In 2005, Lake Eola lost Lee’s Lakeside, a treasured restaurant that had been serving locals and helping them celebrate special occasions since 1980. The restaurant had gone downhill after founding owner Lee Rose passed away about three years before it closed, but Orlandoans who had the pleasure of dining there during its 20-plus great years still remember it fondly.
From Orlando Sentinel
So this is what has become of Lee’s Lakeside. Little more than two years after the death of Lee Rose, her namesake restaurant with its stellar view overlooking Lake Eola and the Orlando skyline has been reduced to a whimper. Once one of the top choices for locals celebrating a special occasion, Lee’s Lakeside now barely goes through the motions of providing any kind of memorable dining experience. Or at least not the sort of experience you want to remember.
The restaurant is owned by a family trust of Rose’s heirs but managed by the company Restaurant Partners. How little does the new management care? Well, a pretty good indication is that the restaurant is now open only on Fridays and Saturdays.
Even before Rose’s death in January 2003 the place had lost some of its luster. Truth be known it has never been a favorite place of mine. But there was no denying Rose brought a certain liveliness to the place with her ebullient personality and dedicated work ethic. There was no doubt you were her guest when you dined there.
I have no idea who my host was on my two recent visits to Lee’s. Except for a greeter who showed customers to their tables, and who seemed confused much of the time, only black-vested servers worked the spacious dining room. Several of the servers have been with the restaurant since the glory days and so know the drill. But while some comported themselves ably, others were clueless. A little direction from someone who cares might make all the difference.
In the days of Lee Rose, the appetizers I was served would never have been allowed to leave the kitchen. The only one that wasn’t messed up in some way was the jumbo shrimp cocktail ($8.95), not something that requires a great deal of skill beyond knowing if the shrimp is fresh-tasting and firm. It was. The large black tiger shrimp were firm, not overcooked, and served chilled.
Unfortunately, the escargot ($7.95), crab and lobster cake ($10.95) and golden lobster bisque ($11.95) also were served chilled, though not intentionally. A skin had formed on top of the bisque, which was generally lacking in flavor.
The crab and lobster cake was a big, bready thing that didn’t seem to have either crab or lobster meat in it.
The escargot could have been good if served at the proper temperature. The little snails were sauteed with garlic and butter, and served atop a meaty portobello mushroom.
Temperatures were proper and the overall quality somewhat better with the entrees on my second visit. One of my guests had the veal mi piaci ($20.95), which featured tenderloins pan-seared with wild mushrooms, artichoke hearts and lemon caper chardonnay sauce.
The pork Valencia ($18.95) was supposed to be made with medallions, but the pieces of meat looked more like chunks. They were lightly floured and pan-seared with a demi-glace with onions and balsamic vinegar. The meat was accompanied by mashed potatoes dotted with bits of applewood-smoked bacon.
“GAR” snapper ($28.95) would probably give pause to any fisherman. Apparently GAR is meant to stand for “great American red.” It was a nice piece of fish and an ample fillet, but the dominant taste was garlic, and it was oversalted. The fish was topped with a large and chewy oyster mushroom and had braised spinach below.
On my first visit, prime rib was available at a rather impressive price of $35.95. Their opinion of it was much higher than the quality of the cut, which was thinnish and cooked beyond the requested medium-rare. The meat sat in a rather thick puddle of salty jus. There was no accompaniment for the meat beyond a dinner salad.
The menu had changed on my second visit, and the prime rib was not available. Also, a salad was not offered with each entree. But the prices were considerably lower.
Two out of three desserts I sampled were good. The Key lime pie ($5.95) was a faithful rendition with an appropriately tart tang. And the New England cheesecake ($6.95) had a delightful dense texture, although the black cherries and strawberry glaze were unnecessary. A chocolate pyramid ($6.95) made with white, milk and dark chocolates was a little overproduced.
The current wine list is remarkably inadequate. There are minimal choices, and the list seems to have been put together with little thought for food pairing.
Then there is the dining room. Even before Lee Rose’s death the place was in need of an overhaul. The blue and peach pastel paint and drapes, the motel-quality swan paintings and wheeled chairs with worn brocade give a drab counterpoint to the beauty outside the window.
But all of this may soon be moot. Word is that Restaurant Partners wants to purchase the restaurant and replace it with a Grille 29, a restaurant concept out of Tampa. Old-time Orlandoans may look at the passing of Lee’s Lakeside in much the same way as the loss of Burdine’s. They’re both a bit of Florida’s history.
But, in the case of the restaurant, it is clearly time for it to go. When something that has already faded becomes a shadow of itself, there are worse things than saying goodbye.