Late-night menus can be wholesome, and even artful.
You want a bite to eat before the drive home. It’s late, you’re cranky and you’re unexcited about the menu at your local bar.
Turn instead to one of the half-dozen establishments featured here. Some serve fanciful dishes, even past midnight. Others go the hearty route—but with a difference. Their burgers, franks or wings are made thoughtfully—by chefs, from fresh, high-quality ingredients. They’re good, nurturing meals, served when most folks are fast asleep.
Shantells Café & Oyster Bar
When Shantell Williams headed home from DJ and karaoke gigs with her partners in the wee hours, they were hungry. “The only places to go were Denny’s and McDonald’s,” she says. “We had to wait an hour for food that wasn’t great.” So, recalling the 24-hour diners she enjoyed during her years in New York, Williams decided to serve those late-night meals herself.
This past fall, she and partner Larry Higgins opened Shantells within downtown bar Sanford’s Fat Rat. The duo run the lounge, which has live entertainment and karaoke, and the foodservice. Although the restaurant serves from 11 a.m. on most days, its busiest time is once the bar shuts down at 2 a.m. on Thursday through Saturday nights. “Everyone moves over to the restaurant,” Williams says.
Guests are given the lunch menu, which doubles as a late-nighter. They top off their evening with chicken and waffles, a steak with jerk shrimp, Philly cheesesteak sandwiches and the 16-ounce hand-crafted hamburger. It’s topped with “everything you want”: sautéed mushrooms, onions, green peppers, cheese, “some like jerk seasoning on it” and more.
The higher-end foods quickly garnered a following. “At first people made comments about the food being pricey,” Williams says. Now that they see the value, “I’m not hearing that anymore.”
Kasa Tapas & Raw Bar
The word fusion may have become passé, but the concept of melding differing cuisines hasn’t. Kasa embraces the multinational approach, so much so that its name is a play on the Spanish word casa, which means home, and the Japanese term omakase, a chef’s offering.
For Executive Chef Shawn Kaplan, the mix-and-match opportunities open the door to creativity. “I’m not pigeonholed,” he says gleefully. “I eat at a lot of little ethnic holes-in-the-wall around town, little gems, and a lot the inspiration for my dishes came from those—even though my dishes are contemporary.”
With the help of his kitchen staff, which is “a United Nations of the cooking world,” Kaplan has put together a late-night menu representing many parts of the world, but with a dash of panache. Pad Thai calamari (above), for instance, has both Asian and Italian elements in the name. The dish is squid (i.e. calamari) cut into strips so it looks like pasta, then dusted with rice flour and fried. The so-called noodles are then glazed with tamarind sauce and topped with snow peas and carrots, and served on a modern white plate.
Jumping geographically, the fried oyster late-night item (right) is served in a Spanish casuela—a red, round, earthenware dish. Yet the oysters are Southwestern in flavor. Raw mollusks are breaded in corn flakes ground into a breadcrumb-like texture, then coated, fried and topped with a poblano cream sauce and garnished with crispy fried bacon, tomatoes, cilantro and pieces of roasted corn.
Kaplan’s goals: achieving “the yum factor” and “the wow factor.” He says, “I want to capture the customer’s eye.”
The Smiling Bison
When folks stay at The Smiling Bison to hear live jazz, funk, country or reggae music, the owners want to feed them nothing “grease-ridden,” says General Manager Ron Thomas. “We try to stick with the best—the best bands, foods, beer, wine and local artists on the walls [via paintings]and on the stage.”
At this gastropub, “the best” late-night fare means food that’s scratch-made, not fancy. Under the tutelage of chef/co-owner Josh Oakley, the culinary team offers several “bar snacks” and sandwiches from the night’s dinner menu, plus one extra—maybe buffalo-style chicken wings or a house-made hot dog with spicy chili and mustard.
Let’s say you choose that chili dog. The frank itself will be made in the Smiling Bison’s kitchen from short rib. The chili, also a house recipe, might be rich with bison meat. The onion-mustard relish will be fresh, not from a jar. And if there are salt-and-vinegar fries or pumpkin-farro salad on the plate alongside, they’ll be from chefs’ hands, too.
That’s the Bison’s definition of “best.” No bull.
Cask & Larder
Once its dinner customers head for home, the bar team at Cask & Larder shifts gears. At 10 p.m., the bartenders start crafting special nightly cocktails. The drinks are labor-intensive and made with high-end spirits—maybe smoked, or stirred with hand-crafted ice, for instance. Occasionally, guest bartenders from other Florida cities pop in for a special appearance.
Paired with the libations, the “Southern public house’s” late-night menu includes not only longtime favorites like fries covered in pimento cheese and a double-stacked pork burger, but also the artisan charcuterie for which Chef de Cuisine Rhys Gawlak is known. So, late on a given evening, guests might snack on a mix-and-match platter with salume, terrine and homemade bacon and/or duck confit. Or, perhaps a “composed” plate would appeal more: rabbit confit with a salad, or a house-stuffed sausage cut up with fresh parsley sitting atop a puree.
Can’t stay up late? Ask about taking home a monthly package of Gawlak’s charcuterie. He’s working on starting up a “share” club.
Teak Neighborhood Grill
Back when Brian Buttner worked at Universal Orlando, he’d leave work at 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. and have “no place to eat a quality meal.” So when he opened Teak Neighborhood Grill four years ago, he chose to serve the gastropub’s full menu until 1:45 a.m. daily. “We kill it at 1 in the morning,” he says about his traffic. Teak brings in hospitality-industry workers who stop in for dinner when their shifts end. In fact, even employees of Buttner’s other restaurant, RusTeak Restaurant and Wine Bar, come by often, since their place shuts at 11 p.m.
“People order our sesame-crusted ahi tuna with seaweed salad and a teriyaki glaze,” says Buttner. “They eat peel-and-eat shrimp, and a New York strip steak. They order real meals.”
Pete Wesenberg admits that his tavern “looks sketchy from outside.” Yet, in part because of Oblivion Taproom’s “great pub grub,” the place is packed regularly—in part with families. That’s by design. Wesenberg and his wife and co-owner, Missy Jahn, set out to have a “reasonably priced placed with good food made from scratch in a casual atmosphere.”
So if you’re hankering for a burger in the wee hours, know you’ll be munching on a hand-formed patty made of chuck, brisket and short rib. It’ll sit on an Olde Hearth bun and be accompanied by house-made ketchup. Sauces and more are scratch-made, and provisions from chicken to bread hail from local producers. “The fish on the fish sandwiches changes based on what’s available locally. We like to support other local food businesses in any way we can,” Wesenberg says.
So grab a beer and ask for pork belly sliders, wings, pork rillettes, a hummus trio or mushrooms stuffed with goat cheese and roasted garlic. None of it will be “frozen crap off a truck.”