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Orlando's Thornton Park: Anything but Mousy

Sunday, May 8, 2005

Entertainment-saturated Orlando harbors a burgeoning urban scene with more characters than its theme parks. Not that it's common knowledge, mind you: The town of the Mouse may be one of the nation's top tourist destinations, but few visitors ever make it to downtown Orlando itself.

Visitors looking to decompress will find real relief in the brick-lined streets of Thornton Park, the city's most stylish district. Just east of Lake Eola in downtown's green heart, the residential neighborhood, about 25 minutes by car from Disney World, is home to street after street of oak-shaded bungalows, many built in the original Florida "cracker" style with wraparound front porches. A colorful commercial district stretches along Washington Street, Summerlin Avenue and Central Boulevard, with a European feel to the restaurants and boutiques contained therein.

Dining alfresco is a perennial option, and Thornton Park buzzes with cafes. Snag a table on the terrace at Rocco's of Thornton Park (900 E. Washington St., 407-246-0255), a steak and seafood establishment fronting the neighborhood's centerpiece fountain. Media types from nearby ad agencies and urban minimalists clad in noir tuck into straightforward specialties, such as crab-and-shrimp-stuffed sea bass ($28) and grilled porterhouse steak with blue cheese tapenade ($34). Sushi lovers get a heavy serving of style alongside the raw stuff at Shari Sushi Lounge (621 E. Central Blvd., 407-420-9420), where white leather furnishings paired with bold artwork create a South Beach-meets-SoHo atmosphere. Try 23-year-old owner and chef Chau's signature roll, the Mt. Chau ($9) -- a melange of veggies, cream cheese, smelt roe and baked conch topped with spicy mayo.

Thornton Park's top casual contender for eating out is Wildside BBQ Bar & Grill (700 E. Washington St., 407-872-8665), perched at the prime people-watching intersection of Washington Street and Summerlin Avenue. Crowds down piles of spicy meat with frosty mugs of beer at the ready, and bands play on the torch-lit patio Friday through Sunday. The Carolina-style pulled pork sandwich ($6.95) is the menu's best bargain. Cross the street for decadent desserts at Il GelatOne (8 N. Summerlin Ave., 407-839-8825), where the Forsyth family churns out an authentic array of Italian ice creams -- the hazelnut gelato is made with nuts imported from Italy's Piemonte region, the pistachios come from Sicily and the walnuts are Sorrentino ($3.95 for a regular cup).

Most Thornton Park restaurants morph into bars as the evening wears on, and the nightlife tends to be more subdued and classy than what you'd find a few blocks away in the city center. The hottest -- and hautest -- spot to enjoy a post-dinner cocktail is hyper-trendy Hue (629 E. Central Blvd., 407-849-1800). After a gourmet meal (such as blackened grouper spooned with crawfish etouffee, $30) segue to the martini menu -- try the Vogue, a $9 swirl of Dutch raspberry vodka and Cointreau.

A block away, the Eola Wine Company (500 E. Central Blvd., 407-481-9100) is another swank lounge patronized by an interesting mix of young professionals, their oft-silicone-enhanced hangers-on and wannabe artists with trust funds who don't bat an eye at by-the-glass wines ranging from $5 to $14. The patrons' fashion sense ranges from the tragically preppy to the artfully pierced, but the wines are purely luxe -- the best from California's Napa, France's Alsace and Spain's Rioja regions are available by the glass or bottle.

The weeknight happy hour scene at Dexter's Thornton Park (808 E. Washington St., 407-648-2777) is a casual, cool affair, and you can browse the impressive retail wine selection at the back for a bottle to enjoy with gourmet nibbles that include a pressed duck sandwich with melted brie ($8.95). Brunch, offered Saturday and Sunday, buzzes with scene-sters who can't resist starting the morning (or wrapping up the previous night) with $1.95 flavored mimosa specials. "There's a rock- star element to the downtown crowd," manager Mike Smith says.

When it comes to Thornton Park's shopping, the options are eclectic, if limited, focusing primarily on clothing. Boho-chic couture may be this season's look, but girly-girl gear is always in at Zou Zou Boutique (2 N. Summerlin Ave.), where local style maven Wendy Ricchi ups Orlando's fashion ante with Hollywood must-haves, such as Tylie Malibu handbags ($275-$389). For true diva style, order yours with your name emblazoned on the strap in diamantes.

Marie-France (716 E. Washington St.) gets high marks for being affordable and stylish -- just don't come looking for a little black dress. Proprietor Marie-France Bersia takes pride in her shop's pastel-hued cache of ultra-femme sundresses and glam accessories, including cashmere wraps from Turkey ($75) and vintage-style brooches ($35). Fashion-forward men can inject some Eurostyle into their wardrobe at Urban Body (12 N. Summerlin Ave.), one of the relatively few shops in the country to carry the hip English label Ben Sherman (jeans from $89).

And bookworms looking for local lore will appreciate the Florida authors section at Urban Think Bookstore (625 E. Central Blvd.), where you can curl up on an art deco couch with a macchiato while thumbing "The Dog Lover's Companion to Florida" and other offbeat tomes.

-- Terry Ward

From the theme parks and International Drive, take I-4 west (toward Daytona Beach) to downtown Orlando. Exit at Anderson Street east (Exit 82C), turn right onto West Anderson Street, then left onto South Summerlin Avenue and follow until the intersection with Washington Street (the heart of Thornton Park).

For more information, contact the Orlando/Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau (407-363-5872,http://www.orlandoinfo.com) or the Downtown Development Board (407-246-2555,http://www.downtownorlando.com).

© 2005 The Washington Post Company