When The Melting Pot originally opened in 1975 just outside Orlando, diners had just three options: swiss-cheese fondue, beef fondue, or chocolate fondue. The restaurant first expanded four years later, when an enterprising waiter at the initial location opened up a new outpost in Tallahassee. Today, the company?now owned by that original waiter, Mark Johnston, and his brothers Mike and Bob?reigns as the premier fondue, wine, and drink restaurant, stretching across the U.S., Mexico, and Canada with more than 140 restaurants and plans to expand to Saudi Arabia and Dubai. The restaurant's menu has also expanded, and patrons can now select from six varieties of hot dipping cheese fondues paired with salads, entrees, and their signature chocolate fondue.
On a given night, groups of viscous-dip-loving foodies gather around tables to nosh on cheese-fondue appetizers and various salads while cooking a variety of steaks and seafood in a choice of one of three flavored broth or traditional oil styles. Birthday revelers and romance seekers cap decadent evenings sharing the chocolate desserts that have defined The Melting Pot for decades.
“It’s the next best thing to having Greek friends who put a spit in the yard come Easter,” proclaims The Improper Bostonian of Aegean Restaurant. The glowing review should come as no surprise—for one thing, Aegean’s founders Nicholas and Toula Ntasios hail from Greece, and for another, they've been working at it for nearly three decades. In 1972, the pair left their small village to chase after success in America. Their gamble paid off in 1980 when they opened the first Aegean Restaurant. As locals discovered the strip-mall eatery, a spot as deceivingly nondescript as a fortune cookie that contains the president’s phone number, business went from sparse to thriving. In the three decades since, Nicholas and Toula (eventually joined by sons Arthur and Chris) have drawn customers not with glitzy marketing campaigns, but with authentic, personalized food. The Improper Bostonian deems their braised lamb “especially worth the trip,” but Mediterranean influences shine through most in seafood dishes, such as the charcoal-grilled, lemon-kissed swordfish steak.
The staff at Tropical Café patrol the restaurant’s perimeter constantly, spears in hand. They’re not on guard duty, though. Rather, they’re servers, carving off portions of freshly roasted Brazilian barbecue. They stop at every table, offering their savory cargo to diners who have flipped their personal dining card green side up, indicating that they might be in danger of consuming plant matter from the extensive salad bar if more meat does not arrive soon.
The taste of culture doesn’t stop at the barbecue, however. Tropical Café fills weekends with live musical performances of South American and Brazilian folk music. Wednesday evenings are devoted to karaoke, the classic contest made more interesting by participants who sing with mouthfuls of meat.
Guadalajara, nestled in the state of Jalisco, was the birthplace of many of the flavors used in Mexican food. Those influences shine through in the recipes at Taqueria Mexico, where the chefs draw on family recipes brought by over from the inventive city. The dishes have helped earn the eatery very good to excellent ratings on Zagat.
As at any good taqueria, the gorditas, tacos, tortas, and burritos can be stuffed with a wide range of meats and veggies. Carnitas, pork traditionally slow cooked with green chilies, is nearly as tender as steamed beef al vapor. Lengua, or beef tongue, is also a time-tested taqueria meat. And like the dependents section of a scarecrow’s taxes, the eatery’s quesadillas brim with squash.
Ken's Steak House is an improbable success story. Ken and Florence Hanna opened the Lakeside Cafe in 1935, the throes of the Great Depression. Bite by bite, they built a loyal base of customers (who always just called the eatery "Ken's"), and after five years, the restaurant took up residence in a small diner on Route 9, then known as Starvation Alley.
But Ken dreamed of a day when the grimly named strip would flourish. Today, it's known as the "Golden Mile"—and Ken's Steak House itself has mushroomed. The kitchen still serves the salad dressing recipes created by Florence Hanna—now a national line of salad dressings—and Ken's son, Timothy, and his wife are in charge.
Chefs broil and fire-grill prime cuts of steak, marinating the chateaubriand's center cut roast tenderloin in a reduction of port wine, or infusing the 8-ounce filet mignon with the earthy smoked notes of the warm cedar planks it's served on. Seafood options nestle up against their turf counterparts, including bacon-wrapped scallops, a full pound of lobster stuffed with crab and shrimp, and pistachio-crusted Atlantic salmon. Chicken and pasta dishes round out the menu, and diners discover Italian influences and plenty of seafood-pasta plates. The rustic wood paneling harkens back to Ken's Steak House's roots, and the upscale fare and soft light cast from chandeliers make the spot an ideal choice for an anniversary dinner or a piñata's last meal.
Embracing the regional Asian flavors and French influences that characterize so much of Vietnamese cuisine, Pho Dakao presents diners with comfort foods inspired by recipes from half a world away. Those deep roots are evident in the crispy spring rolls, the steamed bass with ginger and scallions, and the bowls of fragrant pho in which rare steak or vegetables are equally powerful. The recipes' French influences pop up from dish to dish, most notably in the rice powder crepe stuffed with shrimp, pork, and bean sprouts. Cocktails here conspire to complement the food, and frosty beers and wines from Europe, South America, and the famous chardonnay-spewing geysers of California are also on the list.