By: Janet K. Keeler
The camera loves Orlando’s Lake Eola.
Tune in to any nationally televised sports event from the city (a football game in Camping World Stadium, commonly remembered as the Citrus Bowl, or an Orlando Magic game at Amway Center) and you’re likely to see the lit fountain in the middle of Lake Eola with the skyline of downtown Orlando as the glittering backdrop.
It’s a pretty scene, but for a culinary traveler, there’s more to the area than a picturesque urban lake. (The shots hardly ever show the swan-shaped paddleboats that can be rented for excursions on the popular lake. They cost $15 for 30 minutes and are perfect for date night.)
Stand at the vantage point of the camera operator (on the lake’s east side) and look around. You’re in Thornton Park. Or the “Thornton Park District: Downtown for Grownups” as promoters call it. The “grownup” part describes the laidback nightlife in the district, a sharp contrast to the bumping nightclubs of North Orange Avenue, a short distance away. There’s live music, but it’s easy-listening hits rather than the hip-hop and rap at the clubs.
Food and drink are the primary draw here, from an early morning cappuccino and apricot pastry at Benjamin French Bakery & Cafe to a late-night craft beer paired with food truck fare at the Falcon Bar & Gallery. Part art gallery, part beer and wine emporium, and lots of funk and sass can be found at this dog-friendly place. Two St. Bernards were recently spotted sprawled across the (entire) sidewalk at one outdoor café. Thornton Park loves dogs.
The History of Thornton Park
In the 1980s, Thornton Park was plagued by urban blight. It would have been hard to imagine the Eola Wine Company attracting patrons for brunch mimosa flights during those years. Today, you have to elbow your way in to find a seat at peak times. After all, it is across the street from Eola Lake, and open until 2 a.m. on weekends.
Like many historic neighborhoods on the fringes of the nation’s downtowns, vintage homes with loads of character (in this case 1920s bungalows) and the proximity to entertainment and businesses, have made them attractive again. People (families, career-minded singles, and retirees with money) started moving back into Thornton Park and fixing up homes. Some found cozy living quarters in the swanky high-rise condominium complexes that sprung up. These changes have made Thornton Park one of Orlando most popular neighborhoods in which to live and visit. An annual Halloween block party and an occasional car show add to the lively scene.
The second Thursday Wine + Art Walk is a street party that often raises funds for charity. For $15, participants get a glass and a map to 25 businesses offering specialty drinks, like a Stoli Mule from the Stubborn Mule or sangria from Woof Gang Bakery (bring your pooch).
Thornton Park buzzes today with restaurants and shops, festivals and a weekly farmers market. Those who need a place to work off the Central Station burger at Graffiti Junktion (Wagyu beef, pepper Jack, Havarti, bacon jam and red onion on a brioche bun) can walk the nearly 1-mile paved loop around it around Lake Eola. There is a steady stream of runners and walkers (some pushing strollers) working their way around the lake, mornings and evenings especially. There aren’t many weekends when there isn’t a kid’s birthday party (que the bounce house) or a family reunion in the park.
The Sunday Orlando Farmers Market at Lake Eola Park is a year-round market that features produce, plus artisan pottery, soaps, jewelry and other crafts. Sunday is a big day in Thornton Park, because Sunday is brunch day. Mimosas and Bloody Marys are the drinks of the day, with some of those Marys reaching epic heights. Shrimp and crispy bacon strip garnishes mix it up with the celery stalks. At Southern Contemporary Cuisine, sometimes called SoCo, Thai Sriracha Sauce brings the heat in the Bloody Caesar (the addition of clam broth differentiates it from a traditional Mary).
SoCo’s executive chef Greg Richie also helms the Baoery Asian Gastropub a few doors down East Central Boulevard. There he has conceived a fusion menu with a playful wink. He plays with traditional Chinese steamed buns by filling them with Korean-spiced fried chicken, tempura seafood, and buffalo chicken. The Bao Wow? Hot dog, pickles and spicy-hot sauerkraut. And for more culinary hijinks, there is the Cow Bao. That’s a steamed bun filled with barbecue beef, pickles and crispy onion.
Every now and then the sound of a loud gong reverberates through the dining room, indicating Sake Bombs are 2 for 1. You get used to it.
And there’s more. Italian food in giant portions on the patio at Anthony’s Italian restaurant -- come for the meatballs and stay for the twinkle lights. Mucho Tequila and Tacos features innovative tequila cocktails including an Upside Down Margarita made with Grand Mariner and 1800 Reposado, among other things.
And then there’s Dexter’s of Thornton Park, which opened 20 years ago and ushered in a new era for neighborhood. Augmenting the full lunch, brunch and dinner menu, the 5 to 7 p.m. bar specials go nicely with a glass of Pinot (noir or grigio, depending on your tastes). A basket of mini-crab fritters and some Cuban sliders can get the night started.
Those tastes plus a stroll east on Washington Street, toward that gorgeous lake, let you take in the flavors of a neighborhood that’s brimming with flair.
When you go...