Where: On the Promenade
Hours: 4:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m.; kitchen closes at 10:00 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 11:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Reservations: (407) 224-3663 or OpenTable.com
Reggae fans will appreciate this salute to Bob Marley, the Jamaican-born king of reggae, where the infectious backbeat of Marley’s lilting music mingles with the spicy accents of island cooking. Created under the watchful eye of Marley’s widow, Rita, who has contributed Marley memorabilia for the project, this venue is as much a celebration of Marley’s vision of universal brotherhood as it is a restaurant or performance venue.
When Marley first hit the U.S. scene, he was regarded as something of a dope-smoking revolutionary barbarian. Like many black artists, he suffered the indignity of having his songs "covered" by white artists (like Barbara Streisand!). But music hath charms to soothe the conservative as well as the savage breast and Marley's infectiously charming music gradually became domesticated, despite his occasionally radical-sounding lyrics. Today, his lilting "One Heart" is the unofficial national anthem of Jamaica, made universally familiar through the magic of television commercials.
Marley was a member of the Rastafarians, a religious sect with roots in 1920s Harlem, that believes in the divinity of the late Emperor Haile Selassie and the coming of a new era in which the African diaspora will return in glory to the Ethiopian motherland. "Rastas" shun alcohol, adhere to a vegetarian diet, and smoke copious quantities of ganja, or marijuana, which is seen as a gift from God and something of a sacrament. The nightclub that bears his name violates all those principles; there's plenty of booze, meat on the menu, and no ganja.
One thing close to Marley's heart that does get full expression here is the theme of universal brotherhood. It is preached by the M.C. and practiced by the patrons, making Bob Marley's perhaps the most multicultural entertainment venue in Orlando, a place that turns up the volume and lives out the words of Marley's most famous song: "One love. One heart. Let's get together and feel all right."
The exterior is an exact replica of 56 Hope Road, Marley's Kingston, Jamaica home. Inside you will find two L-shaped levels, each with its own bar, opening onto a spacious palm-fringed courtyard with a gazebo-like bandstand in the corner. Because both levels are open to the courtyard, Marley's is not air-conditioned but fans do a good job of keeping a breeze going.
The predominant color scheme is yellow, red and green, the national colors of Ethiopia; the lion statues evoke Haile Selassie's title of Lion of Judah, a motif that is repeated in the mural on the bandstand. The walls are covered in Marley memorabilia and the sound system pumps out a steady stream of Marley hits.
The nighttime entertainment, which kicks off at about 8:00 p.m., typically consists of a house band of skilled reggae musicians performing a mix of Marley hits, other reggae classics, and the occasional pop standard adapted to the reggae beat. The music of the house bands is good, but not so good that it makes you forget how much better Bob Marley and the Wailers were. Still, their main job is to get people out onto the dance floor, and they accomplish that task easily. After a few drinks and once you are gyrating with the crowds, you'll find no reason to quibble.
The "Rastafarian Tings" ($3 to $6) are non-alcoholic. However, the "Island Favorites," "Frozen Tings," and "Extreme Measures" ($8 to $9), fueled with island rum and other potent potables, are designed to help get you past your inhibitions and onto the dance floor. Of course, Red Stripe, Jamaica's favorite beer, is also available.
The food is designed more as ballast for the drinks than anything else, but it is quite good and a nice introduction to Jamaican fare for the uninitiated. The portions are about appetizer size, so you could well sample several in the course of a long evening. Appetizers ($6-$12) include Stir It Up ($9), a cheese fondue laced with Red Stripe and served with vegetables for dipping, and Jammin' island chips and salsa. The "Catch a Fire" chicken sandwich ($11) is marinated in "jerk" seasoning (a sort of all-purpose Jamaican marinade), grilled, and served with a creamy cucumber dipping sauce.
There are also both meat and vegetarian versions of Jamaican patties ($9 or $10), filled flaky pastries. More substantial fish entrees ($12 to $17) include grilled mahi mahi and fried tilapia. Several dishes are served with yucca fries, which look deceptively like French-fried potatoes but have a taste and texture all their own. Desserts ($5 to $7) are worth sampling, with the Is This Love mango cheesecake especially good. Fresh fruit on a skewer is also available.
A small shop counter in a downstairs corner hawks Marley T-shirts and polos as well as Marley CDs. This is probably as close as you'll get to finding the complete Marley discography in one place, a perfect chance to fill in the gaps in your collection. There is a small selection of books on reggae and Marley for those who would like to learn more.
"Legendary" Thursdays feature half-price appetizers and drink specials from 9:00 p.m. to close, and Sundays are "Ladies' Night."
Bob Marley's is a popular joint and on weekends can spawn long lines of people waiting for one of the 400 spaces inside to open up. Even early in the week, space can be hard to come by for those who don't arrive early. If you want to be in the thick of it, you'll definitely want to be downstairs. If you're not the dancing type, a row of stools along the railing of the upstairs balcony offers excellent sightlines to the stage. For a change of scenery, you can take your drink onto a second floor balcony that looks out over the Promenade.
Anyone looking for a fun evening of dancing and drinking and infectious music to go along with it will find little to complain about here. True Marley devotees will find everything they are looking for.
Everything but the ganja.
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