Luma on Park’s takeout drink options came in well-sealed, 16-ounce mason jars. They were meant to be shaken, not stirred, with ice and then poured into a drinking vessel of your choice. The Tequila Pine included pineapple and habanero peppers infused over a three-day period with a high-quality silver tequila.

KEEP YOUR SPIRITS UP

Photography by Rafael Tongol

New Standard sent its creations home mostly complete and accompanied by instructions on how to accomplish the finishing touches. The Pistachio Old Fashioned craft cocktail consisted of Old Forester Kentucky Bourbon infused with pistachio and served with The Bitter Truth aromatic bitters and orange.

Rattled but resolute, dozens of Winter Park restaurants remained afloat during the recent shutdown season by offering individual and family-style meals packed for in-store pickup, curbside pickup and home delivery (thank you, from all of us).

Several, though, went a step further: They added spirited beverages to accompany those appetizers, sandwiches and entrées. Thanks to temporary new regulations, permission was granted to nestle martinis and Manhattans into our take-home bags. 

Some restaurateurs took the remote bartender role quite seriously. Many others sold wine bottles at steep discounts. So let’s hear a hearty amen for those who aided us in taking the edge off when we most needed a good numbing. 

Here we feature four local eateries that went gung-ho with bagged-up boozy drinkables. Some should be at least partly reopened for dine-in service by the time you read this issue of Winter Park Magazine. 

We’re kind of hoping they keep up the gin-as-a-tonic, grab-and-go option even after the world returns to something approximating normal. At this writing, however, COVID-19 restrictions were just being relaxed and considerable uncertainty remained.

In other words, the cocktails (and menu items) described here may or may not still be available. Whatever the case, we wanted to salute local restaurants for service above and beyond the call of duty. 

We picked four — in part because of their creativity with takeout libations — but there were dozens upon dozens of others. I hope you’ll return to patronize as many of them as possible once you can dine out safely. They were there for us — let’s be there for them.

DEXTER’S NEW STANDARD
1035 North Orlando Avenue, Winter Park
407.316.2278
newstandardwp.com

The staff of Dexter’s New Standard was ready and set to go as soon as the state gave to-go cocktails the green light. This Orlando Avenue restaurant already made its craft cocktails in batches. 

“The problem with craft cocktails is that it often takes 20 minutes to make a drink, and nobody likes to wait that long,” says Erin Allport, director of operations at the eatery, which opened last October and during normal times offers live music daily. “It’s actually quite frustrating.”

Her team’s solution was to produce several creative martinis by the batch and have bartenders add a couple of final ingredients in the glass. “Then boom! The drinks were out to guests,” Allport says.

Such a process was made to order, if you will, for the new mode of operation required by the pandemic. It likewise didn’t hurt that the New Standard’s chefs already produced key cocktail ingredients.

The culinary team was accustomed to heating bourbon and pistachios together at a very low temperature, sous vide-style, for the Pistachio Old Fashioned, and to making a variety of syrups as well as the house sour mix. 

When word got out that restaurants might be allowed to bottle up beverages traditionally served in clever glassware, Allport rushed to a College Park store that caters to home brewers, where she knew she’d find empty bottles for sale. She snapped them up like you and I filled our carts with hand sanitizer at Publix.

Ultimately, the New Standard sent its creations home mostly complete and accompanied by instructions — printed in Prohibition-style type — on how to accomplish the finishing touches.

The Tonic Blossom ($10), for instance, arrived as a mix of Cathead honeysuckle vodka, Chareau aloe liqueur and Jack Rudy elderflower tonic. Soda water can’t be added until the last minute, so a can of Q club soda came separately. 

Because the Pistachio Old Fashioned (1 liter, priced at $65, makes 10-plus drinks) doesn’t age well when bitters are added to the bourbon mix early, the restaurant sent this key ingredient on the side.

The Skinny Margarita, as it turned out, was the biggest seller, perhaps because it was priced at $25 for 25.5 ounces. (That’s the equivalent of four or five drinks, depending upon the size of the glass). The restaurant also added several flavored margaritas, which customers ordered on weekends to sip on a boat or by a pool. (Some people, obviously, endured the lockdown better than others.)

By law, guests must buy food with the fun stuff. So the New Standard offered a market menu that included not only meals but also pimento cheese, French onion dip, house-made crackers and desserts. That was in addition to to-go menu staples plus daily family-style specials. 

All wine bottles were half price — which likely won’t be the new standard by the time this crisis has receded. But it was appreciated while it lasted.

At Reel Fish Coastal Kitchen + Bar, the two-quart servings of sangria quickly became must-have to-go items. The Reel Red sangria was made with Stillhouse Spiced Cherry Whiskey along with red wine, lemons, limes, oranges and apples. The same fruit with white wine and Stillhouse Peach Tea Whiskey made the Sunset Sangria a standout.

REEL FISH COASTAL KITCHEN + BAR
1234 North Orange Avenue, Winter Park
407.543.3474
reeflishcoastal.com

Since it opened three years ago, Reel Fish Coastal Kitchen + Bar has drawn diners with its house-made oyster crackers (pop ’em and grin), its fanciful fish specialties and its old-time platters of battered and fried Gulf oysters or wild-caught Florida shrimp.

But sangria? Not the first menu item that comes to mind. Yet during the prolonged time of shuttering (and shuddering), two-quart servings of sangria — red or white — quickly became must-have to-go items at $18. 

“They sold consistently well,” says proprietor Fred Thimm, who found that mostly couples, rather than families or groups, were the biggest buyers.

What’s not to like, really? The Reel Red sangria was made with Stillhouse Spiced Cherry Whiskey along with red wine, lemons, limes, oranges and apples. The same fruit with white wine and Stillhouse Peach Tea Whiskey made the Sunset Sangria a standout. 

A third beverage was also popular for the grab-and-go crowd: The Seaside Margarita was essentially tequila that had lingered for a bit with pineapple, brown sugar and house-made sweet-and-sour mix before being served with a grilled pineapple wedge. 

These refreshing beverages — along with bottled wine at 30 percent off — left the premises accompanied by full seafood meals. The restaurant offered a rather extensive takeout menu and often promoted specials. 

“Everyone wants a deal,” notes Thimm, who singled out the popularity of a date night meal for two. At $39, it included fried green tomatoes or a fried clam strip basket with either a boiled or pecan-crusted rainbow trout entrée. To finish, there was a dessert of coconut cake or carrot cake.

“Some restaurants focused on Blue Apron-type meals to cook at home, or they went the grocery store route with bleach and toilet paper, but we didn’t,” Thimm says. “We just did what we know how to do — cook for people, package it and deliver it using our own drivers via Uber Eats. That way, we were able to keep as many staff members employed as possible.”

For its takeout customers, Cocina 214 packaged happy hour priced, ready-made cocktail kits with instructions. The Tex-Mex restaurant is known for its margaritas, so a popular choice was the frozen El Diablo, made with Sauza silver tequila swirled with sangria.

COCINA 214
151 East Welbourne Avenue, Winter Park
407.790.7997
cocina214.com

Groups of merrymakers dine at Cocina 214 as much for the margaritas as for the quesadillas — so this bastion of Tex-Mex cuisine included tequila-laced concoctions from the earliest days of the stay-at-home spell. 

Better still, libations were offered at happy hour prices — $5 for a single drink, $20 for a quart and $70 for a gallon. “The quart sold best,” says Lambrine Macejewski, partner, co-founder and business manager of the eatery just off Park Avenue. “It was great for two people who want two drinks each.”

As for the food, this was no time to get esoteric. So Macejewski chose only the restaurant’s top sellers for home consumption. That meant salsa-
accented suppers could be had with a dizzying array of margarita choices.

While some restaurants relied upon cocktail kits with instructions packaged separately, Macejewski sealed ready-made drinks into a container, put a sticker on the jar and sent it out the door. “The kits sound cute and they’re successful for some restaurants,” she says. “But to me, they just seem like more work for customers.” 

Even with a limited staff, Cocina 214 served up additional liquid mood enhancers. The curbside cocktail menu listed single-, quart- and gallon-sized portions of chef-made red sangria as well as 15 wines and 11 bottled beers. The Justin cabernet sauvignon sold so well that the restaurant ordered new cases every week.

Although Cocina 214’s food menu was smaller than usual, the resourceful Macejewski and her stalwart team added family-style meals to the mix. “Our guests are feeding their families daily, often including kids home from college,” she says. “We asked ourselves, ‘How can we make it easier for them?’”

Enter the family dinner options, priced at $50 each and feeding up to six. Choices included beef, chicken or veggie tacos with four toppings, and combo meals such as the Tex-Mex Fave (with quesadillas and fajitas) and the Gringo Tex-Mex Mix (with fajitas and housemade chicken fingers — a favorite of the younger set). 

All meals came with chips and salsa. All the better to accompany the margaritas.

Luma on Park’s takeout drink options came in well-sealed, 16-ounce mason jars. They were meant to be shaken, not stirred, with ice and then poured into a drinking vessel of your choice. The Tequila Pine included pineapple and habanero peppers infused over a three-day period with a high-quality silver tequila.

LUMA ON PARK
290 South Park Avenue, Winter Park
407.599.4111
lumaonpark.com

Just as no food is as simple as it looks at Luma on Park — arguably Winter Park’s cheffiest restaurant — the same is true of its deceptively complex cocktails. 

The herbs and fruits in most of the sleek and stylish eatery’s specialty creations are raised on regional farms. A so-called simple syrup may have been infused by the bartenders with rosemary or lavender. 

And the shrubs — generally used as sweet-yet-acidic mix-ins — are concocted with care, in small batches, adding unseen yet appreciated depth to the drinks in which they’re an ingredient. 

Luma chose five very different drink options to package for take-home consumption. Each arrived in well-sealed 16-ounce mason jars, which were meant to be taken home, shaken with ice and poured into a drinking vessel of your choice. Prices ranged from $22 to $38. 

Prime your patio for this cocktail hour.

Consider the Tequila Pine, which included pineapple and habanero peppers infused over a three-day period with a high-quality silver tequila. Or the Strawberry Fields, made with basil- and strawberry-infused vodka and triple sec.

And let’s not forget the blood orange margaritas with a chili-lime rim, produced in conjunction with local citrus producer Natalie’s. Or the Boulevardier, which combined Mitchter’s Straight Rye, Campari and sweet vermouth

Longtime Luma fans were no doubt comforted that takeout options included the White Linen, a signature drink from the restaurant’s early days a decade and a half ago.

Four draft beers and two bottled ones completed the to-go beverage menu — well, along with discounted wines. Every bottle in the 7,000-bottle vino inventory was offered at half price, creating a significant opportunity for oenophiles. 

Like the cocktail menu, Luma’s food offerings were paired down significantly. Gone were the fanciful presentations topped with perfectly positioned microgreens and other such frills. They were replaced by a variety of meals designed for the road. 

“We chose foods that travel well,” says Tim Noelke, operations partner of Park Lights Hospitality Group, owner of Luma, Prato and Luke’s in Maitland. Salads, pizzas and a burger — albeit a relatively fancy burger with Dijonnaise rosemary fries — were available. 

Also offered were $50 family-style meals, which included a protein and three sides and could feed three or four people. The meats, such as 72-hour short ribs, were ready to eat. Roasted carrots and snap peas with mint and pistachio or potato purée with truffle oil and chives arrived piping hot. A handful of wines were available at $10 a bottle.

Prepare-at-home kits were another top pick. A Bolognese option, at $45, included house-made rigatoni pasta that needed a quick boil and a ragu sauce to be heated and added along with salad and the makings of garlic bread. Steaks and other meats were offered for cooking at home. 

Full yet?

You get the idea. In summary, whether you imbibed on Pistachio Old Fashioneds, fruity margaritas or spiked sangrias on your living room sofa, I’ll wager those liquid indulgences were a tonic eagerly welcomed during these unprecedented times.

They sure were at my house. 

Bill Farnsworth’s paintings appear in numerous museums and private collections across the country.

SUMMERTIME FOR ‘GARDENIA GIRL’

Bill Farnsworth’s paintings appear in numerous museums and private collections across the country.

As Winter Parkers venture back into the world — cautiously, after the pandemic-induced shutdown — they’ll encounter gorgeous summer days that offer no hint of the scary spring in which COVID-19 was (and, at this writing, still is) on a worldwide rampage.

Such days make us wonder how a nasty virus that was apparently spawned by bats in Wuhan, China, could touch a community half a world away; a community so lovely and so replete with flowery enclaves such as the Central Park Rose.

In fact, the city’s summer reemergence reminded us of  “Gardenia Girl,” painted by Bill Farnsworth in 2011 for the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens’ annual Winter Park Paint-Out. 

The work captured both the beauty of the season and, with the presence of the lone figure, a sense of quiet contemplation that we believed was appropriate for the recent ordeal’s aftermath.

So, while we prefer to use newer works on our covers, we tracked down “Gardenia Girl” and asked Farnsworth if we could resurrect it nearly a decade later to represent new hope and new beginnings in the summer of 2020. 

A 1980 graduate of the Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota, Farnsworth, 62, has spent more than 34 years as an illustrator and fine artist. Born in Norwalk, Connecticut, he spent most of his life in New England, painting landscapes of rural areas while supporting his family with his growing illustration career. 

Farnsworth is a Fellow in the American Society of Marine Artists and a Signature Member of the Oil Painters of America and the American Impressionist Society. 

His paintings have appeared in many shows across the U.S. and can be found in numerous museums and private collections. He has earned awards of excellence from the Oil Painters of America’s national and regional shows and took Best in Show honors at the Punta Gorda Visual Arts Center’s 10th Biennial National Show. 

Fine Art Views wrote of Farnsworth’s paintings: “Sensitive and full of human emotion, the heartfelt work of Farns-worth takes us to inner depths.” The Venice (Florida)-based artist says: “My goal with my work is to paint what I love and convey it honestly so the viewer can share that feeling.”

His work is represented by the Hughes Gallery, Dabbert Gallery, Tree’s Place, Reinert Fine Art, Mary Williams Fine Art, Gallery 330, Patricia Hutton Galleries and Gingerbread Square Gallery.

For more of Farnsworth’s artwork and how it may be purchased, check out his website, billfarnsworth.com.

Last year, Valencia College presented its first Gus Henderson Scholarships to a pair of deserving locals. In addition to demonstrating a financial need, recipients of the $1,000 awards must be graduates of Winter Park High School and enrolled at Valencia College’s Winter Park Campus.

HOMAGE TO AN EDITOR

Gustavus C. “Gus” Henderson, a newspaper editor, is an unsung figure in Winter Park’s history. His efforts were instrumental in ensuring the town’s 1887 incorporation. Original image Courtesy of The Rollins College Archives/Digital restoration and colorization by Chip Weston

Valencia College has had a campus on the west side of Winter Park since 1996. But it’s reaching back more than a century to recognize one of the Hannibal Square neighborhood’s most important historical figures — newspaper editor and activist Gustavus C. “Gus” Henderson.

Last year, the college presented its first Gus Henderson Scholarships to a pair of deserving locals. In addition to demonstrating a financial need, recipients of the $1,000 awards must be graduates of Winter Park High School and enrolled at Valencia College’s Winter Park Campus. Going forward, older students who wish to return to college will also be eligible. 

Fairolyn Livingston, chief historian at the Hannibal Square Heritage Center — which preserves and celebrates the history of the traditionally African-American west side — suggested that the scholarship program be named for Henderson, whose efforts were instrumental in the incorporation of Winter Park in 1887.

“Gus was successful because he valued the written word and education,” says Livingston, who notes that Henderson published the first newspaper in Winter Park, the Winter Park Advocate. (Lochmeade, a newspaper that preceded Henderson’s, was headquartered in Maitland.)

In fact, Valencia had previously set aside scholarships for residents of the west side — but the program had somehow fallen through the cracks. Newspaper clippings from the late 1990s indicate that the college had once offered as many as a half-dozen such awards annually until the program ceased. 

One impetus for the original scholarship program was community relations. When the college bought its facility at 850 West Morse Boulevard in 1996, the property was rezoned from residential and office to public/quasi-public.

Many west side residents objected because of traffic concerns, and the Winter Park Planning and Zoning Board recommended against the rezoning due to opposition from the neighborhood. City commissioners, however, voted to grant the zoning change.

At the time, the college agreed to offer scholarships for west side residents — and followed through for several years. But no agreement was put in writing, and the program vanished as college administrations changed and memories faded. 

Livingston and other community leaders hadn’t forgotten, though. For years they had been directing potential students to Valencia with instructions to inquire about the scholarships. But at the college there was no record of the program’s existence and no dedicated funding source. The usual response was, “Gus who?”

The program’s demise usually wasn’t an insurmountable issue, says Sue Foreman, past chairperson of the Valencia College Foundation, a nonprofit organization that raises scholarship funds from private sources. “Other scholarships were available, so the students were assisted. But no one knew about this earlier program.”

So in 2018, Foreman convened a committee consisting of Livingston; Mary Daniels, a docent at the Hannibal Square Heritage Center; Lee Rambeau Kemp, a community activist; and Elisa Mora, a guidance counselor at Winter Park High School.

Other members included Ronnie Moore, assistant director of the city’s parks and recreation department; Elizabeth “Betsy” Swart, an adjunct professor of sociology at the University of Central Florida; and Anne Thomas, mentor coordinator at Winter Park High School.

The group, called the Gus Henderson Committee, decided to formally revive the scholarship program and to adopt Livingston’s suggestion to name the effort for Henderson, whose importance to the city’s history is not generally well known — but should be. 

“It’s wonderful to be able to tell this story through the scholarship program,” says Foreman. “Especially because we’re able to spotlight a person whose name should be remembered.”

Fairolyn Livingston, chief historian at the Hannibal Square Heritage Center, suggested that the new Valencia College scholarship program be named for Henderson, whom she describes as “successful because he valued the written word and education.”

WHY GUS MATTERED

Henderson was a newspaper publisher, an entrepreneur and a civic activist who rallied his neighbors and was instrumental in making certain that a contentious referendum to incorporate Winter Park passed in 1887.

Like many African Americans during the 1880s, Henderson and his family moved here because Winter Park was thought to be a relatively enlightened place where they could own their own homes — albeit only on the west side’s designated “colored lots” — and control their own destinies.

The politically savvy Henderson, who had been a traveling salesman, started a print shop and later established the Advocate, a weekly newspaper that primarily covered activities in the Hannibal Square neighborhood but was equally well-read east of the railroad tracks.

Henderson, working alongside city founders Loring Chase and Oliver Chapman, was instrumental in turning out voters from Hannibal Square, which resulted in the incorporation of Winter Park and the election of two African-American commissioners in 1887. 

“If it were not for Henderson’s efforts, the incorporation of Winter Park would not have taken place on October 12, 1887, and Hannibal Square may not have originally been included within the town limits of Winter Park,” Livingston says.

The victory, however, would be relatively short lived. Henderson was an ardent Republican, as were most African Americans at the time. So, when Winter Park was incorporated with boundaries encompassing Hannibal Square, the political balance of power shifted.

William C. Comstock, a grain merchant from Chicago, led an effort in 1893 by Democrats to de-annex the close-knit neighborhood. Although Winter Park’s elected officials refused to change the boundaries, the Florida Legislature did so over their opposition.

In the pages of the Advocate, an anonymous editorial writer — probably Henderson — wondered how Comstock and his associates “could sign their names to such an undermining petition, and one showing such bitterness toward the colored population of this town … there never was a more bitter spirit in existence against the colored people than what is hid behind this scheme.” 

Hannibal Square was not a part of incorporated Winter Park again until 1925, when local leaders sought a change in status from town (fewer than 300 registered voters) to city (300 or more registered voters). Henderson moved to Orlando in 1906 and died there in 1915. His legacy, however, lives on through the west side’s continuing pride and activism.

BRIDGING THE DIVIDE

Winter Park is thought to be an affluent place — and it generally is. But areas of scarcity still exist, and there are substantial numbers of working poor who find Valencia’s modest $103 per credit hour tuition beyond their reach without assistance. It surprises many to learn that 40 percent of Winter Park High School students qualify for free or reduced lunch prices.

 So, the Gus Henderson Scholarship serves a dual purpose: It honors a community leader and provides a lifeline for young people seeking higher education.

The first set of scholarships were made possible by a donation from St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church’s Bridging the Color Divide Program. The program began in 2018 with a daylong conference related to an Advent service and grew into a communitywide effort to bring about compassion and understanding.

“In Winter Park, the railroad tracks have historically been a color divide between black and white neighborhoods, historically forming a barrier across which black residents had to retreat by sundown,” says Swart, who in addition to teaching serves as the group’s parish coordinator. 

Bridging the Color Divide, Swart notes, “works to replace that barrier with bridges of justice and community” between the west side and the east side.

Last year, Valencia College presented its first Gus Henderson Scholarships to a pair of deserving locals. In addition to demonstrating a financial need, recipients of the $1,000 awards must be graduates of Winter Park High School and enrolled at Valencia College’s Winter Park Campus.

Today, the group boasts participants from a diverse assortment of local churches from both sides of the tracks as well as the Hannibal Square Heritage Center.

The first two recipients, Valencia students Tonya Carlisle-Francis and Aaliyah Medina, say they plan to pay it forward once they complete their educations. 

Carlisle-Francis, whose goal is to earn a bachelor’s degree in business administration, hopes eventually to open a center to care for seniors and children. “I want to help my community here in Winter Park and give back the support that was given to me,” she says.

Medina says she’d like to someday become a child psychologist, hopefully at Nemours Children’s Hospital. “It’s because of assistance like the Gus Henderson Scholarship that I can try and change the world, one child, at a time,” she adds.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

To donate to the Gus Henderson Scholarship, visit the Valencia College Foundation’s website at valencia.org/gushenderson. You can mail a contribution to: Gus Henderson Scholarship, Valencia College Foundation, 1768 Park Center Drive, Orlando, Florida, 32835.

In addition to a roster of individual donors — including Henderson’s oldest living grandson — governmental agencies and foundations are stepping up. Among them are the Winter Park Community Redevelopment Agency and The Joe & Sarah Galloway Foundation, both of which have contributed grants to bolster the fund.

All contributions are tax deductible, and 100 percent of every dollar donated goes directly to the scholarship. More money raised means more scholarships can be awarded later this year and beyond.

Adds Terri Daniels, executive dean of Valencia’s Winter Park Campus: “The Gus Henderson Scholarship will honor [Henderson’s] memory of community service by ensuring that our residents have the resources needed to pursue academic goals that will have a long-term, positive impact.” 

Don Sondag is known for portraits, but he loves to paint outdoors.

A GARDEN'S BEAUTY IN FULL BLOOM

Kraft Azalea Gardens with Lake Maitland in the background by Don Sondag.

The same artist had never painted consecutive covers for Winter Park Magazine. But leave it to Don Sondag to set a new standard. We had planned on using a Sondag image on the Winter 2020 cover. But the death of Thad Seymour, the president emeritus of Rollins College, left no question that the cover should feature the beloved community icon.

Thankfully, the city’s most renowned portrait artist also happened to be an admirer of Seymour’s. Sondag, a Winter Park native who has rendered images of many community leaders and notable personalities, graciously agreed to drop what he was doing and turn out a cover.

When he took time out to paint the portrait, Sondag was working on original pieces for an upcoming exhibition called Venetian Canals of Winter Park: The Art of Don Sondag, which runs through April 12 at the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens. 

A painting from Kraft Azalea Gardens with Lake Maitland in the background — which was shown at that exhibition — graces this issue’s cover. The image was originally a horizontal and had to be cropped, so the unaltered version is shown above.

Don Sondag is known for portraits, but he loves to paint outdoors.

Sondag, a native of Winter Park, earned a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. He also studied painting and portraiture at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League in New York City.

In addition to painting, Sondag teaches at the Crealdé School of Art, where he joined the faculty in 1990. He has also taught at Seminole State College, Walt Disney Imagineering and Walt Disney Feature Animation.

He has accepted portrait commissions from the Dr. P. Phillips Foundation, Seminole State College, Tupperware Brands Corporation, and the University of Central Florida, among many other institutional clients. His image of the iconic Fred Rogers (Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood) hangs in the lobby of Tiedtke Concert Hall on the campus of Rollins.

Sondag’s work has also been featured on posters for the Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival and Casa Feliz, and is prominent in many private collections. “I paint portraits primarily but love to paint outdoors,” he says. “Capturing the light, color and form is what I try to compose in my paintings.”

Coons enjoyed a backstage reunion with the Backstreet Boys prior to a recent concert at Orlando’s Amway Center. Shown are (left to right) Howie Dorough, Coons and Nick Carter. “I’m very proud of them,” Coons says of Dorough, AJ McLean, Nick Carter, Kevin Richardson and Brian Littrell. “How long have they been together? Going on 26 years. That’s longer than The Beatles, the original boy band.”

HOW TO BE A POP IDOL

Photography by Rafael Tongol

Tim Coons runs two music companies, produces records and mentors next-gen artists from his home studio in Winter Park. Coons, a 1976 graduate of Rollins College, has a track record of picking winners.

Lou Pearlman and Tim Coons were born six months apart at the same hospital in Queens, New York, during President Eisenhower’s first term. Four decades later, fate brought them together in Orlando, where they collaborated and then diverged. Pearlman, as it happened, was the ultimate scoundrel; Coons the ultimate survivor.

Pearlman, whose insatiable avarice led him to fleece investors in a Ponzi scheme and bamboozle the Backstreet Boys and other boy bands he created, died in federal prison in 2016 at age 62.

Coons, who got into rock ’n’ roll for the music, not the money, is still charging ahead at 66. He runs two music companies and continues to produce records and mentor next-gen artists from his home studio in Winter Park. He has lived there since enrolling at Rollins College in 1972 with the dream of becoming a baseball star.

But it wasn’t to be. The scrappy but undersized walk-on, who grew up a Yankees fan and owns a Mickey Mantle-signed baseball, got the verdict from Tars head coach Boyd Coffie, a former minor-league player and big-league scout: “You’re 5-foot-8 and 140 pounds. You’ll never make it to the pros. You need to think about other options.” 

Coons settled for life as a rocker — perhaps the only occupation that’s at least as cool as being professional athlete. In baseball terms, he was a guy who did many things well enough to have a career in the bigs — as a utility player, a backup to All-Stars or a hitting coach you never hear about who helps mold raw talent into bubblegum-card heroes.

Only baseball geeks know that it was Charley Lau, a lifetime .255 hitter, who taught George Brett to hit at a Hall of Fame level. 

A much smaller circle of pop music aficionados can tell you that the Backstreet Boys, NSYNC and Take 5 as well as Rob Thomas (Matchbox Twenty) and JoJo (the youngest female artist to record a No. 1 hit) all owe a measure of their success to Coons, a producer and vocal coach who never released an album of his own but has helped sell millions of them for other people.

After reluctantly exiting his field of dreams, it didn’t take long for Coons to come up with Plan B. Though he had no formal training and didn’t read sheet music, Coons played guitar and had an extraordinary voice. (“I knew pretty early that I’m blessed with incredible pitch, timing and rhythm,” he says.) 

As a Rollins freshman, he won a campus talent contest singing Neil Young’s “Old Man,” and formed a band called Harpoon with four other students. Word got out that the kids were alright, and soon the band had gigs all around Central Florida.

LEARNING FROM LEGENDS

Coons had begun honing his chops as a performer years earlier. In 1968, his mother won $100,000 in the New York state lottery and the family moved to Fort Lauderdale. It was there he made his solo debut, at a joint called the Elbow Room, for “$25 and all the pizza I could eat.”

As a Rollins sophomore, Coons performed with Gary U.S. Bonds (“A Quarter to Three,” “This Little Girl is Mine”) at Dubsdread Country Club. It went so well that Bonds booked him for more dates. 

In his senior year, Harpoon appeared as the “Mary Wells Band” for Motown legend Mary Wells at a Jacksonville concert in which Coons played guitar and wailed backup vocals. It was a master class for the talented undergrad.

“Mary Wells’ husband (Cecil Womack) played with us in the band,” Coons says. “Cecil was an amazing guitar player and record producer who I learned a lot from. During rehearsals, I got to see how a real Motown guitarist plays.”

After Coons graduated in 1976 with degrees in environmental studies and political science, Harpoon toured Yugoslavia. A year later, Plan B came to fruition when Coons signed a five-year deal — as a solo act — with BMG Ariola Records label in Germany. 

Under that label, Coons toured Europe and the U.S. and shared the stage with rock royalty. Back in Florida — he had gotten homesick — he opened for Arlo Guthrie, Ramsey Lewis and Joe Walsh and Glenn Frey (twice) of The Eagles. 

Coons also played guitar with Stephen Stills (Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young) and with Foreigner on Disco, a German TV show. And he opened for Martin Mull, a singer-songwriter better known as a comic actor on TV (Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman; Fernwood Tonight).

“I was backstage at the Great Southern Music Hall (in Gainesville) with Mull before the show,” Coons recalls. “He was drinking whiskey and joking about how small the dressing room area was. So he took a marker and drew a big door with a doorknob on the wall behind us. He wrote on the door, ‘Dressing room addition, architect Martin Mull.’ Funny guy!”

Two of Coons’ most memorable brushes with the uber-famous came in late 1970s, when he was an intern assistant to the late Joe Lambusta, a veteran music promoter in Orlando. In the summer of 1978, The Rolling Stones kicked off their “Some Girls” U.S. tour in Lakeland, rehearsing for two days before the show.

“It was my job to take care of the needs of the wives and girlfriends of the Stones,” Coons says. “We were driving the girls around Lakeland in a limousine, and that got the population pretty excited. Pulling up to a 7-Eleven in a limo was pretty cool back then.” (Probably still is — certainly in Lakeland.)

He tried to make small talk with Keith Richards’ girlfriend, Swedish model Lil Wergilis. Recalls Coons: “I said something like, ‘So how are the guys doing?’ She looked me in the eye like I insulted her. ‘What do you mean? The Rolling Stones are the best [profanity] rock ‘n’ roll band in the world, man!’”

Coons had more mellow duty assisting backstage when the Grateful Dead played Lakeland. Afterward, he escorted the Dead back to their hotel and ended up in Jerry Garcia’s room. “For no good reason, Jerry proceeded to tell me his life story for the next three and a half hours,” says Coons. “He said the best thing about being a rock star is that you don’t have to do your own laundry.”

Coons enjoyed a backstage reunion with the Backstreet Boys prior to a recent concert at Orlando’s Amway Center. Shown are (left to right) Howie Dorough, Coons and Nick Carter. “I’m very proud of them,” Coons says of Dorough, AJ McLean, Nick Carter, Kevin Richardson and Brian Littrell. “How long have they been together? Going on 26 years. That’s longer than The Beatles, the original boy band.”

“THESE ARE MY BOYS”

The defining chapter in Coons’ career began the day in 1993 when he took a call from Lou Pearlman. He’d never heard of Pearlman, but “recognized the accent right away.” The fellow New Yorker said he wanted to start a boy band. Coons figures Pearlman had heard about him from mutual contacts in the business.

“I went over to his house off Sand Lake Road,” Coons recalls. “He marched out and said, ‘Here are my boys. We’re going to call them the Backstreet Boys.’” The name was inspired by Backstreet Market, an outdoor flea market near International Drive where teens hung out.

Coons, with two decades of show business under his belt by then, went to work turning the boys into men — or at least into more mature boys. He compares his role as vocal coach to “the concrete guy. I set the foundation.” 

Original Backstreet member Howie Dorough says Coons was “a kind, gentle producer. I remember him making it such a pleasure to work in the studio. He has a great pop sensibility and was always willing to take time to help you sound your best.”

By 1996, the Backstreet Boys were international pop music stars, topping the charts and selling albums by the millions. On a wall in Coons’ office is a framed memento of his relationship with the biggest-selling boy band of all time. 

It’s a diamond CD in recognition of Coons’ pivotal role in launching the group, shaping their vocal style and producing their first half-dozen singles. Over the past several decades, the boys — who now range in age from 40 to 48 — have sold more than 100 million albums worldwide.

“I’m very proud of them,” Coons says of Dorough, AJ McLean, Nick Carter, Kevin Richardson and Brian Littrell. “How long have they been together? Going on 26 years. That’s longer than The Beatles, the original boy band.”

On a wall in Coons’ office is a framed memento of his relationship with the biggest-selling boy band of all time, the Backstreet Boys. It’s a diamond CD in recognition of Coons’ pivotal role in launching the group, shaping their vocal style and producing their first half-dozen singles.

Coons didn’t see Pearlman’s fall from grace coming. He recalls “a big, jovial man who made you feel like everything he said was believable. I couldn’t say nicer things about him. He always paid me every penny he promised me.” 

That is, up until he didn’t. Coons says Pearlman owed him tens of thousands of dollars for work with the group Take 5. “He came to me and said he couldn’t afford to pay me — and that’s when everyone began to realize this thing was falling apart,” recalls Coons, a straight arrow who quickly shed the stigma of an association with Pearlman.

From 1998 to 2002, while concurrently working on personal projects, Coons was music director of The Go for It! Roadshow, a health education extravaganza sponsored by HealthSouth Corp. that toured coast to coast and attracted arenas full of school kids. The message: Stay in school, don’t do drugs. 

The Go for It! lineup featured a rotating cast of celebrity athletes including NFL superstars Bo Jackson, (chair of the HealthSouth Sports Medicine Council), Herschel Walker, Dan Marino and Doug Flutie along with Olympic diving gold medalist Jennifer Chandler and pro wrestler Lex Lugar, among many others. 

The show also included games, dancing, laser shows and high-energy rock ‘n’ roll, including songs by 3rd Faze, a group created by Coons that signed with Sony Records and toured with Britney Spears before disbanding in 2003. Coons’ wife, Teresa, an award-winning makeup artist, also worked on the tour.

Today, Coons is CEO of Atlantic Hill Music, which he founded in 1990. Then in 2015, he took over as president of Cheiron Music Group, an outfit with a rich legacy in pop music. The companies specialize in finding and developing young talent and offer a smorgasbord of expertise — from music production and film scoring to career counseling and, of course, vocal coaching.

Coons hoped that lightning had struck again with Far Young, a boy band he formed in 2013. But the group, which found limited commercial success despite garnering a huge social media following, broke up a year later and reformed as About Last Night. Original member Eben Franckewitz, 23, who in 2012 finished among the top dozen contestants on ABC’s American Idol, recently signed a contract with Atlantic Records.

These days Coons is excited by the potential of 21-year-old year-old Sydney Rhame, who has just released an EP entitled Off-Brand Love Songs. The six-song compilation was produced by Coons on Cheiron Records, a division of Cheiron Music Group. Rhame competed on NBC’s The Voice in 2015. 

To what does Coons owe his longevity — and contentment — in a business with such a high fail rate? “I’ve thought about that,” he says. “Why am I staying in a business where the product you make is now free, available any time? Honestly, I love it, the music part of it. Money was never the important thing — ever. I think that’s what people respected about me.”

Tim and Teresa have three grown children and three grandchildren, and are happily ensconced in their Melrose Avenue home and in the community. Coons has served as chairman of the Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival and has placed more than 20 musical acts in the festival’s entertainment lineup since 2014.

When he’s not working, Coons plays singles and doubles at the Azalea Lane Tennis Center. An ardent Yankees fan, he catches nearly every game on TV and enjoys an occasional spring training excursion. He loves carpentry — a carryover from his senior year at Rollins, when he worked part time on a construction crew — and has restored several circa-1960s automobiles.

“I love it here,” Coons says. “The airport is only 30 minutes away. I fly on a lot of private jets. I can fly to California, then to New York and be home for dinner on the same day.”

STILL STARSTRUCK

At heart, Tim Coons is still the eager kid singing for $25 and all the pizza he can eat. It’s a siren song he heard early, in the days when Mickey Mantle and Tom Seaver were his heroes.

“I had a little transistor radio that I taped to the handlebars of my bike,” he says. “I remember hearing ‘Dock of the Bay’ on my paper route, delivering The Suffolk Sun. That’s what hooked me.”

In 2002, Tim and Teresa were invited to a private reception with Paul McCartney and his then-fiancé, Heather Mills, at the Four Seasons Hotel in Atlanta. “Teresa is a hysterical Paul fan,” Coons says. “He shook her hand and wouldn’t let go. He looked her in the eye and was kind of flirting with her.” 

What do you do when Paul McCartney flirts with your wife? You let him, of course — especially when the world’s most important living rock star decides to include you in the conversation. McCartney, in his unmistakable Liverpool lilt, told Coons: “I hear you work with the Backstreet Boys. Well, I’m not going to dance for you.”

However, Sir Paul was happy to drink with Coons. They downed margaritas, talked harmonies and vocals and recalled favorite songs — including the Lennon-McCartney classic “The Long and Winding Road,” which was the final single released by The Beatles.

Besotted by the company — and, it should be said, the margaritas — Coons began crooning the song and Sir Paul joined in for an impromptu duet. At the end, Coons recalls, “Paul looked at my wife, then looked at Heather Mills, and said, ‘You know, we’re doing alright.’”

Indeed they are. A couple of grateful rockers, the Hall of Famer and the ultimate survivor, still truckin’ on the long and winding road after all these years. 

Don Sondag’s work has been featured on posters for the Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival and Casa Feliz, and is prominent in many private collections. But he is best known for his portraits, and painted this issue’s cover using photographs for the likeness and his own memories of Seymour for the radiant spirit.

A PORTRAIT’S POWER

Don Sondag’s work has been featured on posters for the Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival and Casa Feliz, and is prominent in many private collections. But he is best known for his portraits, and painted this issue’s cover using photographs for the likeness and his own memories of Seymour for the radiant spirit.

When Thaddeus Seymour died in October, there was no doubt that the beloved former Rollins College president would be the cover subject for the upcoming issue of Winter Park Magazine. But since Seymour was such an original character, we wanted to use an original image — not, for example, his official college portrait, which had been reproduced many times.

Thankfully, the city’s most renowned portrait artist also happened to be an admirer of Seymour’s. Don Sondag, a Winter Park native who has rendered images of many community leaders and notable personalities, graciously agreed to drop what he was doing and turn out a cover.

In just a few days, working from photographs and his memories of Seymour, the indefatigable Sondag managed to capture not only his subject’s likeness but also his ebullient humor and oversized personality. The paint was barely dry when the completed work was delivered.

Sondag, a native of Winter Park, earned a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. He also studied painting and portraiture at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League in New York City. 

In addition to painting commissioned portraits and landscapes from his space at McRae Art Studios, he teaches portraiture and painting at the Crealdé School of Art, where he joined the faculty in 1990. He also has taught at Seminole State College, Walt Disney Imagineering and Walt Disney Feature Animation.

It is for his portraits that Sondag is best known. He has accepted commissions from the Dr. P. Phillips Foundation, Seminole State College, Tupperware Brands Corporation, and the University of Central Florida among many other institutional clients. His image of the iconic Fred Rogers (Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood) hangs in the lobby of Tiedtke Concert Hall on the campus of Rollins. 

Sondag’s work has also been featured on posters for the Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival and Casa Feliz, and is prominent in many private collections. “I paint portraits primarily but love to paint outdoors,” he says. “Capturing the light, color and form is what I try to compose in my paintings.”

You can see a sampling of the artist’s photorealistic landscapes and waterscapes at Venetian Canals of Winter Park: The Art of Don Sondag, a new exhibition that runs through April 12 at the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens. 

Venetian Canals explores why Winter Park once dubbed itself “the Venice of North America” through a fascinating collection of archival photographs, documents and assorted memorabilia accompanied by Sondag’s vivid paintings of the charming channels that connect the Winter Park Chain of Lakes. 

The exhibition is supported by Fannie Hillman + Associates, United Arts of Central Florida, the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, the Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation and the City of Winter Park. 

Venetian Canals may be viewed during regular hours at the museum, which is located at 633 Osceola Avenue. Admission, which allows access to the entire complex, is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and college students, and $3 for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Members and children under age 4 are admitted free. For more information, visit polasek.org.

The Coop now offers an Express Menu during lunch hours with three menu items: a three-piece chicken tender meal and a choice of two salads. The Express Menu, which is offered Mondays through Fridays, allows guests to place their orders, sit down, receive their food, eat and bolt back to the office.

CHICKEN LIKE GRANNY MADE

Photography by Rafael Tongol

John Rivers, a comfort-food perfectionist, samples a drumstick from The Coop. Chicken at the down-home eatery is prepared using a new recipe that he hopes will have locals licking their fingers.

When it comes to The Coop, John Rivers doesn’t just wing it. He tests, he launches, he fixes, he tweaks, he tests and then he tweaks again. That goes for all menu items and service features but is particularly true of the restaurant’s signature protein — that’s chicken, ya’ll.

Rivers launched The Coop, featuring Southern fare and counter service, with a fried chicken recipe he adored back in 2014. But the times, they are a-changing. He introduced a third version of this tried-and-true entrée last fall because, he says, that’s what customers wanted. 

“I put my pride aside a long time ago,” notes the mastermind behind the down-home establishment on Morse Boulevard, which celebrated its fifth anniversary last April. “I’m here to serve the community. If people aren’t going to enjoy what I prepare, what good does it do?”

Which is why, success notwithstanding, Rivers — who’s also behind the 15-units-and-growing 4 Rivers Smokehouse chain — found himself back in the kitchen trying to get that fried chicken just right. Again.

When The Coop was brand new, the fryers didn’t work out, so Rivers quickly replaced the dang things. Then he reworked the batter because customers said it was too thick. 

Over time, the kitchen team started steaming the chicken before frying it. That allowed them to deliver golden, tender and sizzling meals to tables in four minutes instead of the previous 14 to 17 minutes. And now, this ever-evolving eatery has changed its chicken once again — by going back to basics.

The revamped recipe, as a result, is more like Granny’s than ever before. Gone are the rosemary and thyme in the brine. There’s less black pepper, while the 4 Rivers all-purpose rub has been added. And the breading? Some of the heft, which was originally removed, has returned. 

Recalls Rivers: “A very dear friend who loves The Coop told me, ‘You know, John, I love the food but you overcheffed the chicken. It’s not what I would get from my mom.’”

That gentle critique was all the prompting Rivers needed to start testing. As luck would have it, Derek Perez was available to assist in the quest for poultry perfection. 

Perez was a chef at both Luke’s and Luma on Park for a combined 13 years. Just a few months prior, while still at Luke’s in Maitland, he told Winter Park Magazine that, despite Luma’s gourmet-forward fare, “I like to make honest food that’s not cheffed up.”

Chicken sandwiches are all the rage these days, and The Coop has a dandy. The Cheerwine Chicken Sandwich, created for the annual Cows ‘n’ Cabs fundraiser, features chicken marinated in the Cheerwine soft drink and topped with hot sauce and cole slaw. Further enhancing the flavor is a housemade lemon aioli (flavored mayonnaise) and house-jarred pickles.

Now that’s a kindred spirit. What’s more, Perez, like Rivers, is a fanatical recipe tester who dives deep into details. “If you change the salt by an eighth of a teaspoon, it makes a difference,” says Rivers. 

So, the duo launched a study of fried chicken — not just their own, but fowl from Publix, Popeye’s, KFC and Golden Corral because that’s what surveys revealed folks crave. Notes Rivers: “None of those, other than Popeye’s, is fancy or has a lot of seasoning.” 

Once Rivers and Perez nailed what they believed to be the perfect fried chicken recipe, they tested it by selling both the old and new versions for several weeks and asking for feedback. An overwhelming number of diners said they preferred the simpler offering. Consequently, the new recipe is now offered exclusively.

Plus, Rivers and Perez used the same batter for a fried chicken sandwich, which comes with a housemade lemon aioli (flavored mayonnaise) and house-jarred pickles. Then they kept experimenting to create a specialty sandwich to serve at Cows ’n’ Cabs, an annual autumn fundraiser that Rivers created. 

Admittedly, they got playful — and came up with a winner in the process. The Cheerwine Chicken Sandwich, now on the regular menu, is marinated in the carbonated soft drink Cheerwine, then topped with hot sauce, cooled with a dollop of cole slaw and placed on a brioche bun.

If our reaction is an indicator, we’d say it’s a keeper. Cows ’n’ Cabs serves so much food that we usually take one bite of each offering. But with that darned sandwich, we kept having another bite, and another, until the plate was empty. Spicy and sweet, hot and chilled — it works. 

We share all this chicken chat to make a point: This unfussy restaurant with an old-timey menu is a vibrant enterprise that’s continuously evolving. 

In fact, we’re not quite done talking turkey — er, chicken. The Coop also recently rolled out a chicken club sandwich consisting of fried chicken tenders tossed in buffalo sauce. Also new is a breakfast item called The Early Bird, an eye opener featuring a chicken tender and a scrambled egg with cheese and bacon bits, hollandaise sauce and scallions on a toasted hoagie roll.

The food isn’t all that’s been tweaked. Over time, The Coop revamped its service model. Instead of plating up at the counter, staffers began taking orders up front, composing each plate in the kitchen and delivering it to guests after they’ve seated themselves. 

That change delighted breakfast and dinner crowds. Lunch, not so much. People received their meals in the same amount of time when served at tables — but the wait apparently felt longer, and traffic dipped.

The Coop now offers an Express Menu during lunch hours with three menu items: a three-piece chicken tender meal and a choice of two salads. The Express Menu, which is offered Mondays through Fridays, allows guests to place their orders, sit down, receive their food, eat and bolt back to the office.

In response, The Coop now offers an Express Menu during lunch hours with three menu items: a three-piece chicken tender meal and a choice of two salads. The Express Menu, which is offered Mondays through Fridays, allows guests to place their orders, sit down, receive their food, eat and bolt back to the office lickety-split. 

The restaurant also added online ordering, so those wishing to take their meals back to their desks — hey, we’ve all had to do it — can swoop by the takeout window and find their orders hot and ready. 

All the restaurant’s greatest hits are available for the grab-and-go crowd — including meatloaf, fried chicken, chicken tenders, chicken-fried steak, chicken pot pie, chicken and dumplings, chicken and waffles, shrimp and grits, and catfish and grits along with three fixins’ (sides). 

In case that’s not enough change to deal with, The Coop has also introduced a daily special of Giant Buttermilk Chicken Tenders. And since the beginning of the year, the restaurant has begun offering monthly specials for breakfast and lunch. 

In January, for example, the specials are blueberry lemon pancakes for breakfast and a grilled chicken gyro with a side of cucumber tomato salad for lunch. February is Southern poutine (french fries and cheese curd topped with gravy) for breakfast and Nashville hot chicken tenders with a side of hoppin’ john (rice, ham, onion, celery and black-eyed peas) for lunch. 

March brings with it Southern eggs benedict (ham, fried green tomatoes, pimento cheese and hollandaise sauce on a biscuit) for breakfast and a Buffalo shrimp sandwich with a side of broccoli salad for lunch.

A meatless Portobello burger is in the works (no plant-based chicken product is up to snuff yet, says Rivers, so no poultry substitute is likely for a while). And the restaurant’s logo sports a fresher, more youthful look.

You’ve got to give Rivers a feather in his cap for not resting on his laurels or his recipes. The Coop — perhaps unlike your granny — aims to please and is amenable to change.

The Coop: A Southern Affair
610 West Morse Blvd., Winter Park, FL 32789
407-843-2667, southernaffair.com

Park Smiles offers a “Comfort Menu” of amenities that include internet radio, Bluetooth headphones, massage chairs, warm scented towels and cozy blankets. Its examination rooms, such as the one dedicated to Fred Rogers, have adopted local themes.

WHERE WORDS STILL MATTER

Photography by Rafael Tongol

At the coffee bar in her bookstore’s new Park Avenue digs, owner Lauren Zimmerman reads a novel by Ann Patchett, whose NPR interview inspired her to launch the venture.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of independent bookstores — much like similarly grim pronouncements regarding Tylenol, Tiger Woods and vinyl records — were greatly exaggerated. 

Had the rampant R.I.P.’s been accurate, Lauren Zimmerman would be practicing law or doing social work today — not fine-tuning the new Park Avenue location of Writer’s Block Bookstore, which she launched in 2014 around the corner on East Welbourne Avenue.

Recalls Zimmerman: “People said, ‘You’re out of your mind, why are you doing this? I thought [independent bookstores] were extinct. I shop on Amazon.’ Well, I wasn’t going to not do it. I mean, how do you go through life that way?” 

Zimmerman adds that there were also plenty of naysayers — whom she pointedly ignored — when she decided to enroll in law school in her late 30s. “For people who’ve known me all my life, it wasn’t a surprise that I did this,” she says. “I’ve always been the kind of person who, when I say I want to do something, I do it.”

At 62, the energetic Zimmerman has the heart of a bookworm and the work ethic of a honeybee — ideal traits for her vocation. But selling books wasn’t a career that she ever anticipated. It was a destiny arrived at via a circuitous route and a moment of serendipity in early 2014.

“I’m one of those professional students,” says Zimmerman, who majored in pre-law at the University of Central Florida (then Florida Technological University) before earning an interior design degree at the University of Florida. 

After working locally as a commercial space planner, she revisited her original career goal and graduated from St. Thomas University’s School of Law in 1995. She then opened a practice in Orlando specializing in children and dependency, and married Scott Zimmerman, president of AGPM, a property management company with about 6,500 apartment units in its portfolio.

When Zimmerman stopped practicing law — the hours had become problematic for a mother of three — she decided to pursue social work and was within one course of completing a master’s degree at UCF when she happened to hear an interview on NPR with novelist Ann Patchett.

The subject of the discussion was Patchett’s Nashville bookstore, Parnassus — named for the mountain in Greek mythology that was the seat of literature, learning and music — and how the endearing establishment brought the community together and “valued books and readers above muffins and adorable plastic watering cans.”

For Zimmerman, the interview was an epiphany: “I pulled over on the side of the road and called my husband and said, ‘I think I want to open a bookstore,’ And he said, ‘Go for it!’ I didn’t show up for that last class in the fall.”

FINDING A HOME

Patchett, who penned the novel Bel Canto and other bestsellers, may have supplied the inspiration for the “crazy” idea. But the perspiration required to make it happen was all Zimmerman’s. “It’s a very hard job, much harder than I thought it would be,” she says.

First, she needed to locate a suitable space: “It had to be in an affluent area, where the community could support a bookstore.” Park Avenue came immediately to mind, but Zimmerman also flirted briefly with opening a store in Winter Park Village. 

She was dissuaded, however, by indie bookstore veterans to whom she turned for advice: “They said shopping centers are not your friend, unless you only want to do business on Friday and Saturday nights after the movies.”

Zimmerman eventually found a vacancy on Welbourne Avenue, a side street just off Park Avenue. “It wasn’t the best location, but it was downtown Winter Park — it met the qualification,” she says. “I knew people would eventually find it.” 

Prior to Writer’s Block, there hadn’t been an independent bookstore downtown since Park Books — originally The Little Professor — closed in 1994. A nearby chain bookstore, B. Dalton, lasted until 1999. (Yes, there was Brandywine Books in Greeneda Court. But it stocked only second-hand titles.)

Under the circumstances, it’s not surprising that until Zimmerman came along no one was eager to invest in bricks-and-mortar bookselling, even in an affluent city filled with writers and readers. 

Between 1995 and 2000, the number of indie bookstores in the U.S. — bleeding customers to Waldenbooks, B. Dalton, Barnes & Noble and Borders — fell 43 percent, according to the American Booksellers Association.

The debut of Amazon in 1995 was expected to deliver the fatal coup de grace. But a funny thing happened on the way to extinction. Amazon was an existential threat to big boxes across the retail landscape, including chain bookstores. By 2011, Borders, B. Dalton and Waldenbooks had folded and Barnes & Noble was losing stores.

But in the process of decimating their major retail competitors, the online colossus had inadvertently given nichey independent bookstores a new lease on life. Between 2009 and 2015, their number rose 35 percent, from 1,651 stores to 2,227. At last count, in 2018, the total was 2,524.

How did this happen? A perfect storm of cultural churn. Indies such as Writer’s Block found themselves occupying a nostalgic sweet spot as sterile mall culture withered and downtowns were reinvigorated as centers of community life. 

“Independent bookstores have become anchors of authenticity,” says Harvard professor Ryan Raffaelli, who has studied the great revival. “This is almost like a social movement.” 

Indies were in the vanguard of the “buy local” movement, offering perks not available on Amazon: lectures, book signings, game nights, reading groups, children’s story times and shelf space for local authors. Most important, the stores were run by proprietors who genuinely loved books and knew what their customers enjoyed reading.

The new Writer’s Block is 500 square feet more spacious than it used to be. Although the space features several welcoming nooks and crannies, it’s essentially a long, open expanse without the warren of separate rooms that made the former Welbourne location feel so cramped.

TURNING THE PAGE

“When people come in, they feel safe; they don’t feel they’re obligated to buy,” says Zimmerman, whose literary preferences lean toward historical fiction. “Even if you’re not a reader, you still like going through the books and being around people. If you were in a bad mood when you walked in, you were in good mood when you walked out.”

Naysayers notwithstanding, customers did indeed find their way to the cozy bookstore on Welbourne Avenue. “I was growing out of that space,” Zimmerman adds. “Events were a nightmare. It was hard on the authors. People would get stuck in the hallway and they could only hear — they never got to sit down.”

Last September, Writer’s Block began a new chapter when the Zimmermans bought the building at 316 North Park Avenue, formerly home to The Impeccable Pig, a boutique that moved a few blocks south. Aptly, the bookstore’s next-door neighbor is Tugboat & the Bird, an independent children’s gift and clothing store. Take that, Amazon.

The 5-minute walk from Welbourne to Writer’s Block’s new digs is an exercise in so-near-yet-so-far, like turning the corner from Baltic Avenue to Park Place on a Monopoly board. “The exposure is going to make a huge difference,” states Zimmerman.

The store is 500 square feet more spacious than it used to be. But it seems even larger than that because of light streaming in through tall windows up front and a covered patio — complete with cozy furniture — outside the rear door. There’s also a coffee bar tucked in the back corner. 

Although the space features several welcoming nooks and crannies, it’s essentially a long, open expanse without the warren of separate rooms that made the Welbourne location feel so cramped.

On her first walk-through, Zimmerman knew what could be done: “I saw it. I saw the tables, I saw everything. There’s a lot of joy in seeing something before it’s built.” Such moments of rhapsodizing are an indulgence Zimmerman allows herself before returning to her natural worry-bead mode.

“There are lots of challenges with this space,” she frets. “There’s no guarantee it won’t fail. I worry about sales, I worry about staff, I worry about inventory, I worry about events. I worry about…everything. My husband says just make sure you enjoy what you’re doing. From all outward appearances, I’m enjoying it.”

In the course of mothering Writer’s Block, Zimmerman has become the accidental godmother of Central Florida’s belated emergence as a destination for bestselling authors. 

Oh, you thought we already were there? So did Zimmerman, before traveling to New York in 2014 to pitch her fledgling enterprise to the kahunas of publishing such as Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette and Simon & Schuster.

Like every good bookstore, Writer’s Block has a robust children’s section where young readers feel comfortable and welcomed.

BUILDING CREDIBILITY

It was a struggle just to get an appointment, Zimmerman says, because “bookstores come and go, and everybody is opening a bookstore in their backyard or garage — so major publishers are skeptical of new bookstore owners.” Even more sobering, Zimmerman discovered that she was living in fly-over country as far as big publishers were concerned.

“We hadn’t had an independent bookstore in this area for 25 years,” she says. “They fly over Orlando to Miami, then fly over Orlando again to Atlanta. Orlando, to them, is Disney World. There is no town called Orlando.”

On her next visit, in 2015, “I felt like I was a representative of the economic development commission. They wanted to see numbers. I had graphs and charts. I mean, the presentation was thorough. They were impressed. They were shocked. But they said we still weren’t a major market as far as they were concerned.”

On her third visit, Zimmerman talked more about the area’s cultural amenities — including Rollins College and the museums in Winter Park as well as the new Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Orlando. Eventually, her message got through.

“Every year I went up, there’d be more people in the room.” she says. “They finally started inviting the real publicists to attend. That’s when I knew I’d cracked the ceiling.”

One day last year, Zimmerman got an unexpected phone call from a publicist at Hachette, publisher of The President Is Missing, co-authored by James Patterson and former President Bill Clinton. “They said Bill Clinton wanted to come to Orlando, and they needed a facility that could hold a thousand people,” Zimmerman says.

Writer’s Block holds 125, tops. So Zimmerman arranged for the Patterson-Clinton event to be held in the Winter Park High School auditorium and brought the Orlando Sentinel aboard as a co-sponsor. Shortly thereafter, that same connection brought former CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley (Truth Worth Telling) and best-selling romance novelist Elin Hilderbrand (What Happens in Paradise). 

Patterson and Clinton spoke before a full house, as did Hilderbrand, who appeared at Quantum Leap Winery in Orlando. Pelley, whose presentation was at Rollins, nearly filled the Bush Auditorium. The crowds warmed Zimmerman’s anxious heart. 

“I get on a soapbox about this,” says Zimmerman. “You need to come to events. When I go up to New York, I have to prove to them that audiences come to the events. I can tell them all day that we’re turning into a big city, but if they send an author and nobody comes, they’re not going to send any more authors.”

The people who have known Lauren Zimmerman all her life would be surprised if the architect-turned-attorney-turned-bookseller — who always does what she says she’ll do — ever let that happen. 


Dr. Drew Byrnes and his dapper son, Drew Jr., celebrate the opening of Park Smiles, a dental practice on Fairbanks Avenue that capitalizes on its long history in Winter Park.

INTRODUCING WINTER PARK-STYLE SMILES

Most folks in the 1930s — except perhaps movie stars — didn’t have the wide, white smiles that you see today. “Be grateful you weren’t a kid then,” says Dr. Drew Byrnes, the bearded, bowtie-wearing dentist who took over a venerable Winter Park practice in 2014 and reshaped it as Park Smiles.

“[In the 1930s] there probably was no air conditioning, so any dental office smells you can think of, multiply that,” says Byrnes. “Novocain wasn’t as common or effective then. There were different kinds of drills that weren’t as effective — belt-driven with a lot of rotary going on. There may have been some smoke coming out of the equipment.”

Most certainly, Byrnes adds, there would have been a spit bucket next to the chair. And because gloves weren’t normally used, the dentist “would have his bare hands in your mouth.”

No wonder a visit to the dentist was so frightening for the generation that won World War II. And for subsequent generations as well, despite improved equipment and refined techniques. Byrnes, 33, even admits to having dreaded dental visits as a youngster.

Fast forward 80 years to Park Smiles, with a new facility on Fairbanks Avenue that offers a “Comfort Menu” of amenities that include internet radio, Bluetooth headphones, massage chairs, warm scented towels and cozy blankets. 

The hallways are bathed in white noise to mask sounds emanating from exam rooms where televisions that stream Netflix and Apple TV are mounted on the walls at eye-level for reclining patients. The welcome area has a coffee bar.

“We took everything that looked clinical and tried to get rid of it or hide it to create a non-threatening environment,” Byrnes says. “Those big old lights that come down from the ceiling? We got rid of those and installed indirect light.”

A year after he graduated from the University of Florida College of Dentistry, Byrnes — who was born in Winter Park and raised in Altamonte Springs — took over the practice of retiring dentist Dr. Alan Price, who led the effort to fluoridate the city’s water supply in 1983. (Yes, there was opposition to fluoridation.)

The practice, then located on Knowles Avenue, goes much further back than that. It was started in 1939 by Dr. Wilbur Jennings, a 1927 graduate of Rollins College and a former owner of the city’s iconic Capen-Showalter House. Jennings and his wife, Edith, were for years prominent in local civic affairs.  

So Park Smiles — that’s the name Byrnes gave the practice in 2016 — boasts deep Winter Park roots (no pun intended) and is almost certainly the oldest continually operating dental office in the city. In fact, Byrnes says, his patients include children and grandchildren of patients from the practice’s early years. 

Byrnes and his wife, Julie, whom he met at the University of Florida, quickly fell in love with their new neighborhood. They lived in an apartment complex on Park Avenue across from their church, St. Margaret Mary. They later moved to another apartment but remained within walking distance of Park Smiles.

Julie, 30, a Coral Gables native, found Park Avenue “happier than Disney World — genuine happiness.” If it were possible, Drew says, “we would have stayed in downtown Winter Park forever.”

That hope was dashed when Price, who kept ownership of the building after retiring, decided to sell the property. Byrnes searched in vain for another space on or around Park Avenue, but found that the main obstacle was — surprise — parking. 

Park Smiles offers a “Comfort Menu” of amenities that include internet radio, Bluetooth headphones, massage chairs, warm scented towels and cozy blankets. Its examination rooms, such as the one dedicated to Fred Rogers, have adopted local themes.

Byrnes even toyed with valet service before reluctantly extending the search beyond the downtown core. That search ended on west Fairbanks Avenue, next to a 4 Rivers Smokehouse. 

But Byrnes realized that to fulfill his vision of how a dental practice ought to look and operate, he’d have to build a new facility from scratch. “Our new office isn’t just a game-changer for Park Smiles, but it’s a game-changer for dentistry as a whole,” he says. “We aim to change the dental experience.”

A rundown bar and hulking billboard were razed to make room for a gleaming Aegean blue-and-white facility with state-of-the-dental-art technology and a spa-like ambience. That welcoming vibe reflects the influence of Julie, an interior designer who found her career binge-watching HGTV as a teen.

The couple now lives in a vintage Orwin Manor bungalow with their month-old son, Drew Jr. 

“We made sacrifices to make this happen,”
Byrnes says. “We were seeing a lot of our friends buying their first homes and making big life moves. We decided to invest in the future of our practice — to give something amazing to our patients and the city; something that we can be proud of.”

The practice — which also includes Dr. Eric Holtz — offers general and cosmetic dentistry. “We’re a guilt-free office,” Byrnes insists. “I don’t care if it’s been six months or 16 years since your last dental visit. We’ll not make you feel bad for coming back and promise to make it as easy as a walk in the park.”

Byrnes, who says his professional calling was confirmed by dental mission trips to South America, has turned the new offices into an homage to the downtown Winter Park he never wanted to leave. 

Interior walls are lined with large photographs of iconic local buildings and scenes. Exam and treatment rooms carry city-specific names: Kraft Azalea Gardens, Hannibal Square, Central Park, Rose Garden, Emily Fountain, Rollins College and Mister Rogers. 

There’s even a family room where children can watch TV or play games while mom and dad are getting their teeth cleaned. Posted on the wall are the practice’s core values, the first of which is: “Always do the right thing.” 

— Greg Dawson

Timbers Resort’s offices (above and below), located in the Seacoast Bank building on Morse Boulevard, feature striking wall-sized graphics of company properties and a sleek but homey vibe that reflects the company’s culture. About 40 people work in the new national headquarters, with double that number expected within a few years.

SOUTHERN HOSPITALITY

Timbers Resort’s offices (above and below), located in the Seacoast Bank building on Morse Boulevard, feature striking wall-sized graphics of company properties and a sleek but homey vibe that reflects the company’s culture. About 40 people work in the new national headquarters, with double that number expected within a few years.

When Timbers Resorts CEO Greg Spencer began to investigate moving the company’s corporate headquarters from Carbondale, Colorado — a picture-postcard small town just northwest of Aspen — he wanted to find a location that combined the area’s sophisticated panache with easy accessibility, top-notch schools and proximity to workforce housing.

Spencer, 49, who was born in Orlando and attended college in Tallahassee, seemed to recall that Winter Park fit the bill in most respects. Early on, he began steering the 20-year-old company toward Central Florida.

“Winter Park became pretty compelling pretty fast,” says Spencer, whose team also looked at locations in downtown Orlando, Dr. Phillips and Lake Nona. “Winter Park felt like where we came from, and I liked the scale. It was more of a cultural fit with our brand. In fact, our board was blown away.”

In February, Timbers Resorts moved to a suite of offices at 1031 West Morse Boulevard, on the third floor of the Seacoast Bank building. And the space was built out to reflect the fast-growing company’s mission, which is to develop and operate boutique resorts, hotels and private-residence clubs.

The walls are adorned with surfboards and eye-popping graphics of company properties, while the offices and conference rooms are outfitted with sleek, modern furnishings and all the high-tech bells and whistles you’d expect from a company with an international footprint.

“Aspen is one of the most beautiful places on earth, but we had employees looking at extremely long commutes,” notes Spencer. Small wonder: The average home price in Carbondale is more than $800,000 and in Aspen more than $1.6 million.

Timbers Resorts was founded in 1999 by resort developer David Burden and since 2014 has been majority-owned by Los Angeles-based Oaktree Capital Management, whose portfolio includes about $120 billion in assets.

The Timbers portfolio includes 11 company-managed properties in Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, South Carolina, Italy and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as reciprocity agreements with other resorts in Arizona, California, Hawaii and Mexico.

Expansion opportunities are beckoning in Europe and the Caribbean as well as along the Eastern Seaboard. The company has a property in southeast Florida — Timbers Jupiter — and is eyeing opportunities in other Florida markets such as Naples, Lido Key and Palm Beach.

Some functions have remained in Colorado, and there are branch offices in Barcelona, Spain; Bluffton, South Carolina; and Kauai, Hawaii. But corporate headquarters — which encompasses marketing, finance, acquisitions and IT — now has a familiar zip code: 32789.

About 40 people — 10 of whom relocated from Colorado — work in the Winter Park office. Over the next five or six years, as many as 80 people will be employed at salaries that average more than $90,000 annually.

Central Florida’s concentration of hospitality industry professionals was a major factor in the move, says Spencer. He praises the region’s pro-business ethos and the professionalism of the Orlando Economic Partnership, the region’s premier economic development organization.

Local organizations, such as the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce, were also helpful and welcoming, Spencer adds, noting that “the kind of people who live in Winter Park would be our buyers.”

Greg Spencer, CEO of Timbers Resorts, says it was a difficult decision to relocate the company from Carbondale, Colorado, near Aspen. But Winter Park, he says, provides plenty of charm and spirit as well as an array of business advantages. The background photo, “Surfer Girl,” is from the company’s resort in Kauai, the western most of Hawaii’s main islands.

Timbers Resorts — which employs about 1,500 people throughout its system — clearly plans to emphasize corporate citizenship. The paint was barely dry at headquarters when the company agreed to become the presenting sponsor for the chamber’s popular Taste of Winter Park. It was also a sponsor of Winter Park Magazine’s Most Influential People event.

“We’re very purposeful in everything we do,” says Spencer of the company’s civic involvement. “We either do it right or we don’t do it.”

Spencer holds a B.S. in political science from FSU, where he was an ROTC company commander. He became a logistics officer in the Air Force and left military service as a captain, joining Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) in Atlanta and specializing in major bank mergers, such as those involving NationsBank and Bank of America, and Wachovia and First Union.

He later earned an MBA from Webster University and another master’s degree in real estate development from Columbia University, where he wrote his thesis about founding his own development company. “I interviewed some legendary developers while writing my thesis,” recalls Spencer, who graduated at the top of his class.

Armed with insights from the best in the business, Spencer started Mont Ventoux Capital, based in Atlanta. But he was intrigued by resort development and impressed by what he had learned about Timbers Resorts. “I researched and knew these were the types of projects I wanted to do,” he says.

Burden, who was then developing resort properties in Tuscany and the Virgin Islands, happened to be in Atlanta for an investor’s conference. Spencer cold-called the company’s executive chairman and wheedled a 15-minute meeting that stretched into three-and-a-half hours. He was hired in 2007 as a project manager and quickly rose through the ranks.

A snow skier and a water skier — he’ll likely accomplish more of the latter in Winter Park — Spencer and his wife, Suzanne, have two daughters, ages 6 and 11. Suzanne is a women’s health nurse practitioner, but is currently concentrating on raising the family and getting resettled.

Spencer is also an avid FSU football fan — although at this writing it appears that, for this season at least, Saturday afternoons may not be particularly joyful ones for Seminole fans. (Perhaps UCF will attract Spencer’s interest if FSU can’t quickly turn it around.)

One of Timbers Resort’s most intriguing properties is Casali di Casole, a collection of 31 artfully restored Tuscan villas and farmhouses on a 4,200-acre estate in Italy. The company also manages properties in Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, South Carolina and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as reciprocity agreements with other resorts in Arizona, California, Hawaii and Mexico.

Spencer travels about 50 percent of the time — the convenience of Orlando International Airport also worked in Winter Park’s favor — and logs some extremely long work days since the properties he oversees encompass time zones that differ by as much as 12 hours.

So while Spencer may not spend as much time in Winter Park as his employees will, he’s convinced that the Coloradans who followed him southeast will enjoy their new lives in the City of Culture and Heritage: “Moving our headquarters out of the Aspen area was a difficult decision, but we feel that Winter Park has a very similar spirit that our brand and employees will fit well within.”

So far, so good, says Jim Barnes, president of Jambarco Investment Group, which owns the building where the company leases its uber-cool space. “The folks at Timbers Resorts have personally expressed to me how they already feel at home in Winter Park,” says Barnes. “We’re so glad they chose Winter Park for their headquarters.”

Adds Winter Park Mayor Steve Leary: “Timbers is known for sense of place and authenticity in each of their resorts, and felt that Winter Park was the perfect location for their new headquarters. They’ll further strengthen a diverse economic environment where companies can start up or relocate and grow.”

Meza’s vegetarian tagine (above left) is simmered with ginger, saffron, turmeric, cinnamon and cumin and served with Basmati rice. Add chicken or lamb to your order and you’ll have a heartier version with the same flavor foundation — all with a visually regal golden glow thanks to the spices. The grilled calamari (above right) is finished with wine butter garlic sauce and tomatoes. “This is cooking like my mom made,” says Sebaali. “It’s all from scratch.”

TASTES OF THE MIDDLE EAST

Photographs by Rafael Tongol

Nazih Sebaali has been delighting Central Florida diners for years with authentic (and healthy) Lebanese cuisine. Many of his longtime customers have found their way to Meza, which is located in Baldwin Park.

If conversation lags during your meal at Meza, break the silence by playing “what’s that flavor?” The restaurant, which opened last summer, specializes in Lebanese foods. The dishes will look familiar: hummus, kebabs and stews, which here are called “tagines.” 

Take a taste, though, and you’ll realize these aren’t the Americanized staples you know. They’re not even the more familiar Greek varieties. Is that cinnamon in the chicken? Cardamom? Turmeric? Expect to be stumped.

The Lebanese lace aromatic spices into their recipes, and they do it in a way that’s tantalizingly unfamiliar to most of us. The result is a host of appetizers and entrées with an intriguing tinge of — well, we kept having to ask our server. 

“Onions, garlic, cinnamon, allspice and olive oil are the basics of Lebanese cuisine,” explains Nazih Sebaali, chef-owner of this table-service establishment, hidden away on Baldwin Park’s Jake Street, just off New Broad Street. “Those are the basics, and they’re in most everything we serve.”

But as seven of us dipped, spread and sliced our way through much of the menu, we discovered dashes of yet more unusual-for-us extras. Take the kebobs, for example. We chose the mixed grill to try three meat options at once — and kept tasting to conquer the what’s-that-flavor challenge.

Meza offers plenty of variety. That’s Lebanese flatbread at the top. On the second row (left to right) is labneh (yogurt dip served with extra virgin olive oil and mint) and hummus (chickpea purée served with tahini sauce, garlic, lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil). On the third row (left to right) is baba ghanoush (fresh eggplant smoked and puréed and served with tahini sauce, garlic and lemon juice drizzled with extra virgin olive oil); dolmades (stuffed grape leaves served with Tzatziki sauce); and tabouli salad (fine parsley served with bulgur wheat, tomatoes, onions, lemon juice and extra olive oil). The item at the bottom is spinach fatayers (flaky pies filled with spinach, onions and pine nuts).

As it turns out, the chicken is marinated in a garlic sauce, while the beef and lamb soak up the flavors of cardamom, cinnamon, allspice and yogurt before heading to the gas open-flame grill. The yogurt also tenderizes the meat.

The vegetarian tagine is simmered with ginger, saffron, turmeric, cinnamon and cumin. Add chicken or lamb to your order and you’ll have a heartier version with the same flavor foundation — all with a visually regal golden glow thanks to the spices. And so it goes.

As in all Middle Eastern restaurants, I’m happiest with a tableful of starters. Meza’s first courses, like the rest of the menu, are made in-house every day. That makes them fresher. 

“Fresh hummus can’t last more than a day,” Sebaali says. “The hummus in the supermarket is loaded with preservatives. I don’t know what they add to make it last a month.” At Meza, the chickpea mash is blended with tahini, garlic and lemon juice. 

(Side note: I got the hummus for free because I made a reservation through opentable.com. Our server, who was a weak link throughout dinner, knew nothing about the website’s free hummus option and frankly seemed disinterested. So speak up. If you reserve online and see that you get a gift for doing so, be sure to ask for it.)

Meza’s vegetarian tagine (above left) is simmered with ginger, saffron, turmeric, cinnamon and cumin and served with Basmati rice. Add chicken or lamb to your order and you’ll have a heartier version with the same flavor foundation — all with a visually regal golden glow thanks to the spices. The grilled calamari (above right) is finished with wine butter garlic sauce and tomatoes. “This is cooking like my mom made,” says Sebaali. “It’s all from scratch.”

Baba ghanoush is another classic Middle Eastern starter meant to be swiped up with flatbread. Sebaali makes it the same way he makes the hummus. It’s even better, if you like strong flavors. 

The eggplant is grilled in the kitchen each morning, giving the silky insides a seductive smoky element that pairs wondrously with the tahini, garlic and lemon juice. If you want leafy greens instead, dig into the lemony parsley-based tabouleh. It’s a standout.

Just in case some in your party are less adventurous than others, Meza always has a few American favorites available, such as steak. But Sebaali is eager to educate locals about the foods of his homeland, as he has done for more than 20 years.

You may recall Sebaali’s Café Annie, a cafeteria-style restaurant in downtown Orlando. He offered Lebanese fare, but in a self-serve format. “Office workers, judges, attorneys, bankers, everyone who worked downtown ate at Café Annie,” recalls Sebaali, who has an engineering degree from LSU. “It was a landmark.”

The mixed grill is a trio of chicken, beef and lamb kabobs served with fresh vegetables and Basmati rice. The chicken is marinated in a garlic sauce, while the beef and lamb soak up the flavors of cardamom, cinnamon, allspice and yogurt before heading to the gas open-flame grill.

It was also unusual for Central Florida. “When we opened, nobody knew what hummus was,” Sebaali says, noting the food’s ubiquity today. Because lunches at Café Annie were quick, affordable and healthful, the restaurant enjoyed a two-decade run and closed only when rent became prohibitive.

Café Annie was so much a part of regular customers’ lives that a large percentage of Meza’s guests are former Café Annie denizens who can’t do without Sebaali’s cinnamon-laced beef-filled kibbeh or his gooey, cheese-filled triangles in puff pastry, for example.

Those faithful followers, along with Sebaali’s Lebanese friends from the Dr. Phillips area, have gotten Meza off to a strong start. The challenge now is to lure more Winter Parkers. Sebaali says he’s certain that once guests sample his fresh and naturally low-fat offerings, they’ll make Meza part of their dining-out rotation. (Lebanese cuisine is indeed known to be particularly heart-healthy.)

Falafel or chickpeas patties are served with lettuce, tomatoes and tahini sauce.

“This is cooking like my mom made,” he adds. “It’s all from scratch. If the lettuce is brown, I throw it away. If the cucumber has spots on it, if it doesn’t look appealing, I throw it away. I’m here 24/7 to make sure that the staff does things this way.” Sebaali says he’s starting to see some new faces at Meza, which he finds encouraging. “I developed a menu where I can please everybody,” he emphasizes. “You can have a garden salad. You can have lentil soup. I even have mussels with traditional garlic butter on the menu.” 

Meza has a fine selection of wines to accompany its intriguing entrées.

Let your dining companions go for those items. You, though, should pick up a piece of traditional Lebanese flatbread and enjoy it with a soujok lamb and beef sausage sautéed with lemon juice, or a savory eggplant caponata, or one of those enticing kebabs. What’s not to like? 

Meza
1780 Jake Street
Baldwin Park, Orlando, FL  32814
407-440-3603
mezaorlando.com

 

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