Courtesy of Knife & Spoon
"Um, guys?" our older daughter asked as we pulled the rental car up to the main entrance of the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes, this past December. "Are we staying in a castle?"
It was a legitimate question. The approach to the palatial property runs along an arcing drive that ends up in front of a pillar-studded vestibule, the two turrets of the hotel rising up in front, the fronds of the palm trees rustling behind. Even for my wife and I, this looked like some sort of sub-tropical palace; for our eight- and eleven-year-old daughters, it was nothing less than the first glimpse of the magic that we'd hoped they would experience over the course of the next three days. The beautifully appointed and spacious rooms, and the kind, fantastically welcoming staff further convinced them that they'd stepped into an episode of Sofia the First.
We had initially scheduled the trip for the summertime, but with the Delta variant burning through the country, we decided to postpone it to the first week of December. After the big reveal last spring that we'd be taking them to Disney World, and the justifiable disappointment when we broke the news to them that they'd have to wait even longer to actually go, there was a serious amount of pressure on us to provide the kind of experience that didn't just live up to their expectations, but wildly exceeded them. And for my wife and I, after close to two years of pandemic-related restrictions and precious little travel during that time, we also needed a relaxing, delicious get-away. When we travel, after all, it's just as often for the food and drink as it is for the sites. But from everything we'd heard — the horror stories of million-dollar hot dogs in the theme parks, of dinners whose bills were in perfectly inverse proportion to the amount of pleasure they provided — we weren't sure what to expect during our three-night trip to Orlando.
The questions hovered over us as we flew down one frigid morning from our home base in Philadelphia: Could a family vacation to Disney World provide the sort of grown-up relaxation and sustenance — mental, emotional, and gustatory — that we craved, while also creating the lifetime of Disney memories that seem to be every American kid's dream? Could the girls immerse themselves in the magic of Minnie and Mickey and their favorite characters while we all ate like our own version of Disney royalty?
In a word: Yes.
The key, I discovered, is finding the right base of operations — a hotel that provides everything that both generations need. For us, that meant staying off-property; as much as we wanted to immerse ourselves in the experience, the thought of swimming in the sea of Disney the entire time didn't hold much appeal. We also knew that our daughters would need some downtime from it all. Too many friends and acquaintances had told us about the utter exhaustion that their kids had at the end of a day of ride-hopping, so a hotel that gave us some physical separation from the parks held the most appeal. The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes, is an easy twenty-minute drive from the Magic Kingdom, which proved to be a blissful world away. A drive back at the end of the first full day served as a sort of pressure release valve between us and an eleven-hour marathon across both the Magic Kingdom and Epcot, which involved more snack food than any of us knew it was possible to consume and a broken credit card machine at the base of the monorail that resulted in our being comped approximately $45 billion worth of sparkly headbands and floppy-ear Goofy hats. There were also questionable and entirely self-inflicted combinations of food at Epcot (disappointing Chinese dumplings, chased by remarkably good hummus in the Morocco pavilion) that should be listed as a potential health risk on every Epcot web site alongside Covid protocols. Many of the individual dishes were decent; one after another after another, less so. The parks receding in the distance allowed our daughters to decompress, absorb it all, and gear up for the next day. There are plenty of fantastic hotels on-property as well, many of them just as well-suited to adults as to children, but for us, the location of the Ritz twenty minutes down the road, was perfect.
Still, the question remains: How do you take a family trip to Disney World and eat and drink like royalty while still ensuring that there's something for everyone in the family? Our first lunch, at Highball & Harvest, gave us an answer.
Located not far from the massive swimming pool and PGA Tour-caliber golf course, Highball & Harvest is a casual yet elegant take on Southern classics helmed by Chef Scott Pizzo, with a focus on local ingredients. Our daughters started off with mocktails — both were beautifully presented, and the Shirley Temple was particularly vibrant — that were every bit as thoughtfully crafted by Bar Chef Brenda Mulero as were our cocktails. Of particular note was the Autumn Fog; the combination of Ron Zacapa, Ruxolino Amaro, house-made vanilla-cinnamon syrup, Bosc pear purée, and pineapple juice channeled the flavors of the season and served as a perfect foil for the Florida heat. As for the menu, it amped up both familiar classics and offered plenty of seasonal, locally sourced compositions to justify a reservation even if you're not staying at the hotel. I still think about the Kurobuta pork belly, and dragging each forkful through the apple purée, the braised red cabbage adding visual pop, and shishitos and pickled apples lending it all contrasting heat and acidity, respectively. Brussels sprouts with kimchi sauce were a revelation — "I could eat this every day," our younger daughter proclaimed through way too big a mouthful, which I'm pretty sure is the first time an eight-year-old has ever said they'd eat Brussels sprouts with any sense of regularity.
All of the restaurants we visited managed to find that often-elusive balance between refinement and family-friendliness, which is not an easy trick to pull off. But it's an important one: Our meals in the Magic Kingdom were primarily for nutritive purposes — Hurry up, guys, our Genie+ Pass time for Space Mountain is coming up! — though there was plenty of pleasure to be taken in the spring roll cart in Adventureland: Blissfully oily, potentially heartburn-inducing, and pricey (two for $9.50), there was nonetheless a sense of elemental joy in them, especially the cheeseburger version, which reduced me to head-shaking bemusement: What did they do to this thing, I kept asking myself, to make me love it so much? If memory serves, I kept on hearing Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up" in my head each time I took a bite. Loaded hot dogs on Main Street USA at Casey's Corner, hit all the right notes, though the lobster rolls at the Columbia Harbour House were a bit of a letdown. Epcot is an entirely different story, with surprisingly solid and very approachable riffs of the foods of the countries represented there. If we had more time, we'd have spent an entire day, and we would have worn shorts with elastic waistbands in order to make the gluttony just a little bit more comfortable.
A Michelin-Starred Steakhouse
if you're the sort of traveler whose journeys focus on food as much as ours tend to, the importance of a great dinner cannot be overstated, especially after a day of theme-park eating. Knife & Spoon, from chef John Tesar (the kitchen is overseen by the wildly talented chef de cuisine Gerald Sombright), should be a required stop. (The restaurant recently earned its first Michelin star.)
Like all great restaurants, the team running the show there under the expert direction of general manager Colin Burke, is well-versed in the minutiae of the menu and the beverage program, yet also warm and welcoming. The unexpectedly comforting (and expectedly decadent) Maître d' Manhattan, built on a base of tallow-washed whiskey from Smooth Ambler, two types of vermouth (sherry and dry) and house-made truffle bitters, set an appropriately carnivorous tone for what is one of the most exciting steakhouse menus I've seen in years.
Tesar and Sombright work with local farms to not just source the fantastic meat that anchors the menu, but they also age it in-house for often exceptionally long periods of time, including a bone-in rib eye from 44 Farms that's been aged for an entire year. This extended aging results in cuts of beef that are likely to change your expectations moving forward about the flavors and textures that aged steak is capable of achieving. We chose the 45-day dry aged, bone-in New York strip, whose impossibly concentrated beefiness was marked by a deep umami character not dissimilar to blue cheese. It was phenomenal, especially alongside the remarkably well-priced 2015 Brunello di Montalcino from Donatella Cinelli Colombini.
Of course, there was far more than steak to savor here. Live diver scallop in wild mushroom dashi was anchored by lemon shallot brown butter and made even more memorable with a generous shaving of truffles. A decadent caviar potato pavé was flecked with gold leaf. Dessert of coconut financier with lime cream, mango, mango-lime sorbet, and pineapple arrived looking like a modern-art installation. Knife & Spoon may be an unforgettable steakhouse, but it's also much more than that.
Italian, With an Assist From an Onsite Garden
If, on the other hand, you end up ordering round after round of cheeseburger spring rolls in Adventureland and can't conceive of more meat, then Primo, in the neighboring JW Marriott — also on the Grande Lakes property — is the way to go. Start off with a cocktail before perusing the well-chosen and fairly priced wine list. The Cocoa Camillo was a particularly successful riff on a Negroni but made with cacao-nib-infused Campari and Tempus Fugit a La Vanilla Cacao. Most of their cocktails incorporate fresh herbs and fruits from the gardens just outside, and they even have Barren's Primo Gin, which is distilled in Maine but includes botanicals from the gardens. That focus on freshness follows through to the food as well.
Grilled octopus was impossibly tender, electric with a garlic chive pesto, garden pepper and pecan romesco, and confit purple potatoes. Vidalia onion and green-tomato salad rode shotgun. Cast-iron-seared big eye tuna arrived in a fennel-pollen vinaigrette with braised fennel, local citrus, and olives from the garden. A massive arancini as big as a baseball was anchored by deeply complex bolognese, crowned with mozzarella, and kissed with herbs from the garden. Roasted vegetables —carrots, eggplants, potatoes — were sweet-savory dance partners for tender burrata and a drizzle of 100-year-old balsamic vinegar. Ricotta gnudi was reposed in a rich sausage cream dotted with roasted tomatoes and kale. The kids went to town on all of it: That arancini in particular didn't stand a chance. Desserts, from the impeccable tiramisu and cannoli to the zeppole and parfait — a chocolate pig's head staring out from the top — rounded out a meal that was equal parts comforting, original, and joyous.
Mark Wieland Photography
A World Of Good
There are increasingly robust dining options in and around the parks themselves. Wine Bar George boasts an excellent wine list; Sanaa at the Animal Kingdom Lodge has been generating lots of positive buzz; Epcot's La Cava de Tequila offers more than 200 examples of its namesake spirit. Throughout the parks and beyond, there are exceptionally exciting dining options that will appeal to food-focused visitors and are still welcoming to families with younger kids, even inside the best hotels, as we discovered firsthand.
By late-morning of our last full day in Orlando, after making our way through Universal Studios and virtually every Harry Potter experience possible, we asked our daughters where they wanted to go next. We assumed it would be Paramount, or back to the Magic Kingdom, or one of the other theme parks. But without hesitation, and more or less in unison like those twins from "The Shining" but a lot less scary, they told us they were exhausted and wanted to lounge at the pool back at the hotel. "It's hot out," our older daughter reasoned, "and the pool is really nice." Our younger one then chimed in: "Plus, we can have lunch and then stop at Highball & Harvest for those donuts we get to fill with their version of Nutella."
It was flawless logic from both of them, and we weren't about to argue.