Last updated: 09:56 PM ET, Fri July 01 2016

Orlando's Best Neighborhood Cafes

Features & Advice | Susan Young | June 30, 2016

Orlando's Best Neighborhood Cafes

Photos by Susan Young

Being of an age labeled as “boomers,” our goal has been to live in an area populated with a diverse age demographic. Settling into a 55-plus community, like The Villages, is not on our radar, which is why we chose to reside close to downtown Orlando. One of the things we love most about our city are the charming cafes located within quaint neighborhoods, all of which are favorites with the locals and a special treat for tourists if they can find these not-so-secret treasures…

Handy PantryJust a couple of blocks from downtown sits the Handy Pantry, a market/convenience store/deli, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner in the Lake Eola Heights neighborhood. The market dates back to the 1920s and has been owned for the past sixteen years by Dev and Arati Rai, from Nepal. The nearby residents love this deli so much, a group of them held a fundraiser to supplement an Orlando grant meant to pay for a refreshment of the location and to paint the exterior of the building.

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There was talk of the market closing because of Mrs. Rai’s health issues, but the neighborhood couldn’t bear to lose it and put their money where their collective mouths are, so they could continue to enjoy the Pantry’s savory cuisine and convenience. The menu includes everything from egg salad to a large selection of sandwiches named after local streets. If you’re lucky, and Dev has a few minutes to spare, he’ll break out his Nepalese flutes to offer up an impromptu concert.

As part of Orlando Bike Share, there is a station just outside the door, where one can rent a cruiser to ride through the neighborhood, taking in the Florida flora and architecture along the way. The shady, brick streets lead to Thornton Park and Lake Eola with its famous fountain, amphitheater and a generous helping of artistic sculpture along the perimeter.

The Handy Pantry is located at 522 E. Amelia Street and is open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

903 Mills Market – When you’re ready for lunch, head about a half-mile south of the East-West Expressway, which puts you in the SoDo (south of downtown) section of the city. Around the corner from Lakes Davis, Cherokee, Weldona and Emerald (yes, it’s a city of lakes!) lies a cafe known for its creative and delectable sandwiches.

The menu lists standards such as Cuban, Reuben and Philly, but bursts outside of the box with The Grateful Bread (a Thanksgiving dinner between two slices of fresh multigrain wheat), Pop’s Pigs in a Blanket (BBQ pulled pork with caramelized onions and bleu cheese) and the Magic Three Pointer (roast beef, ham, turkey, bacon and swiss) named after the city’s NBA team. The menu also includes an ample selection of salads, most of which are named after the neighborhood’s aforementioned lakes.

Mills Market starts each morning serving a full breakfast menu, then morphs into lunch and dinner with a nice selection of craft beers on draft as well as a bounty of bottled beer and wine. Their website boasts, “We are your neighbors. Seriously, most of us live right around the corner.” We also live around the corner and, when my husband and I go out for a walk, we make sure to take our wallet just in case we want to treat ourselves to a slice of locally made cake which adorns the counter every day.

903 Mills Market is located at 903 S. Mills Ave, open from 7:30 a.m. to 9:03 p.m.

Maxine’s on Shine – Later in the evening, plan on supper at Maxine’s on Shine. They call themselves, “The Parlor of a Friend’s Home in the Colonialtown neighborhood.” Can’t think of a better way to describe this charming cafe on North Shine Avenue sitting among homes, from craftsman to cracker box. Whether you choose to sit inside or out, the varied and eclectic menu will please any palate. On weekends you’ll find the outside tables filled with locals noshing on brunch along with Mimosas or Bloody Marys, made with Maxine’s special recipes.

Maxine and Kirt Earhart run this funky cafe, where you will find them schmoozing with diners, or perhaps the 1979 Miss New York might delight patrons with a song. Live music is offered nightly and the art-adorned walls change monthly with local artists being showcased and celebrated.

Maxine also serves as art curator and salon host with a flair, stating that art and music bring everyone together, regardless of political leanings. You never know who will be seen at this local favorite. Not too long ago Marco Rubio was spotted at a table, huddled with his strategists before bowing out of the presidential race.

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In the ‘70s, the back room served as a wedding venue. The “Rebel Chapel” or “Bad Girls Chapel” helped couples with their wedding service who would otherwise be turned away by their church. Divorcees, pregnant brides and interfaith or interracial couples were welcome to repeat their vows without shame.  Now this room is used for special occasions.

Maxine’s on Shine is located at 337 Shine Avenue, is open weekdays from 5-10 p.m. and opens at 10 a.m. on weekends for brunch.

A common theme running throughout these cafes is the sense of welcome. If you’re looking for a place “where everyone knows your name,” you will find it in Orlando, even if you’re not a local.

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