Critic says: Refrain from the chain and feast like a Floridian

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Patrons relax at Rocco's Italian Grille.

ORLANDO, FLA. (Feb. 17, 12:25 p.m. ET) — As the third-largest metro area in the Sunshine State, Orlando caters to a diverse group of restaurant-goers, from the taste-bud-timid to the gastrointestinal gamblers.

Luckily for you, Scott Joseph, Orlando restaurant critic and author of Scott Joseph’s 2012 Orlando Restaurant Guide, attended a conference with NPE officials to counter the notion that central Florida is all chain and no substance — and he helped convince the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. to bring the exhibition to Orlando.

“I take umbrage with the notion that Orlando only has chain restaurants,” Joseph said. “We have wonderful, independently owned restaurants, many that are operated by classically trained chefs who have worked in restaurants around the world.”

Joseph’s credentials include a stint as senior restaurant critic at the Orlando Sentinel, where he authored thousands of reviews and produced columns called “Chow Hound” and “Table Matters.” It’s safe to say the man knows food and he’s a staunch advocate for the Orlando restaurant scene.

Some of those worldly cuisines include Indian, Brazilian, Peruvian, Cuban, Mexican, Thai and many more. The city even offers options for those with unique dietary needs, with vegan and vegetarian establishments as well as an eatery that offers only raw foods.

Sure, Orlando’s got the standard restaurant fare: your fast food, your buffets, your cross-country crowd pleasers — but so does every other big city.

“We have over 50 million visitors every year — that’s a lot of people to feed — so the branded restaurants fill a need,” Joseph said. “And the simple fact is that a lot of people seek the chains out when they travel. They like to know that they’re going to get something familiar.”

To wine and dine clients with the best of them, Joseph suggests stepping out of the tourist safety zone.

“I would recommend getting out of the area of the convention center and venturing out into the ‘real’ Orlando. Not because you can’t find good restaurants in the tourist corridor — you definitely can. But if you get away from the other conventioneers and vacationers, you can have a more relaxed dining experience and a better one-on-one discussion with your contacts.”

Joseph names gastropub The Ravenous Pig, Rocco’s Italian Grille and Bar, Luma on Park and French restaurant Le Coq au Vin as a few choice locales. If you want to stay close to your hotel and the Orange County Convention Center, Joseph suggests Restaurant Row, a mile-long stretch of Sand Lake Road just west of International Drive for dining spots like Big Fin Seafood Kitchen, Vine Grille and Wine Bar, and Nagoya Sushi.

Traveling with family to Orlando is far from a novel idea, so family dining is an easy fix.

“Instead of defaulting to the chains and burger spots, take the opportunity to introduce the kids to something new. I recommend trying one of our terrific Cuban restaurants because most are casual, family-ready and give you a lot of food for not a lot of money.”

At Sanaa, located in Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, you can watch grazing giraffes and buffalo as you consume African or Indian dishes. Or, visit one of two restaurants that look into an enormous aquarium containing sharks and exotic sea life: Epcot’s Coral Reef Restaurant and SeaWorld’s Sharks Underwater Grill.

For a quintessentially Orlando eating experience, Joseph suggests heading to Winter Park’s Park Avenue, which he describes as a “mini Rodeo Drive of shops,” where you’ll find plenty of excellent eateries. Head downtown to Lake Eola and have your pick of Hue, Cityfish, Spice Modern Steakhouse or Prickly Pear.

Orlando restaurants that receive top rankings on are barbecue joint 4Rivers Smokehouse, Brazilian buffet Texas de Brazil Churrascaria and German eatery Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Café.

If traveling from the beaten path tickles your fancy, download Joseph’s free smartphone app to find the best restaurants in the vicinity while exploring Orlando. For more dining ideas and to comb through archived restaurant reviews, visit Joseph’s web site,