tends to permeate all surrounding areas. With my allergies, that would not contribute to a pleasant dining experience.

Now that they are smoke free, the Columbia has become one of our regular haunts. It is a branch of the original Columbia Restaurant in Tampa's Historic Ybor City, and it features all of their famous dishes. One of my favorites is the 1905 Salad, which can stand as a meal in its own right. The menu is heavy on Spanish/Cuban dishes like empanadas and ropa veija. If you have a hard time choosing, you can easily make a meal of a selection of "tapas" (appetizers) that will allow you to graze on your own personal buffet.

If you select a full meal, plan on bringing leftovers home. If you are looking for something a bit lighter, but still more substantial than a salad, be sure to try one of their sandwiches. You will be served a wonderful loaf of fresh baked bread while you are waiting for your order. Be careful not to fill up on it; it's addictive!

I love to wash down my meal with a delicious glass of sangria. The only problem is that it goes down too smooth! Besides traditional sangria, the Columbia also offers a white champagne variety.

You can sit either inside or out. Because I don't like being around smoke, I always opt for indoors. The restaurant is decorated in an intriguing Spanish style. You'll enjoy pouring over the knick knacks and reading the newspaper articles on the walls that chronicle the Columbia's storied history.

Click here to see the Columbia's menu. You'll find it just past the movie theater on Front Street.

Seito is a Japanese restaurant with a sushi bar, which is guaranteed to attract my raw-fish-loving husband. Personally, although I'll eat beef so rare it's still mooing on the hoof, I won't touch uncooked sea creatures. He claims I don't know what a rare taste treat I'm missing, but I'm happy to continue living in the dark.

It's not that I am not an adventurous diner. I love escargot (snails in garlic butter), which taste a lot like sauteed mushrooms to me. I adore hackpeter, which is a German dish that is basically raw ground beef mixed with raw onions and a raw egg broken over the whole thing for good measure. I've tried a nibble or two of sushi, but it's something I know that I'll never develop a taste for.

Actually, my husband is not the most adventurous sushi eater. He sticks almost exclusively to tuna, and he wouldn't be caught dead trying something like eel or squid. Seito has the full range of offerings, so he can always find plenty of tuna to please his palate.

I don't suffer when we go to Seito, as I love vegetable tempura. It was actually my fondness for this dish that opened my husband's horizons to sushi. He had never been to a Japanese restaurant before we got married and I dragged him to one to indulge my tempura craving.

Don't confuse Seito with the many Japanese steakhouses that are dotted throughout the Orlando/Kissimmee area. Places like Kobe and Bennihana cook Teppan style, at a grill right in the center of your table. Many Americans consider that to be "Japanese," but Seito is much closer to an authentic experience.

Seito is not limited to sushi and tempura...not by any means. They have a variety of stir fry dishes, soups, salads, and teriyakis. Click here to see an example of the Seito menu.

Like all of the downtown Celebration restaurants, Seito has indoor and outdoor seating. It is located on Front Street, midway between Market Street and the movie theater.

Celebration Town Tavern:
Celebration Town Tavern is just past the Market Street Cafe on Front Street. It's a combination neighborhood bar and restaurant that features excellent clam chowder, plus a variety of steak and New England-style seafood. It's a little taste of Boston right in the middle of Central Florida. If you are married to a sports fan, like I am, he (or she) can watch the game while dining.

The Plantation Room (Celebration Hotel):
The Plantation Room is the restaurant inside the Celebration Hotel. It's a lovely, peaceful oasis of gourmet food served in an elegant atmosphere. The menu changes frequently, according to the season and the whim of the chef, but you can view a sample menu by clicking here.

The Plantation Room is definitely not a budgetary dining experience, but it is well worth the cost. We have been there once for dinner, but we like their special holiday buffets. They have a special offering on 4th of July (when they featured a picnic with a pig roast and a special fireworks viewing area), Easter, Mother's Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.

Like the regular menu, the buffets are on the pricey side (I think it was around $40 per person at Christmas), but it was definitely worth it. The soups and salads are so good that you'll have to remember to save room for the main courses. I loved the squash soup and the bourbon sweet potatoes, as well as the most godly mashed potatoes that I have ever tasted. You also received a glass of champagne with your meal. Meal cappers included cookies, pumpkin pie, and cheesecakes.

The only thing that made me cringe was the risk of germs from the unsupervised children putting their grubby paws all over the food, particularly the desserts. They would pick something up bare-handed, then plop it down again, and one even dropped a hunk of pumpkin pie on my good dress.

I did enjoy the ambiance of the piano player serenading the diners with carols. Years ago, before Eisner economics, my husband and I had a holiday tradition of dining at the Brown Derby in Disney-MGM Studio. There was a piano player who did carols there, and my Christmas season was never complete without hearing his rendition of the Snow Miser/Heat Miser theme. Now the piano is long gone, a victim of cut-backs. But as I dined at the hotel, I suddenly hear the familiar note: "They call me Snow Miser, whatever I touch, turns to snow in my clutch..." My sneaky husband had requested it for me when I wasn't looking.

Herman's, which is just before the movie theater on Front Street, is primarily known as an ice cream shoppe, but it has an amazingly robust food menu too. I am addicted to their bubble gum ice cream, but my husband has indulged in their pesto salad and pronounced it delicious. They also have a variety of soups and sandwiches. When the traditional sit-down restaurants are too crowded, Herman's makes a great option.

You can eat in at Herman's or take your food with you. I like taking my ice cream cone and eating it across the street, in front of the lake, rocking in one of the many scattered rocking chairs. Unfortunately, I can only do that half the year. The other half, the scorching Florida sun melts the ice cream almost instantaneously.

Barnie's Coffee:
I am firmly convinced that Barnie's puts addictive drugs in their coffee. How else can you explain the fact that I must consume at least one of their flavored iced coffees each day in order to maintain my sanity?

The great thing about Barnie's is that their flavored coffees actually taste like the names indicate. Too many flavored coffees tease you with their tempting scent, but when you brew them, they just taste like plain old coffee beans. In contracts, the chocolate mint coffee that you buy at Barnie's tastes just like a Thin Mint Girl Scout cookie, and Sweethearts Blend will have you convinced you are drinking a liquefied chocolate covered cherry.

My husband likes the hot drinks, but I prefer my coffes iced. There are two or three flavors available each day; I typically go for German Chocolate Cake or Santa’s White Chocolate, which has a seasonal name but is available throughout the year.

Click here to go to Barnie's website, which features a photo of the Celebration shop. Barnie's is on the corner of Bloom and Front Streets.

Sherlock's is located on Bloom Street, just down the street from Barnie's Coffee. You can spot it easily by the red English-style phone booth in front. It is well worth seeking out, especially if you are a tea lover like I am. And I'm not talking about run-of-the mill, everyday tea in a bag. When I was a child, my Hungarian grandmother brewed up fresh chamomile strained right from the flowers. At Sherlock's, the tea leaves are strained, not bagged, and the difference is as obvious as the difference between fresh brewed iced tea and the Nestea swill that comes out of a tap.

You may be overwhelmed by the choice of available flavors. Personally, I am partial to the rose and cinnamon varieties.

But no British tea shoppe would be complete without scones and pastries. I adore scones with Devonshire cream, while my husband usually opts for some type of cheesecake or fruit tart from the selection case. There are also some limited food selections, so you can easily enjoy a pleasant lunch at Sherlock's.

We've never had a full meal there; we'll probably try it someday, but I'm not too fond of the seating arrangements. The inside is, of course, non-smoking, but it adjoins a courtyard. The door is often open, and the smoke blows right into the building. Worse yet, once while selecting my scone, I was bowled over by the stink of someone puffing on a cigar out there! Ugh! Not exactly an enhancement to my appetite. I prefer getting take-out and eating it at home or out on the lakefront.

Sherlock's goes beyond tea and goodies to offer a vast selection of wine. We haven't explored that yet, but I know that we'll get around to it if I can every force myself to forgo my cinnamon tea.

Sherlock's also sells a variety of souvenirs and Sherlock Holmes memorabilia, as well as a selection of candies from England. Click here to view the Sherlock's menu. You'll be amazed at just how many varieties of tea are available!

Well, that about sums up my dining experiences in Celebration. Our town may not have as many options as 192, but the ones we do have are great. No sense in fighting the tourist traffic when you can eat right in your own backyard.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

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