DOROTHEA HUNTER SÖNNE
We’ve all seen them: those ubiquitous TripAdvisor Certificates of Excellence hanging in windows of local eateries. Likewise, we’ve had those little green or red cards slipped into our bill asking us to “share our opinions.” Restaurants even link to Yelp or put an OpenTable booking calendar on their homepages.
But I have a challenge for anyone who lives here year-round or who is familiar with Southwest Florida. Type “Naples restaurants” into any review- based website—Zomato (formerly Urbanspoon), TripAdvisor and the like—and sort by “rating.”
Enough to make your head spin? I can hear the chorus of “That’s on there?!” and feel the ground shake from Fort Myers to Everglades City.
If I were a tourist reading about Southwest Florida’s rising status as a foodie destination—or if I were a local looking to try something new on a Friday night—and I put faith in what’s expressed, there’s a good chance I’d end up disappointed. The unavoidable truth is that of all the restaurants on Third Street South and Fifth Avenue South in Naples, arguably the highest concentration of the area’s best, only one lands in the top 10 on those sites on any given day. In Lee County, it’s a similar picture, but there are more critics’ picks ranking as high as the people’s choices. The reason is three-fold: Fewer competitors (in Sanibel, especially, the rankings yield almost perfectly aligned results for that reason), lower overall prices (an underlying theme of complaints is not enough value per dollar at some of our better establishments) and a greater prevalence of mom-and-pop eateries (think about it: If a restaurant has 10 tables and the owner treats you like part of the family, it’s nearly impossible to write a bad review).
Let me also make it clear that I do believe sites like Yelp, Zagat, Zomato, OpenTable and TripAdvisor serve a real purpose and bring value to a discussion on where to dine out because it is such a subjective question—at the very least, they make finding basic details easy.
In the end, it’s all about preference. Are you looking for a trendy night on the town with craft cocktails? Do you want finger-licking-good food on a shoestring budget? Are white tablecloths with white-gloved service to match what you seek? As long as you know what you want, there is thankfully no shortage of ways to find it, starting here with foolproof picks for memorable meals in both counties.
Naples Classics: Downtown
(price not an issue, food quality most important)
Pan-seared uku over coconut bamboo rice with Maine lobster chow chow at Veranda E
This area practically invented casual fine dining—you know, show up in a polo shirt and khakis but have the menu, service and genteel surroundings normally found at a jacket-only establishment. The granddaddy of such places, Ridgway Bar & Grill, sits near the southern end of Third Street South, and its chef-owner, Tony Ridgway, has been making waves for his upscale coastal American cookery for more than 40 years. It’s also hard to have a discussion of downtown without thinking of Bleu Provence, where a seat in the woven chairs feels like a quick trip to the south of France. Just recently, it catapulted into the esteemed ranks of the wine world, being one of only 81 restaurants worldwide to receive Wine Spectator’s Grand Award. It has, of course, always scored well here for sophisticated twists on moules frites and duck confit. Most locals will debate whether Campiello and its gorgeous patio or Osteria Tulia is their favorite spot for Italian—opinions diverge on ambience and culinary risk-taking, but while Tulia may expertly masquerade on Fifth as a rustic-chic farmhouse supported by wooden ceiling beams and exposed brick walls, its cuisine is anything but provincial. While you can always get a great margherita pizza, put your trust in chef Vincenzo Betulia’s mixing of lamb sausage, ricotta and Calabrian chiles or pastas stuffed with short ribs and foie gras. Chef Fabrizio Aielli, Italian-born but with a culinary style more informed by his adopted home, is credited with invigorating our restaurant scene seven years ago when he launched Sea Salt. It’s hard to go wrong with simply grilled fish enhanced by one of his 130 finishing salts, but if you can swing it, try to attend one of his wine dinners. The multi-course meals with on-point pairings are nothing short of memorable. If you want something more exotic than American, Italian and French yet equally delectable, Bha! Bha! Persian Bistro is the ticket to a glamorous magic carpet ride down lamb lane: The rich protein gets slow-cooked and sauced to perfection in dozens of iterations. Year-rounders have lately been swearing by Veranda E, both for its eclectic culinary influences and sophisticated compositions—but go only if you want a meal al fresco in the lovely secluded patio, as there is no indoor option.
Honorable mentions: Chez Boët, Le Lafayette, Pazzo! Cucina Italiana, Truluck’s, The Chapel Grill
Naples Classics: Off-Grid
(price not an issue, food quality most important)
Tourists (and locals) are routinely surprised by how some of the best meals coupled with handsome surroundings are behind tinted windows in strip malls or structures that seem randomly dropped Wizard of Oz-style on an empty tract of land, like Preston’s on U.S. 41. The postage stamp-sized steakhouse has loyal fans—and so, too, does The Grill further uptown at The Ritz-Carlton, Naples (both are revered for prime cuts and impeccable service). The talk of most carnivores right now, however, is Jimmy P’s Charred: The area’s top butcher put a risk-taking chef in charge of enhancing his heritage-bred meats in a casually elegant spot next door to the shop. Further up on U.S. 41, USS Nemo has developed the same kind of cult following. If you can excuse the faux portholes and being sandwiched in like sardines, the dishes merging classic French techniques with Asian flavors are attention-grabbers (the miso-broiled sea bass earned accolades last year from The New York Times). Another adventure in the kitchen awaits with chef Greg Scarlatos’ Fuse Global Cuisine. From his veal with morels and tart cherry compote to a guava-inflected wild boar chop with chimichurri, his creations don’t disappoint. Alexander’s and KC American Bistro both exude a casual elegance and feature soulful cooking from the namesake chef-owners. And for meals by the water worth the steep price tag, you can’t go wrong with M Waterfront Grille (at The Village on Venetian Bay), Baleen (in LaPlaya Resort overlooking the Gulf) and The Bay House (on a quiet mangrove-lined canal).
Honorable mentions: Cibao Grille, IM Tapas, Mereday’s Brasserie at Bayfront (Editors note: Mereday's Brasserie closed in January 2016.)
Naples Young and Fun:
(price not an issue—vibe matters big-time)
The gnocchi at Bar Tulia
HobNob has cultivated a lively atmosphere, with a perfect divide between the more boisterous bar and ample tables to enjoy the global small-plate-focused eats. The Continental with its $1.5 million renovation of a bougainvillea-lined patio has proven itself (despite sky-high prices) because the steaks, cocktails and nightly music are that good. Speaking of rockin’ digs, with more of a retro-cool Florida-country style and Southern-meets-la-vida-local food, 7th Avenue Social has become the downtown hangout for young professionals. The intimate (read: tiny) Bar Tulia has a similar but more subdued draw for high-brow craft cocktails and small plates.The wine bar at Barbatella provides some serious eye candy: bright green reliefs and birdcaged chandeliers are an on-trend backdrop for an awesome selection of Italian reds and wood-fired pizzas.
Avenue 5 is also a sight, with towers of wine bottles and design that feels more South Beach than Southwest Florida (but stick to people-watching over drinks and nibbles, as the kitchen can be spotty). As for uptown, Mercato obviously can’t be overlooked for good times; where good food comes in is Masa (nouveau Mexican) and the sleek Inca’s Kitchen (authentic Peruvian) across U.S. 41.
Honrable Mentions: La Bazenne, Lamoraga
(biggest bang for your buck—off-grid mom-and-pops)
Rumba Cuban Cafe owner Jorge Reyes
When in Naples, nothing is cheap. However, we’re lucky to have a bunch of wonderful storefronts dishing out top-quality food in quaint dining rooms where entrées run less than $25 and appetizers are rarely beyond $10. Rumba Cuban Café has taken TripAdvisor and Yelp by storm in part because of its technology-savvy co-owner Jorge Reyes but also because it consistently delivers mouth-watering lemony lechon asado (slow-cooked pork) and attentive, warm care from the entire Reyes family. But if you want real rum in your mojitos, visit the new Fernandez the Bull on Pine Ridge Road for a full bar and a similarly yucca-spiked spread. Right across is Martin Fierro—arguably the best steaks for the best price in town (grass-fed and imported from Uruguay)—and on weekends the hazy accordion tangos with the smokiness permeating the narrow space from the South American parilla, or ginormous grill. For live music and lively food, North Naples’ best-kept secret is The Claw Bar at Tierney’s Tavern. Under the same roof and sharing the same extremely talented chef as its upmarket sister, The Bay House, this no-reservations joint is perfect for a burger smothered in house-made pimento cheese, seafood stew, or parpadelle with pulled pork swimming in pot likker (the savory liquid from collards). Another restaurant that has done exceeding well on TripAdvisor and for good reason is Maria D’anna Café; the Polish couple who own it are almost always behind the counter stocked with confections from layer cakes with fresh cherries to dainty poppy-seed cookies served on artfully mismatched Limoges china—not to mention scrumptious pierogis, goulash and other Eastern European staples. The Local also impresses those who step through its doors with delectable farm- and sea-to-table cuisine that’s undeniably healthy and fresh, starting with the white-bean hummus and crudités in place of bread and butter. Komoon has been a welcome addition for sushi, Japanese and Thai specialties (plus a few Peruvian dishes, to boot!), and we’re excited for Zen Asian BBQ to debut.
Honorable mentions: Alpine, Cider Press Café, Charlie Chiang’s, Tacos & Tequila Cantina
South Collier/Marco Island: Best All-Around
(price not an issue)
Unless you live on or nearby the canal-crisscrossed Marco, it’s not often you find yourself there; however, should you, locals swear by Fin Bistro for a unfussy fresh seafood in an approachable upscale-casual package. Foodies, however, revere Verdi’s Bistro for the kitchen’s eclectic influences, and those with deep pockets (and an affinity for gilded Renaissance opulence) spring for a meal from the Naples, Italy-born chef Giuliano Matarese at Sale e Pepe, who has competed on the Food Network’s Chopped.
Honorable mention: Marco Prime Steaks & Seafood
(price not an issue)
Come for the food, stay for the jazz at Roadhouse Café
Any discussion of Lee dining has to start with a trio of powerhouses in Bonita Springs: Wylds Café, A Table Apart and Angelina’s Ristorante. Depending on what you’re in the mood for: modern American (Wylds), eclectic fusion with a Pacific bent (Table) or Italian (Angelina’s), you can’t go wrong with any of these fine dining locales, with Angelina’s being the most formal. The Veranda in Fort Myers attracts the same kind of urbane diner for long, Southern-accented meals in an Old Florida dining room and a quiet lush courtyard. Sasse’s and Cibo easily take the cannoli for refined Italian north of Bonita Springs. And while it sounds Italian, the charming Gloria’s La Trattoria Café Napoli serves up Spanish tapas with other Mediterranean delights. While the Roadhouse Caféhas the kind of menu that has something for everyone—recognizable favorites like lobster quesadillas, chicken stir fry and steak au poivre—people plan a trip for the jazz, so reserve early and ask for a seat close to the gleaming white piano. New and noteworthy is Harold’s, the tiny (only 32 seats total!) farm-to-table boîte in the former Blue Windows space dishing up organic veggies and pasture-raised meat from Rosy Tomorrows Heritage Farm a short drive away. Chef Christian Vivet, before closing Blue Windows, found a new home for his classic French fare on Sanibel Island with Bleu Rendez-Vous French Bistro. On Sanibel, three other temples of approachable haute cuisine also shine: Sweet Melissa’s, The Mad Hatter and Blue Coyote Supper Club (this is the public location of the private Fort Myers club). While Cape Coral can get funky—in a cool, experimental way—four of the more play-it-straight but equally enjoyable eateries are Fish Tale Grill (the freshest seafood), Blaze Bistro (a global menu that’s unapologetic for its divergent influences), Fathoms (small plates with big flavor) and Slates’s (a taste of New Orleans). If you’re chasing views, Fresh Catch Bistrois Fort Myers Beach minus the honkey tonk plus dependable seafood; Coconut Jack’s, on a Bonita bay, and Rumrunners, on a quiet Cape Coral canal, are also dependable.
Young and Fun:
(big-city or endearingly eccentric atmosphere)
Did we mention Cape Coral’s quirkiness? Capitalizing on that with irreverence to spare is Nevermind Awesome Bar & Eatery. The exposed pipes and grit would seem more at home in Brooklyn than in sunny Florida, but the zany twists on comfort foods like truffle- scented wings, grilled cheese stuffed with brisket and patty melts draw young and old alike. Cork Soakers, perhaps even more out-there with fried bologna sandwiches and curry-brined wings, has similar appeal. In the River District, The Firestone continues to impress with perfectly fired steaks in the Grille Room and views that dazzle from the Sky Bar, and while The Standard quietly opened this fall, it’s gained traction fast for from-scratch everything and creative craft cocktails. For a rocking vibe, Yabo doesn’t disappoint with solid Italian food and funky live music and memorabilia. Lastly, Cru at the Bell Tower Shops is the young professionals’ choice for kicking back with fun nibbles and libations—and we know they’ll love HaVen once it opens nearby because it promises much of the same.
Value: Bigger Bang for Your Buck
(ambience not as important)
There are no shortages of places with crazy-good food at crazy-good prices in the Fort Myers area. The diner-esque CRaVE shines for home-cooked comforts like bacon-wrapped meatloaf. 11:Eleven Café is a mecca for grilled cheese—the Food Network’s Alton Brown said a sandwich there was among the best he’s ever had. Other niche eateries include burger emporium Ford’s Garage (from the same folks of The Firestone) and Reuben’s Smokehouse for sweet-spicy barbecue. Fancy’s Southern Café touts fried green tomatoes, frog legs and mason jar cocktails at prices that won’t fry the wallet—all in a sleek salon with exposed brick walls and plush settees. Also boasting a large, attractive dining room is Cork and Barrel, a small-plates-only eatery and wine bar (seriously, there are no entrées on the entire menu). Mad Fresh Bistro may not offer much for ambience, but it makes up for that in delicious salads, charcuterie and sandwiches from a Soup Nazi-like French owner who refuses to serve ketchup with his crispy shoestring fries. Another European cooking food from his homeland to exceptional standards (and genuinely warm service) is Marco Coricelli of Osteria Celli. His pared-down menu of freshly made pastas reminds Italian-Americans of Sunday suppers. Other intriguing eats include the ever-popular El Gaucho Inca, a marriage of Peruvian and Argentinian food in a convivial setting paying homage to both cultures—and Aji Limon, serving Peruvian cuisine not tamed down for American palates (though Americans have been flocking there all the same).