[Photo courtesy Bösendorfer Lounge in Orlando, Fla.]

Native Orlandoans are so rare that meeting one is occasion enough for a drink or two. Life in Central Florida is a constant influx of new, creative restaurateurs and lounge owners, and an always shifting pool of refreshing new drinks. That cozy downtown Orlando bar can offer spirits fashioned from local ingredients by local distillers on both coasts (St. Augustine Distillery to the east; St. Petersburg Distillery to the west), rye and corn whiskeys from Palm Ridge, rum and bourbon via Two Brothers to the north, and gin and vodka from Tampa’s Florida Cane. And 10 breweries entwine Orlando proper with hand-crafted suds.

(See also: Last Call: The Courtesy in Orlando, Fla.)


Downtown Orlando

[Photo courtesy Mathers Social Gathering in Orlando, Fla.]

Daytime downtown is filled with worker bees heading to corporate headquarters and yoga moms circling landmark Lake Eola. Night means frenetic Church Street for dance clubs and over-indulging until 2 a.m., and discrete pockets of comfortable Orange Avenue-adjacent bars for curated cocktails and some damn fine food.

Bösendorfer Lounge at the Grand Bohemian Hotel, across the street from the gazillion-dollar Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, offers live jazz, bites from the award-winning Boheme restaurant, and big city attention from some of the best bartenders in town. A Klimt Kiss cucumber smash (cucumber vodka and elderflower liqueur) refers to the gilded Klimt rotunda, where a unique $500,000 Imperial Grand Bösendorfer piano lives. Even a simple Manhattan is far more exotic than you’d expect. Ask for Ivy at the bar.

[Photo courtesy BauHaus in Orlando, Fla.]

Downtown is a mix of new high rises and brick structures from a century past, and amid the Orange Avenue hubbub is The Woods, upstairs in the 1924-built Rose Building. A tree-height Northwoods lodge focusing on an indulgent selection of 320-plus whiskeys (with and without the “e”), Woods crafts cocktails of in-house infusions and syrups. Order the Strega and milk foam concoction called Wilky May.

On brick-lined Pine Street is Mathers Social Gathering, a hipster club with an intimate parlor air. With butlers—seriously. Echoing the more than 140-year-old building, the beverage menu ranges from absinthe and bourbon-laced lemonade to legacy old fashioneds and 1930s-resonant, Florida-inspired libations of house-made cordials, bitters, and syrups. One block west is a duo of treasures: BauHaus at walk-in ground level of the 1884 Hanson Building; and Hanson’s Shoe Repair, a Prohibition-themed speakeasy on the third floor.

[Photo courtesy Hansen’s Shoe Repair in Orlando, Fla.]

Last year, the alcoholic beverage license law was changed to allow 80-seat downtown restaurants to have a full bar, so there’s no shortage of alcoholic opportunities. DoveCote near the Federal Courthouse, pub-y Avenue Gastrobar, and neighborhood-located Maxine’s on Shine benefit from the change.


Mills 50

The Bohemia of Orlando, encompassing Malaysian, Latin fusion, bao, taco, and Vietnamese restaurants on one end (Orlando has one of the largest Vietnamese populations in the country), and museums and Orlando Shakespeare theater on the other. Bars and music venues (Will’s Pub for both) keep it lively, and funky lounges make it unmissable.

[Photo courtesy Maxine’s On Shine in Orlando, Fla.]

Tori Tori Pub on the west side of Mills Avenue is master ramen-oyaji Sonny Nguyen’s trendy Japanese izakaya bar. An open-fire yakitori grill and binchotan charcoal create a fragrant environment for the small bite menu, but it’s foremost a bar, and the accent is on drink. Floral, sweet, and savory toki highballs, an actually drinkable Midori sour, and overflowing sakes hot, cold, and martini join nori-infused Japanese whiskey and the industry-specific “Go Cry In the Walk-in” of Thai chili-infused tequila, chili liqueur, agave, and Mexican tajin spice. Get there early enough for a seat at the bar.

Across the street, Wally’s has been a fixture since 1954. Not always a clean and bright fixture, but like a puppy that starts out cute and turns into a drooling slob, Wally’s was the definition of dive. Version 1.0 closed in early 2019, to reopen under new ownership several months later. Now, slightly more polished, most of the regulars have returned (original owner Walter “Wally” Updike’s ashes have a place of pride on a shelf), and for a $3 PBR, a shot, and cocktails that are mostly alcohol, this is the place.

[Photo by Kristine Young; courtesy Tori Tori Pub in Orlando, Fla.]

Heading north a few blocks finds The Guesthouse, where the young and pretty like their drinks with a view of the street, and the crowd spills out into a parking lot served by an Airstream-housed second bar and The Best Chef award-winning Black Rooster Taqueria next door.


Theme Park Area

Who can better afford creative cocktail talent than the theme park giants and their neighbors?

The 16th floor, Dali-inspired Dahlia Lounge at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort (between Epcot and Animal Kingdom) takes its cue from the Toledo tapas restaurant down the hall. Rooftop views of Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge are accompanied by crafts drinks such as the Jerez Martini (Amontillado sherry, Solera Reserva, Torres Magdala orange, and St. George pear brandies) and Spanish bar preferido, the gin tonic.

[Photo by Steven Diaz; courtesy Dahlia Lounge in Orlando, Fla.]

Pharmacy, a minimalist bar and restaurant on Sand Lake Road’s Restaurant Row near Universal, offers an inventive menu from Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chef Loren Falsone, and house-made tinctures for head-spinning cocktails from alchemist Dominick Tardugno. The bar behind faux elevator doors is inhabited by twisted classics and originals like Mr. Martinez, a smoked concoction of house-blended whiskey and port, dry vermouth, and a prosciutto tincture.

[Photo courtesy Pharmacy in Orlando, Fla.]

Strong Water Tavern, within screaming distance of Dr. Doom’s Fearfall, is billed as the “lounge” of Universal Orlando’s Sapphire Falls Resort. It’s by far more: a skillful restaurant, shaped by Chef Carlos Castaño, that sails the longitudes from Veracruz to Antigua. Its comprehensive list of the world’s rums is impressive enough without educated Rum Captains suggesting the house-infused, three-day-aged Flora de Cana and black tea rum punch or house-made ginger beer mules.


Winter Park

The “suburbs” of Orlando proper, Winter Park is just five miles from downtown. But this town, founded as a resort community by rich Chicago-ites in 1881, is a brick street, big money haven for the arts (including two world-class museums), shopping, and restaurants. Its libations are equally posh.

[Photo courtesy Strong Water Tavern in Orlando, Fla.]

Luma on Park, an ode to locally sourced, chef-driven fine dining across from Central Park and the SunRail station, is the celeb hotspot: Is that the Mayor? Is that a table of Orlando Magic players? Are those world-class chefs Daniel Boulud and Paul Bocuse at the bar? Yes, yes, and yes. And at that bar, the culinary stars would find a 7,000-bottle, two-story wine vault and creations like the Sweet Escape cocktail (Tito’s vodka, Licor 43, Aperol, cantaloupe shrub, and mint cantaloupe foam).

A block south at Proper & Wild, chef Chelsie Savage’s groundbreaker in high-end plant-based dining captures that market for drinking as well. Try a Sunstorm of Yuki Otoko sake, Aperitivo Cappelletti, carrot, mango, habanero tincture, and cilantro.

[Photo courtesy Alfond Inn in Winter Park, Fla.]

A Condé Nast Traveler top 5 hotel, the boutique Alfond Inn off Park Avenue houses a world-class art collection courtesy of its owner, Rollins College, the nearby liberal arts university founded in 1885. Art in the lobbies, corridors, and guest rooms is equaled by the artful menu at Hamilton’s Kitchen and one of the most popular upscale bars in upscale Winter Park.

Ravenous Pig brought the idea of the modern gastropub to Central Florida. James Beard Award semi-finalists James and Julie Petrakis (the only chefs to ever be nominated as a couple), built a mini-empire on meticulous Southern cooking. They have brewmaster Larry Foor to thank for the onsite Ravenous Pig Brewing Co., producing small-batch beers such as Lone Palm Golden Ale and Saison Du Cochon. The bar serves gin and tonics on tap, and drinks like The Ravenous Pig Old Fashioned (featuring bacon-infused Old Forester bourbon), and The Long Voyage Home with brandy, rye, vermouth, and tobacco bitters.

Most of these bars pour the whiskey, vodka, rum, and prize-winning Bear Gully Bourbon of Winter Park Distilling. Their Bear & Peacock Brewery is next door to the craft spiriter’s location.

[Photo courtesy The Old Jailhouse in Sanford, Fla.]

Road Trip

For an excursion beyond Orlando’s immediate confines, the town of Sanford is a half-hour drive (or trip on SunRail), its histories since the 1800s culminating in a thriving food and drink community. Eight breweries surround scenic Lake Monroe, including Deviant Wolfe, Sanford Brewing, and Orange County Brewers (not actually in Orange County, but …).

[Photo courtesy Bitters & Brass in Sanford, Fla.]

The cocktail scene is dominated by Bitters & Brass, owned by bartenders Julian Burgos and Arthur Boothe, who also have The Suffering Bastard inside nearby Tuffy’s Bottle Shop, with its own cidery on premises. Order a Mellow Corn Julep of corn whiskey, honey syrup, and Jamaican rum.

The Old Jailhouse is just that, a brick building circa 1890 that was home to blacksmiths, stables, and the Seminole County jail. It’s now a sublime restaurant, with bar manager Nick Sprysenski making a mean Hard Thyme of herb-infused bourbon, pear brandy, white vermouth, and lemon to complement local legend chef Bram Fowler’s Florida-meets-Sun Belt menu.