In the 1970s and 80s, long before Downtown Disney and Universal CityWalk came on the scene, Church Street was the place to party in Orlando. Lined with stores, restaurants and bars, Church Street Station (as it was known then) was home to legendary venues like Rosie O’Grady’s and the Cheyenne Saloon & Opera House. By the mid-80s, it had become one of the biggest tourist attractions in Florida.
However, this downtown entertainment complex’s popularity started to wane by the 1990s, and the decline was followed by two decades of valiant revival attempts that more often led to lawsuits and scandal. But, thanks in part to the 2010 opening of the Amway Center, the colossal sports and concert venue perched on the district’s west end, Church Street is experiencing quite a renaissance.
First off, new restaurants are opening, and ones that opened a few years ago are staying — which is always a good sign. Ceviche, a colorfully flamboyant tapas restaurant with a lively flamenco bar, is a delightful destination for small plates of atun estilo tartaro (sushi-grade tuna with capers, onions, parsley and sesame oil) and pa amb oli (serrano ham and Manchego cheese on warm bread) before a concert or night out at area bars. Pair your plates with Ceviche’s sparkling cava sangria. Heading east, The Rusty Spoon has created a buzz with its locally sourced menu filled with modern gastropub fare like the “Dirty South” stew (head-on shrimp, local snapper and wild clams with tomato and peanuts in a shrimp broth with creamy grits) and the “Rusty Fish & Chips” (seasoned with Old Bay and served with coleslaw and chunky tartar sauce). Finally, it would be negligent not to mention Kres Chophouse, since it celebrates its tenth birthday this year (an uncommon accomplishment for this area). As the only true steakhouse in the district, Kres is popular with the city’s power lunchers and nighttime dealmakers.
Besides having a few nightclubs and bars geared toward a rowdy twenty-something crowd, Church Street District satisfies its more sophisticated clientele with several noteworthy watering holes, including ONE80 GREY GOOSE Lounge, the swanky martini bar perched atop the Amway Center where guests can drink in the 180-degree view of the city skyline along with their $13 martinis. Riding the wave of the craft beer and whiskey craze, Eternal Tap opened in late 2012 with a pub-meets-pizzeria concept and more than 100 bottled beer offerings. Boasting brick walls and a cherry wood bar, the neighborhood favorite has kept much of the original aesthetic of its Church Street Station locale, once a nineteenth-century railroad depot. Pool tables and arcade games add to the festive yet low-key atmosphere. Though not technically on Church Street, The Bosendorfer Lounge is considered part of the district and is definitely worth the short stroll south on Orange Avenue. Tucked inside the lobby of the Grand Bohemian Hotel, this plush piano lounge with blood-red seats and a pitch-black bar is a great spot to catch live music on Friday and Saturday nights.
Theater lovers ought to grab tickets to Mad Cow Theatre Company, a professional group that presents musicals and plays in an intimate venue at 54 West Church Street. On the zanier side, SAK Comedy Lab, which is located in the CityArts Factory a few blocks north of Church Street on Orange Avenue, amuses the crowd with a live sketch comedy show five nights a week.
No doubt, supporters of the Church Street District have worked tirelessly to recapture its bygone popularity as one of Orlando’s premier nightlife districts. So far, so good.
Photos Courtesy of Mad Cow Theater, The Grand Bohemian Hotel, Offer Studios, Jeff Chase and Ceviche