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Winter Park, FL probably has a higher James Beard nominated chef per capita ratio than just about anywhere in the country with three chefs residing in a community of 28,000. Funny, many think this part of Florida is a culinary wasteland. Think again.

For just about anyone with kids, a visit to Orlando and “The House of the Mouse” is a rite of passage. While you can find some great food while staying on the massive Disney campus at places like Victoria and Albert's at the Grand Floridian Resort or at Todd English's bluezoo and the outpost of NYC's Il Mulino at the Swan and the Dolphin Resorts, just a short drive off the reservation can open up a world of dining options at restaurants in the surrounding area where the charm has not been imagineered and where the food has character that is not subject to trademark laws.

In particular, nearby Winter Park, FL probably has a higher James Beard nominated chef per capita ratio than just about anywhere in the country with three chefs residing in a community of 28,000. This small enclave is one of the older towns in Central Florida and holds the distinction of being the first planned community in the state after a group of northern business magnates incorporated the town as a winter refuge for other wealthy northerners who could ride the railroad to warmer climes in the late 19th century.

Orient yourself to the area by taking an hour-long boat tour for an entertaining and informative trip around the seven lakes that make up the core of the town. In addition to a relaxing boat ride, you can also see many of the original mansions constructed by the vacationing carpetbaggers as well as wildlife living along the shore and in the canals that connect the lakes.

For a bracing breakfast to get you going, stop by the White Wolf Cafe on the Orlando/Winter Park line, an antique market-turned brunch spot. There are still plenty of antique for sale in the shop, but the highlights are the various creative Benedict dishes and cinnamon rolls as big as your head. Plus there's a full bar with local beers on tap and an array of top shelf spirits.

While Florida doesn't necessarily have its own particular regional style of barbecue, that didn't stop pitmaster John Rivers from spreading his BBQ ministry from the 4 Rivers Smokehouse. Rivers combines elements of Texas barbecue, Southern staples and Lowcountry classics to create a unique offering that keeps the dining room full at all hours of the day and night. Save room for a slice of cake or pie from the full bakery that forces diners to pace their way through a menu of sandwiches which Rivers calls “signature stackers,” including the Texas Destroyer, Messy Pig and Smokehouse Cuban. He is also releasing a line of candles made with the grease drippings from his smoked brisket which smell so masculine that they should probably be called “mandles.”

Beard-nominated chefs James and Julie Petrakis also know their way around a smoker, a talent which they demonstrate admirably at their two Winter Park restaurants The Ravenous Pig and Cask and Larder. The former features lots of in-house charcuterie, while the latter trades on a reputation for serving in-house beers brewed in the back of the restaurant by award winning brewmaster Ron Raike. Both Petrakis restaurants are known for their upscale downhome Southern food served with an elegant twist. Try the lobster tacos, gruyere biscuits and truffle fries at The Pig or the fried food extravaganza Hillbilly Basket and pimento cheese fries at C & L.

For the finest in fine dining in Winter Park, locals and visitors alike know that Brandon McGlamery is the man to know. He operates two restaurants on Park Avenue, the main drag of town. McGlamery developed his elegant style of cuisine working at French Laundry, Chez Panisse, Guy Savoy and Bacchanalia in Atlanta and has been recognized with a nomination last year for Best Chef-South by the James Beard Society. His flagship restaurant is Luma on Park where he serves a tight menu of small plates and main dishes which focus on local ingredients, particularly seafood. The wine cellar at Luma features a vast variety of interesting wines at completely reasonable markups for such a classy joint. McGlamery has recently written his first cookbook entitled 9 Courses, a reference to the tasting menu that he offers at the chef's table at Luma, one of the most coveted reservations in Winter Park.

For an Italian take on McGlamery's culinary repertoire, take a short passeggiata down the block to Luma's sister restaurant, Prato. Large crowds of young in-the-know diners gather in the dramatic dining room decorated in an eclectic industrial/farm house hybrid style. Plants and herbs hang from the walls to soften the décor, but the huge bar and flaming pizza oven dominate the bustling ambiance while patrons plow through an inventive menu of Italian dishes made local by the addition of ingredients from many regional farms and purveyors. From the Widowmaker pizza topped with caciacavallo, fennel sausage and a farm egg to the Short Rib “Brasata” with spicy giardiniera, the cuisine at Prato is designed to fill you up while the strong drinks knock you down.

Fortunately, it's only a short drive back to the safety of the Wonderful World, so after an evening of eating and drinking in Winter Park, you'll be able to lay your head on a Disney pillow and await your wake-up call from Mickey or Goofy. Don't worry about overindulging, you can always walk it off in a theme park tomorrow.

White Wolf Cafe
1829 N Orange Ave
Orlando, FL 32804
(407) 895-9911

4 Rivers Smokehouse
1600 W Fairbanks Ave
Winter Park, FL 32789
(407) 474-8377

The Ravenous Pig
1234 N Orange Ave
Winter Park, FL 32789
(407) 628-2333

Cask and Larder
565 W Fairbanks Ave
Winter Park, FL 32789
(321) 280-4200

Luma on Park
290 S Park Ave
Winter Park, FL 32789
(407) 599-4111

124 N Park Ave
Winter Park, FL 32789
(407) 262-0050

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