ORLANDO — Some people might laugh when I make this comparison, but let me give it a shot anyway.
I can’t imagine New York City without the Empire State Building.
It’s hard to think of Boston without Beacon Hill.
It wouldn’t be the same Los Angeles without Hollywood.
And likewise, I just can’t imagine Orlando without the White Wolf Cafe.
Ok, you might well be asking, how do you compare a neighborhood cafe with an attraction that offers the size and significance of the Empire State Building or Hollywood?
Well, you’re missing the point here. This isn’t to say that something has to be massive in size or hundreds of years old to be of significant value to a city. Urban America is made up of an enormous number of different landmarks, some quite old but more than a few of them representing the new kids on the block. Orlando’s Amway Center is brand spanking new, but it’s already an important part of the city’s downtown revitalization efforts — as much as, say, the historic downtown courthouse that now serves as the Orange County Regional History Center. Preservation has its place in making a city attractive; so can a newly built luxury condominimum complex with a view of Lake Eola. Everybody is looking for something a little different.
Which brings me to a second point: not all landmarks — places that bring value to a community — need to be the size of the Amway Center. So I’ll say it again — it’s hard to imagine Orlando without the White Wolf.
Every city has restaurants that develop reputations that travel far beyond the local neighborhood hosting it, and in this tourism Mecca, the Orange County Visitors & Convention Bureau would be smart to promote Orlando as a top-notch place for dining — which, happily, it is.
Now, I have no idea if the White Wolf has that kind of reputation with, say, tourists from Minnesota or Colorado who visit this city a lot, but in some ways it doesn’t matter. The White Wolf is an absolute gem for permanent residents, the people who make it a “Wow, are there any tables left in here?” spot at lunch time, since the smart ones always show up a bit earlier than noon.
It’s not a massive restaurant with multiple rooms, but then again it doesn’t boast the kind of snob-appeal prices that your average International Drive 4-Star operation does with an eye toward the business travelers staying at the Orange County Convention Center. So what makes White Wolf so irresistable?
Let me tick off a few obvious suggestions:
1. Location. This section of Orange Avenue, in-between Princeton and Colonial, is one of the great walking districts in downtown Orlando. If you stroll along this urban enclave, you’re going to find a smorgasboard of treasures, starting with the picturesque lake at Gaston Edwards Park that provides so much of the neighborhood’s charm and appeal. There are a number of very good restaurants along this strip, but you also have the opportunity to do plenty of window shopping, with the option of visiting several antique shops, the Docking Bay Comics & Collectibles comic book store, Ski World, Italian Ice, the Boxing Center Mixed Martial Arts studio, Rock N Roll Heaven used record store, the Blissful Lotis Erotic Boutique for romance-minded couples, a gay nightclub called the Savoy …. about as diverse, something-for-everyone as it gets.
At the end of the block, by Princeton Avenue, is one of Orlando’s true landmarks, Theatre Downtown, which is one of the classiest places for live entertainment in the region. The bottom line is that White Wolf did its homework when it picked this location.
2. Ambiance. There’s just something wonderfully funky, bohemian and fun about White Wolf, from the marble slabs that cover the tables, to the chandeliers hanging above, to the unique artwork on the walls and all around you (“We Are Always Intersted In Buying Antiques” reads a sign that hangs above the bar, and the antiques in the White Wolf are in fact available to purchase.) You can sit at White Wolf’s lengthy bar and enjoy a fine cocktail, or head outside on mild days and relax at the tables out there (highly recommended since, as I said, this is a great neighborhood for watching the world go by, including the Amtrak trains with tracks right near the cafe.)
3. Food. I obviously wouldn’t be praising this cafe so highly if the food wasn’t tasty, but what I like about the White Wolf is the unique, hard-to-find-elsewhere menu items you get to pick from. They have a red beans, rice and smoked sausage dish that has an irresistable Cajun-New Orleans flavor, and one of my favorite lunch items is the Cool Cuke — a sandwich mixing sliced cucumbers and cream cheese.
They also have a delicious black bean soup that I can never seem to resist.
There’s a lot more creative items to pick from — Chilled Poached Salmon, Greek Foccacia, Chicken Marsala, Spinich Lasagna, Beef Top Kabobs, the White Wolfe Cafe Cheeseburger — so many, in fact, that this restaurant cries out for becoming your permanent lunch spot. Or dinner spot, for that matter.
You can also get beer and wines or coffee and Espresso (how about ice cream and Cappuccino?), and the cafe hosts live music performances. It’s the kind of place where, if I ask one of my friends if they want to meet me there for lunch, they almost always say, “I love the White Wolf, and I haven’t been there in a while. Great idea!” I don’t remember the last time I went in there and didn’t recognize several people I know.
White Wolf opened in 1991, and has survived the ups and downs in the Central Florida economy, including this most recent steep downturn. It can pack in a great lunch crowd, which reiterates my point that the locals understand what a winner they have in this cafe. I hope the tourists stopping here this summer discover it, too, because just as every vacation to Boston requires a stop at Faneuil Hall, White Wolf should be on the checklist for any Orlando visitor. Why should those of us who live in the city have it all to ourselves?
The White Wolf is open Mondays through Fridays from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. (and 10 p.m. on Friday), Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Sundays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. It’s at 1829 N. Orange Ave. and can be reached by calling 407-895-9911 or emailing Info@whitewolfcafe.com. To learn more, log on to www.whitewolfcafe.com.
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