Chef John Rivers’ guide to Orlando’s best restaurants
With no formal culinary training or even aspirations to launch a hugely successful BBQ chain, John Rivers’ introduction into the world of brisket and pulled pork began in his garage, home kitchen and backyard smoker. By 2009, he opened his first 4 Rivers Smokehouse in Winter Park, and when lines started snaking out the door and down the street, he knew he was on to something.
Six years later, Rivers has opened many more 4 Rivers Smokehouse locations, plus another restaurant, The COOP, which serves fried chicken and other traditional southern fare. He’s cooked at the James Beard House in New York City, been a featured chef at Food Network’s South Beach Wine & Food Festival for four straight years, published a cookbook, The Southern Cowboy Cookbook, and has been featured in scores of publications, including USA Today, Paula Deen Magazine, FOOD Magazine, Good Housekeeping and Food & Wine.
Rivers is also the creator of The Sweet Shop, the onsite bakery and ice cream shop he houses inside most of his 4 Rivers Smokehouse restaurants. The venture had a serendipitous start; after plans were well underway to open his third location, Rivers realized he would have more square footage than he needed inside the chosen site in Longwood, a northern suburb of Orlando.
“At the time I was fascinated, and still am, with charcuteries. I had the plans drawn to add a charcuterie shop but two days before we were to turn in the plans for permitting and I had a feeling in my gut that it didn’t make sense,” Rivers explains. He took a week to think things through and quickly realized that the extra square footage would be the perfect place to open a bakery, a place to bake the cupcakes he was already selling at 4 Rivers locations.
The Sweet Shop was born and with it came cakes, cookies, ice cream and his legendary cupcakes in crazy flavours like Mountain Dew Dorito and Coca Cola Potato Chip. “That venture cost me 18 pounds,” he says with a laugh. “That summer we created not only the bakery items but the ice cream, too. We’d have tastings every Tuesday and Thursday.”
Not that he’s complaining. Rivers loves to eat and he loves good food. Which is why he’s the perfect person to tap when you’re wondering where to find a great meal in Orlando.
“Orlando is such a great place to eat because it needs to cater to so many different palates,” says Rivers, who sees a lot of culinary diversity not usually found in cities of this size. “It’s also a highly competitive city to run a restaurant, which forces us to be good in order to survive.”
A self-proclaimed creature of habit, Rivers lives in Winter Park” a chic city located less than 10 miles from downtown Orlando” and that’s where he does most of his dining out.
“There is chef talent all over this city, all the way from Disney to DeLand. But in Winter Park you have such a high concentration great chefs and restaurants.”
You’ll often find him enjoying a leisurely brunch at Briarpatch, a much-loved Park Avenue breakfast and lunch spot known for their stuffed French toast and dessert-like waffles. “I always ask for the specials and the last time I was there I had a scramble with pulled pork and some Mexican flavours. It was spectacular.”
For a quick breakfast, you’ll find him at The COOP, the Southern restaurant he opened in 2014. “I know I’m a little biased, but I love The COOP’s breakfast. It’s extremely southern; everything is homemade. It’s warmth and family to me,” John says. “I’ll have breakfast there at least twice a week, usually something spicy like the Mexican Scramble. One of our most popular breakfast dishes is the Catfish & Grits.”
In the evening, you might find him at Luma on Park or at Armando’s, an upscale Italian pizzeria in Winter Park’s quieter Hannibal Square district. “One of my favourites, a go-to for us is the pizza at Armando’s, called the San Daniella. Made with prosciutto and arugula, it’s just fantastic,” says Rivers, who is also a fan of Armando’s Ossobuco.
But Rivers ventures out of Winter Park, too, most recently to pay an inaugural visit to Victoria & Albert’s inside Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. “We did the chef’s table for our wedding anniversary and it was such a delightful, romantic experience. I never sit down so to sit still for three hours and enjoy such an exceptional dining experience was a real treat.”
Rivers also gives a nod to The Chef’s Table at the Edgewater Hotel. “It was fantastic. I never order a pork chop but it was brined with apple and bourbon. Amazing. It was one of the best dishes I had last year.”
In the downtown area, Rivers will point you to Soco, a contemporary southern restaurant where Chef Greg Richie churns out upscale iterations of classic dishes from meatloaf to fried chicken. In 2015, John Rivers joined Richie in his kitchen for a special dinner event they created together. “Developing a menu together takes collaboration. When a chef can give up the reigns in their own kitchen it says a lot about their leadership and confidence.”
With so many restaurants vying for attention in Orlando, there are bound to be a few unsung heroes, and in that category Rivers places Cocina 214. Located in Winter Park, this chic Tex-Mex restaurant is known for its fresh and authentic fare. “But I don’t think Cocina 214 gets the recognition it deserves,” Rivers says. “The food is authentic and the people who own it and run it are exceptional people.” Oh, and they make killer margaritas.
Written by Kristen Manieri