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In Central Florida, Nineteen61 Rises to Restaurant Stardom

A single restaurant can make a destination. Nineteen61 is doing that for Lakeland, a small city 65 miles southwest of Orlando known for its art and architecture and proximity to its namesake waters. When chef Marcos Fernandez arrived in 2015, fine dining was added to the reasons to visit. Word has spread throughout Central Florida but international diners need to know about Nineteen61, too.

It’s one of the rare dining experiences where every plate is executed with technical expertise and heaping amounts of heart that completely satiates an appetite and makes you feel nourished by someone who cares. Nineteen61’s flavors are balanced, dishes are rich with artistic flair and the kind of affection for culture and heritage that removes any pretensions that can limit an overly precise fine-dining experience.


Marcos Fernandez has turned Lakeland into a culinary destination with his exceptional restaurant, Nineteen61. At top, ceviche is inspired by La Mar in Lima, considered a pioneering restaurant of Peruvian cuisine. (Adrian Brijbassi photos for VacayNetwork.com)

The restaurant’s roots are from Cuba — the restaurant’s name comes from the year when Fernandez’s parents departed the Caribbean island to get away from the Castro regime — and Peru, the home of the chef/owner’s wife, who is also “a huge foodie,” he says. The empanadas are replicas of what you’d enjoy at La Mar Cebicheria, the trailblazing Lima restaurant, launched by master chef Gaston Acurio, that is renowned for its influence on globally recognized Peruvian cuisine. The ceviche at Nineteen61 was made with corvina on the day I arrived for what turned out to be a fascinating visit with a chef who is as passionate about his food as he is talented with the execution of his menu.

MORE FLORIDA: Disney World with a Toddler

Dishes include a take on poutine with a Cuban twist. It features yuca fries and queso fresca with salsa criolla on a platter with a mix of seared beef brisket and short rib. Such inventiveness displays Fernandez’s playfulness. The flat-iron steak is a signature dish, served with a black-bean risotto that in itself will urge diners to book a return visit. Croquettes are filled with manchego and serrano ham, and served with a guava glaze.


At Nineteen61, the flat-iron steak is served with a wildly delicious black-bean risotto. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for VacayNetwork.com)

Creativity on the menu melds with family-inspired comfort food such as that steak, which Fernandez’s father taught him to make, and Emili’s Arroz con Pollo, a divine chicken-and-rice recipe from his wife. The chicken fingers are prepared with a breading and flavoring prepared in-house, a touch that Fernandez is particularly proud of. He told my 4-year-old son that they would be the best chicken fingers he would eat and Gabriel excitedly agreed, declaring two-thumbs up within seconds of his first bite.


Cocktails at Nineteen61 feature inventive takes on classics, including (from left): Smoked Old-fashioned, Pisco sour, and Macho Margarita. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for VacayNetwork.com)

The quality extends to the cocktails, which are extraordinary and clearly have a following based on my one visit. The bar was busy with regular patrons who were eager to try concoctions such as a smoked old-fashioned graced with a luxado cherry, a Macho Margarita with Curazon tequila, and Pisco sours, the classic Peru libation made with the namesake elixir from that nation.

Launched in 2015, the restaurant expanded four years later from 1,200 square feet in its original location to 4,600 square feet, with room for 155 patrons inside and another 30 on patio seats that face the town’s Munn Park. It is just a block to Lake Mirror and the town’s attractive promenade. Nineteen61 drips with elegance and novelty. Artwork is eye-catching and fittingly evocative of Latin American culture. The exterior is pristine and colored in a hue of cream that seems chosen to catch and hold the shimmering Florida sun.


What does Cubano Poutine look like? At Nineteen61, it includes a heaping serving of beef brisket and short rib atop yuca fries and queso fresca. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for VacayNetwork.com)

“We have not slowed down since we opened,” Fernandez says, noting that the demand from patrons was the reason for the move to a larger space. “It’s an accomplishment to be so welcomed and to be able to have so many people in the community support us that we could expand.”

Fernandez’s journey to chefdom was inspired by a retired culinary professional who he met decades ago while building furniture for the man’s yacht. The experience proved influential as Fernandez started a journey in the industry that began humbly at an Applebee’s and quickly ascended to a notable country club in Jacksonville, home to one of Florida’s hottest culinary scenes. He arrived in Lakeland with the chance to focus on his own cuisine and connect diners to his background. Accolades have been consistent and deserved since the restaurant’s inception. Nineteen61 is a place that’s easy to adore. Even though it’s a distance from the epicenter of Orlando’s theme parks, the restaurant offers a magical culinary experience that fits right in with the more well-known calling cards of Central Florida.

Ravello Showcases Orlando’s Michelin Status


Michelin-starred Ravello is a flagship restaurant at the Four Seasons Orlando. It’s delicious choices inlcude this Stracciatella Tortoni cake. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for VacayNetwork.com)

The culinary world of Florida is buzzing with the state’s first Michelin guides. Orlando, Miami, and Tampa were the initial destinations to have their restaurants rated by the famed publication in 2022. Among those earning a coveted star is Ravello, an outstanding Italian restaurant located in the immaculate Four Seasons Orlando.

Inside Disney World Resort in Buena Vista, the restaurant features flawless execution and some dishes are just plain mind-blowing. Most stunningly to me was the Insalata de Barbabietole, or beet salad, which spins a typically banal dish into a signature offering that utterly delights with flavor and richness. The beets are boiled and marinated in merlot, which explains the decadent outcome on the plate. They’re served with Bosc pear, thin slices of radish, walnuts, and more.

Pastas are handmade in the kitchen and a display of pappardelle and tagliatelle greets you as you enter. Six pasta dishes are on the menu and you will be tempted to try them all. I opted for the ravioli filled with wild mushrooms and spinach, and topped with ricotta. Ravello features branzino flown in from the Mediterranean and served whole and stuffed with herbs, olives, and spinach. It’s a treat that will whiz you to Greece just as the “It’s a Small World” ride at the nearby theme park might.

ravello-ravioli with mushrooms

Ravioli stuffed with mushrooms and topped with ricotta is one of the many excellent menu options at Ravello, located within Disney World Resort. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for VacayNetwork.com)

The wine list is more dizzying, with a long selection of high-quality vintages that you can peruse on the iPad the wait staff provides. It’s loaded with the wine options and the digital experience is pleasure to navigate through, making it easy to get lost in.

Ravello is kid-friendly, like just about everything else in Central Florida, but it’s replete with elegance and fine-dining panache that is indeed worthy of the honors it has received.

Adrian is the founder of VacayNetwork.com and Vacay.ca, and the co-founder of the travel-trivia app, Trippzy. A former editor at the Toronto Star and New York Newsday, Adrian has won numerous awards for his travel writing and fiction. He has worked with leading destination marketing organizations, developing digital and social media strategies, and providing them with content marketing solutions. He has visited more than 40 countries and spearheaded the Vacay.ca 20 Best Places to Visit in Canada annual list that debuted in 2012.