It’s not in Haight-Ashbury, but it has that Bohemian feel: welcome to the Drunken Monkey Coffee Bar.

The Drunken Monkey Coffee Bar always attracts a healthy crowd. (Photo by Steve Schwartz).

ORLANDO — It says something about the diversity of the Bible Belt that Bohemia truly does exist here, if you know where to look.
When people talk about Bohemian enclaves, you’re likely to think of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village or San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood — although it says something that if you visit Haight-Ashbury today, you’ll find psychedelic t-shirts and hippie memorabilia sold in gift shops, a weird transition where the Summer of Love meets capitalism and becomes a marketing tool. Well, even aging hippies have to make a living.
If Haight-Ashbury is much too far a trip to make, you might want to consider a closer alternative, like the corner of Amelia and Bumby in Orlando.
Take a drive over there, find a place to park, walk around, and … you’re probably going to think, Um, gee Mike, this doesn’t look all that Bohemian.
True, Bohemia isn’t likely to be found at the Goodwill Tire shop across the street, or the First Baptist Church on the other side, or even at The Plaza Live Theatre, although they may have offered some theatrical productions in the past with appeal to the Bohemian crowd.
No, you want to look right at that corner of Bumby and Amelia to find one of Orlando’s best Bohemian treasures, the Drunken Monkey Coffee Bar. You can’t miss the coffee shop’s distinctive sign with the intoxicated brown monkey swinging from a pole, and below it the advertisement for the bar’s special events, like the Science Fiction Club that meets here every Thursday from 8-10 p.m. Having them discuss the latest in sci fi intrigue seems entirely appropriate, since Drunken Monkey’s appeal truly is out of this world.

The staff is friendly, the wi fi is free, and the food is delicious at Drunken Monkey. (Photo by Steve Schwartz).


Billed on its web site as a “coffee junkie’s paradise,” that’s no exaggeration, since they do have some excellent coffee, espressos, lattes, etc. — not to mention black tea from India, smoothies, iced drinks and frozen drinks. “Drunken Monkey Coffee Bar was conceived to fill the need in Orlando for excellent coffee and food that everyone can eat … think college-town coffeehouse,” the web site notes.
And that’s one of the things I love about Drunken Monkey: cyberspace.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve gone to Drunken Monkey first thing in the morning with my laptop, found a small table, and taken advantage of the free wi fi there. I’m rarely the only one doing that, and within a half hour most of the tables get taken by others, mainly students, also armed with a laptop. Drunken Monkey isn’t a particularly big coffee shop/Internet cafe (very few of them are), and it has several tables plus a couch to relax on. Let’s just say the college crowd fills the room up pretty quickly on a daily basis. And that’s one of the things I like about the bar’s atmosphere. It has the feel of someplace you’d find right on a huge college campus. It doesn’t seem like one of those high end wine bars that business executives go to so they can talk shop over martini lunches or expensive happy hours.
I can usually be found there either with a cup of espresso or a vanilla or chocolate egg cream. One of life’s great struggles, I’ve discovered, is finding places outside of New York City that sell egg creams. This specialty drink is one of my true favorites, and it speaks highly of Drunken Monkey that they make them — and make them so well.
So what else makes Drunken Monkey so appealing? It isn’t just the toy monkeys found virtually everywhere you look — although that is fun. The philosophy behind Drunken Monkey is also enticing, since in addition to rich coffee there’s the meals — which stress healthy living. Their grilled wraps, quiche and panini’s are a vegan eaters delight, but you also want to save some room for the Drunken Monkey homemade soups and their desserts and pastries.

The Drunken Monkey is a vegan and coffee lover's delight. (Photo by Steve Schwartz).


In addition to hosting the Sci Fi Club, Tuesday Night is Comedy Improv at Drunken Monkey, and from 8-9 p.m. you can watch improvisers Dan Collins and Adam Sharf do their best to make you laugh, while Friday at 7 p.m. is Board Game Nights.
As I said, Drunken Monkey is more than just a coffee bar. It’s great location for vegetarian food, a gathering place for like-minded folks, a study hall for college students — a Bohemian enclave for artists, writers and those who think a place like this simply can’t exist in the deep South. How wrong they are.
The only real complaint I have about Drunken Monkey is that their parking lot isn’t very big, and it fills up awfully fast. Watch out around noon, when you’re going to be roaming the neighborhood in search of street parking. You’ll find a lot of other Drunken Monkey fans had the same idea and even the nearby streets have long lines of folks waiting to get their vegan fix and that so, so good coffee.
The Drunken Monkey Coffee Bar is at 444 N. Bumby Ave., and can be reached by calling 407-893-4994, emailing drunkenmonkeycoffee@gmail.com or logging on to http://www.drunkenmonkeycoffee.com/. They’re open Mondays through Thursdays, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., Fridays from 7 a.m. to midnight, Saturdays from 8 a.m. to midnight, and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.

Imported from the Big Easy, Ruth’s Chris Steak House sizzles.

The steaks at Ruth's Chris Steak House are cooked just the way you like them. (Photo by Dave Raith).

WINTER PARK – If you got a call from your friend Ruth inviting you over for dinner, you might be tempted to think you’re in for a quiet dinner at her house, and will get served a simple meal, nicely cooked, finely done.
It all depends on which Ruth is inviting you to dine. If it happens to be Ruth Fertel, you’re in for an impressive meal and a wonderfully elegant dining experience. Just remember to dress nicely. It’s not that Ruth requires it, but if you show up looking like a slob — as I did on my first venture here — you’re going to stand out. Guests take Ruth’s Chris Steak House quite seriously, and for good reason. In the competitive world of high end steak restaurants, Ruth’s Chris goes out of its way to be sure you don’t leave feeling disappointed.
A little history, to start: Ruth’s Chris Steak House is a gift to Greater Orlando — it has restaurants on Sand Lake Road in Orlando, Lake Mary, and Winter Park — from the remarkable city of New Orleans, which appears to take dining, cooking and eating indulgence more seriously than any other major city I know. If you think of the city mainly for its tourist attractions — the historic and wonderfully preserved French Quarter, the majestic Saint Louis Cathedral, or the legendary Café DuMonde French Market coffee shop with its uniquely strong French roast coffee or beignets — you may be forgetting about the long list of incredible restaurants available there. That’s where Ruth’s Chris Steak House got its start on Broad Street in N’Awlins, and celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2005.
Even better, Ruth Fertel decided her restaurant was simply too good to limit to the residents and visitors of that great Louisiana city, so she branched out. And in tourist-happy Greater Orlando, she appears to have made an excellent choice.
So the Orlando area — which attracted a whopping 50 million visitors in 2010, an impressive number at a time when gas prices are still high and the economy hasn’t completely recovered — is doing its part, bringing in the tourists. Now if they can discover our taste of New Orleans here in our back yard, they might just put it down as a fine reason to keep coming back here.
I’ve been to the Ruth’s Chris Steak House at 610 N. Orlando Ave. in Winter Park, right by the Winter Park Village shopping plaza. Winter Park, which already has a healthy and appealing list of terrific restaurants on its upscale Park Avenue, is a great choice for a place like this, and the staff at Ruth’s works hard to make it all memorable. Imagine sitting at your table with some friends, chatting over a few glasses of wine, and your waiter brings over your steak. It’s been broiled in 1,800-degree ovens and served on a still-sizzling 500 degree plate. You can still feel the hot rising off the plate, but you can also sense just how finely cooked that steak is going to be. Sizzle on the plate, sizzle again with the first bite.
But first, you might want to hold off for a minute or two and watch the butter soak up your steak before you cut the first slice.
As the menu notes, “Ruth’s Chris specializes in the finest custom-aged Midwestern beef. We broil it exactly the way you like it at 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit to lock in the corn-fed flavor. Then we serve your steak sizzling on a 500 degree plate so that it stays hot throughout your meal.”
Hot, indeed — literally and figuratively. You can decide how you want it cooked – Rare (very red, cool center), Medium Rare (red, warn center), Medium (pink center), Medium Well (slightly pink center) and Well (broiled throughout, no pink). Chances are the steak will come out of the oven cooked precisely the way you want it. And as someone who likes my steaks well done without the pink middle, I found Ruth’s chefs to be right on target, and the steaks to be irresistably tasty.
You also get more than a few options to pick from — T-Bone, New York Strip (USDA prime cut), Cowboy Ribeye, or the Petite Filet and Shrimp (two four-once medallions of filet topped with jumbo shrimp). At Ruth’s, steak is serious business.
You get a choice of sides with each steak, and your options include vegetables (asparagus, creamed spinach, broccoli, sautéed mushrooms, broiled tomatoes or French Fried onion rings) or potatoes and pasta (including steak fries, ziti, sweet potato casserole, mashed potatoes or Potatoes Au Gratin). My recommendation: skip lunch before heading out to Ruth’s, or at the very least have a tiny lunch. You’re likely to not only find that Ruth’s provides you with a pretty large steak, but also a generous helping of those side dishes. Be sure your appetitie can handle it all.
Although it makes perfect sense to visit a high end steak house to get — well, steak … there are other options to pick from. If you want a different kind of meat, consider the lamb, veal chops or Stuffed Chicken Breast. If you’re in the mood for seafood, there’s barbequed shrimp, crab cakes and a Chef’s Feature of fresh fish or lobster.

It's not just steak on the menu at Ruth's -- seafood, chicken and lamb is also available. (Photo by Dave Raith).


As I mentioned, the Ruth’s Chris Steak House experience works best with a very strong appetite. Start with one of their salads, like the Ruth’s Chop Salad (iceberg lettuce and spinach served with greens, bacon, eggs, hearts of palms and fried onions) or a Steak House Salad (baby arugula and baby lettuce with grape tomatoes, garlic croutons and onions). Carefully read over the list of appetizers: shrimp cocktail, mushrooms stuffed with crabmeat, calamari, seared ahi tuna, and jumbo scallops.
And let’s be honest here: where would a restaurant from New Orleans be without a soup menu that includes such options as Lobster Bisque, Onion Soup Au Gratin and – surprise! – Louisiana Seafood Gumbo.
Ruth’s Chris Steak House’s upscale atmosphere, highly professional, swift and friendly staff, attentive to your every dining need, and very well cooked steaks should be enough to satisfy anyone coming to this city looking for a high end dining experience. This is a great import from the Big Easy, and it should come as no surprise that this restaurant is a favorite hangout for local politicians. Blessed as they are with an ability to stick the tab to the hard-working taxpayers, politicians know what they’re doing — going for the very best. For just this once, we should follow their example.
To learn more, call 407-622-2444 or log on to www.ruthschris.com.

Contact us at FreelineOrlando@gmail.com.

Taking a simple concept and making it delicious: Welcome to Five Guys Burgers.

Five Guys Burgers at Uptown Altamonte is a great place to get a juicy burger fix. (Photo by Dave Raith).

ALTAMONTE SPRINGS — Does anyone know the exact history of how, out of all the rich foods in the world, the hamburger came to be the meal of choice for fast food restaurants?
Why is it we don’t have fast food spaghetti? Or fast food Chef Salads? Or fast food steak and onions?
Maybe McDonald’s — the largest chain of worldwide hamburger fast food restaurants — got ball rolling back in 1940 when the brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald opened a restaurant in San Bernadino, Calif., and introduced the concept of the Speedee Service System. For whatever reason, burgers with fries just became the staple menu item.
In the years since, the hamburger or “burger,” depending on your preferred lingo, simply became the preferred dining option at every fast food chain that popped up following McDonald’s example. So with McDonald’s having demonstrated that the concept works, this sandwich consisting of a cooked patty of ground beef became all the rage at every chain, differing only by what the individual chains wanted as their signature design. Placed in a sliced bread roll? Covered with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles? Smeared with condiments that could include mustard, ketchup or mayonnaise? Similar in each instances, but with little differences here and there.
And have you ever noticed that no matter what time of day you hit the drive in — let’s say you want to avoid noon for the busy lunch crowd or 5-6 p.m. to bypass the lengthy dinner crowd — there’s always two or three cars ahead of you? We’re a nation of burger babies.
I sometimes wonder how challenging it is to stay competitive with a burger franchise where there’s so much competition out there. You can be cruising down Colonial Drive in West Orange County and find a McDonald’s and Burger King right next to one another, and a Wendy’s or Arby’s within view. Sometimes, though, I find this concept to be less mysterious than it initially appears whenever a friend invites me to join them at one of my favorite burger joints, Five Guys Burgers and Fries.
This chain has been around for a while, having started in Virginia in 1986. This deli-style restaurant just seems to make some of the best burgers around, and for some reason whenever I go there, I always get the feeling that it has a real 1950s ambiance about it. I wasn’t around in the 1950s, so I can’t say for sure, but it just seems to give off that genuine “American Graffiti”-type look.
The menu is simple, direct, and tempting. Hamburgers, cheeseburgers, bacon either-one … or a kosher-style hot dog, cheese or bacon dog, or veggie or grilled cheese sandwich.
Then you’ve got those free toppings to pick from, which include the standard and predictable — relish, onions, tomatoes — to slightly more distinct (Jalapeno Peppers, grilled mushrooms, hot sauce.) You’ve also got those irresistable Five Guys curly fries on the side and a tall glass of Coke to wash it down with.
I love how greasy these burgers are, or the fresh-potato taste of the curly fries fried in peanut oil with the Cajun seasoning. I think one of the reasons why the burger has remained the top menu item at fast food chains is it personifies such a simple concept, but it always ends up being so delicious — at least at this chain, for sure. Five Guys has truly perfected the concept; their chefs always seems to do it so well, and I usually find I’m loving every juicy bite.

As Five Guys Burgers is proud to note, they frequently get rave reviews. (Photo by Dave Raith).


Now, if this sounds like the kind of menu that would prompt the shrill health watchers to become aghast, and send them rushing for the latest statistics on our nation’s obesity rate, well, send me an email at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com and I’ll get you a list of great vegan restaurants that I frequent. But let’s be honest here, nobody goes to fast food joints for calorie counting — they go because those juicy flame-broiled burgers always lure us back, sapping our willpower. Besides, the Five Guys web site (http://www.fiveguys.com/home.aspx) posts nutritional information so we grown ups can decide for ourselves what we’re hungry for.
Five Guys Burgers has a lot of locations in Greater Orlando, but one of my favorites is at Uptown Altamonte, at 229 E. Altamonte Drive in Altamonte Springs. I like the people who work there — friendly, easy going, able to take large orders and get them to my table in rapid time. They’re the perfect employees for a restaurant that managed to get the concept of the fast food chains down so extraordinarily well, that whenever my friends invite me to head back for more (while warning that I could get addicted to the place), I’m there.
To learn more about Five Guys Burgers at Uptown Altamonte, call 407-478-6900.

Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.

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