ORLANDO — This past winter, a report on The Weather Channel caught my attention one frigid morning. The station noted it had snowed the day before in 49 of the 50 states.
I was trying to figure out where in Florida — the Panhandle, I presumed — the snow was falling when The Weather Channel corrected me. Florida was the lone state to miss the white stuff.
That surprised me, because I had always assumed that Hawaii was the one state most certain to avoid snow. I was wrong — the mountains of Hawaii had indeed joined 48 of the continental states in experiencing a bit of snowfall. Florida truly was the lone spot to be able to say, Sick of the snow? Come on down!
As the two states least likely to experience anything remotely resembling winter, I’m always amused at the entertainment venues in sunny tropical Florida that offer a Hawaiian ambiance — Disney’s Polynesian Resort, for example, with its thatched roofs, koi ponds and Tahitian look.
Closer to this city, there’s the Waitiki Retro Tiki Lounge, known for its Hawaiianesque design, menu loaded with fresh seafood items that make it seem like the chefs just got off a fishing boat, and reputation for serving some of the largest burgers in downtown Orlando — “The Big One.” I’ve sampled these burgers a few times, and I have to tell you, when the restuarant advertises that if you can finish it in 25 minutes, you get it for free, I’m not sure if that’s a promise or a threat.
Considering that Florida already has plenty of beaches, resorts, sandy shores, and nightclubs with a view of the ocean, I always wonder why we immitate another state that competes with us for tourist dollars. Somebody else can answer that riddle, but to me there’s no mystery why Waitiki keeps racking in the crowds. It’s a fun spot from the moment you walk inside — and not just because of the restaurant’s funky decor, music that includes reggae bands, acoustic singers and DJs, or their daily Happy Hour. It’s hard to imagine a better location for a restaurant like this than at the Wall Street Plaza.
If downtown Orlando is going to survive and thrive beyond this economic downturn and the resulting double-digit unemployment rate we’ve been stuck with, I think the city would be wise to worry less about a new, costly performing arts center and devote more attention to getting the word out about what downtown already has. Church Street is experiencing a nice revival, and if you’ve ever been to Wall Street Plaza when they’ve sectioned it off for special events, fund-raisers and concerts, you know the crowds can get so thick on that street that moving a fraction of an inch becomes problematic. And if the city wants a spot like Wall Street Plaza to continue attracting crowds, why not advertise the anchor restaurants in there more often — like Waitiki’s.
And what’s so cool about this place? Ok, you may be right in the midst of a busy urban downtown with not a spec of sandy beachline for miles, but you’re likely to get that “Surfs up” feel the instant you walk in. From the tiki lounge bar to the Polynesian Lemonade drinks to the Polynesian Pork Skewers on the menu, Waitiki’s doesn’t feel like a chain restaurant with a by-the-numbers design. It feels relaxed, fun, and mellow — an ideal happy hour spot for anyone who works in downtown and needs that time right after they leave the office to sit back and unwind from the daily grind.
The Waitiki menu is fun, too — you’ve got those massive burgers, plus traditionally-sized sandwiches to pick from, and steaks and fish, but with the occasional Tiki twist — like the Polynesian Cobb sandwich for $8.99, which tosses grilled chicken, bacon and pineapple in with the greens.
In keeping with that “the ocean is calling out to you” mood, there’s plenty of fish on the menu — including grilled or blackened Mahi on a Kaiser bun ($8.99). You can switch instead to a Steak Philly sautéed with onions and peppers and topped with Swiss cheese on a Vienna roll ($8.99), or sample the Waitiki Club — wheatberry bread hosting a mix of turkey, ham, bacon, American cheese, lettuce, tomato
and mayo, for $7.99.
Waitiki’s is open from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily. Happy hour is from 4-7 p.m., and if you don’t think Waitiki’s is serious about helping you unwind, consider that all Tiki drinks are half price during happy hour, and you can get Red Stripe and Red Stripe Light at $2.50 all day, every day. More importantly, the cocktails are endlessly tempting: the Island Margarita, the Sinapour Sling, the Nui Nui and my favorite, the “Painkiller” — Russian Rum, pineapples, oranges, coconut and nutmeg, priced at $8. I rarely experience anything remotely resembling pain at Waitiki’s.
But it’s not just happy hour when Waitiki’s comes alive. This is a great place to party during the evening hours, since both Waitiki’s and Wall Street Plaza host plenty of regular entertainment to entice a crowd or two. At Waitiki’s alone, John Neff performs on Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. and Thursdays from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., there’s Kona music every Monday from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., and Wednesdays gives the crowd Reggae with the 506 Crew to dance to into the wee hours. If you’re bored here, chances are you’re slipping in and out of a coma.
To learn more about Waitiki’s, which is at 25 Wall Street Plaza, call 407-481-1199. It’s one of the reasons why downtown Orlando just keeps getting better.
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