When it comes to making fine dining reservations right on the Gulf, the pressure is on in Naples, where options are surprisingly limited. That's why you should keep the phone number of the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club in a handy location. It's a restaurant meant to impress out-of-towners with tropical scenery and fabulous sunsets. And the food and service are reliably fine.
Food and beverage manager Jim Anderson says the breakdown of locals and resort guests is about half-and-half at the club's HB's on the Gulf. But I suspect many newcomers to the area aren't aware that the swanky but relaxed HB's is open to the public. From its exterior (which is pretty well hidden) you'd suspect you need to be a guest at the resort to enjoy the restaurant. But the two dining rooms-one outside on a deck and the other inside with a view through glass-have been part of the local community for decades. In 1930, Allen Joslin built the first 18-hole golf course on the site and later added The Beach Club. In the late '40s, Henry Watkins bought the club and course and renamed the complex the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club. The Watkins family has owned it ever since.
The property is part of Naples lore, and a meal at HB's is a memorable way to include yourself in the town's history. Thomas Edison routinely enjoyed Sunday dinners at the club. And in the summer of 1951, 11-year-old Jack Nicklaus was vacationing with his family at the hotel when he broke 40 for the first time on the same championship golf course that welcomes vacationers to the resort today.
The evening meal is orchestrated by chef de cuisine Michael Macri, who sets the menu with executive chef Marwan Kassem. Anderson does the wine list, which is currently weighted a bit toward seafood, the favorite with diners. Prices are surprisingly reasonable, with interesting bottles you can't readily find in supermarkets and local liquor stores. Anderson says his wine cellar is a work in progress, and he aims to increase the boutique wine collection.
Expect to find about a dozen entrées on the dinner menu, one of them a vegetarian pasta and roasted vegetables dish for $18. The rest of the dinners average about $26 and include favorites such as rosemary rack of lamb, New York strip (with flavorful cabernet herb butter), Florida grouper, tea-poached salmon and baked yellowtail snapper. One combination plate pairs langoustines with black mussels and a crispy orzo cake; another marries shrimp and scallops in a Provençale sauce, all served over angel hair pasta. There are one or two specials each night, as well as a grilled sirloin burger on a French roll that comes with either soup or salad for a modest $15.
The soups and salads are standouts-as attractive and original as they are tasty. The seafood gumbo is a standard on the menu; the chef uses a family recipe that calls for oysters and scallops besides the familiar crab and shrimp. No andouille sausage; this one is strictly seafood. Of the salads, the grilled portobello is art and architecture, a slim, towering construction that makes a striking presentation and always elicits comments from guests. The flavorful spinach and watercress with duck is a showstopper, too; the Mediterranean mélange, with its Kalamata olives, chickpeas, feta and mint, could be a meal in itself-and a delicious one at that. All the appetizers, save an Asian vegetable dish, focus on seafood.
Desserts are the usual crème brûlée, key lime pie, Edy's ice cream, or fresh berries and cream. Nothing particularly exciting-except perhaps the chocolate bombe, which is rich with marshmallow, chocolate, praline and a raspberry coulis. You need a real sweet tooth to appreciate that one.
Much more exciting is the left side of the dessert menu, which describes a half-dozen alcohol-based dessert drinks, each at $7.50. You'll have a hard time deciding, but I can vouch for the Mad Mango, which is semi-frozen, a gorgeous color, and made with rum and tequila. The Funky Monkey includes banana, of course, and the Frappatini is fragrant with chocolate and a strong coffee presence. And if you must sample something key lime, try the key lime pie margarita. Order one while that brilliant mango sun is sliding into the Gulf of Mexico, and raise a glass to your vacation in paradise-even if you live here year round.
HB's on the Gulf, Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club 851 Gulf Shore Blvd. N., Naples. (239) 261-2222. Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner: 5-10:30 p.m. Credit cards. Reservations recommended. Valet or self-parking. Wheelchair accessible.
A casual good time in a funky tropical atmosphere with lots of fancy cocktails and lively music for dancing under the stars is what Parrot Key Caribbean Grill promises-and delivers. The surprise is how good, and how reasonably priced, the food is. It's an exceptionally good place to take visiting friends and relatives because the experience is gentle on the wallet and loaded with relaxed Florida ambience, all of it outdoors.
The restaurant is located at a busy marina on Main Street on San Carlos Island, just before you cross the bridge to Fort Myers Beach. Main Street is lined with fishing fleets, fish markets, trailer parks and a big gambling boat all lit up and ready to sail. At Parrot Key, eat under market umbrellas threaded with ropes of fiber-optic mini-lights, or at the bar, which is semi-sheltered and decorated with parrots. But you're definitely outside no matter where you sit at Parrot Key, which accommodates about 250. If there's a downpour, you can take shelter inside a spacious gift shop where signature T-shirts and parrot-themed items are for sale along with regular marina stuff. There's a nice long dock for taking a stroll, and no matter where you perch you'll have a water view.
The owners, father-and-son duo Darrell and Matt Hanson and partner Brad Lewis, opened the restaurant in September 2002, hiring a young chef from New Jersey, John Venuto, with experience at country clubs and Northeast restaurants. He helped set the menu, which is weighted toward seafood, including a raw bar, peel-and-eat shrimp, and specialties such as Florida grouper, Pine Island soft shell crab, blue point oysters, steamed mussels and mesquite shrimp. Besides a full array of sandwiches and wraps, appetizers include wings, nachos and shrimp cocktail, and there are lobster preparations, baby back ribs and North Atlantic salmon. Everything I sampled was fresh and not the least overcooked. There's a full children's menu, too.
A full meal comes with sides such as mashed potatoes, rice or sweet potato fries. The Parrot Key cole slaw is fresh and crunchy with just the right amount of moistness; it arrives tableside in a black plastic container. Some of the specialties, such as the batter-fried Louisiana oysters, come in a basket atop French fries or the sweet potato version. Entrées average $15, and they're served on plates. The servers maintain a casual, chatty attitude; but they're speeding around with trays the whole night, and they get things right.
Fancy drinks are generous and extremely well done. Great frozen piña colada. You can have wine by the glass or bottle; most of it is from California, but a fair number of global labels are represented, too. Desserts ($5) include cheesecake, chocolate fudge cake, various sorbets and the ubiquitous key lime pie.
There's live entertainment Thursday through Sunday nights, and the dance floor at Parrot Key is well used. On the last Tuesday of each month, the owners stage an oldies night of retro dance tunes. Brad Lewis says they have to move furniture because they routinely draw a crowd of 500, all in the mood for munching, drinking and partying.
Parrot Key Caribbean Grill 2500 Main St., Fort Myers Beach. (239) 463-3257. Open daily 11 a.m.-midnight. Reservations not accepted; take a beeper and have a cocktail. Credit cards. Parking in lot near the marina. Wheelchair accessible.
Q. I like to eat my main meal in the middle of the day. Can you suggest a place for a pleasant and not outrageously pricey meal?
A. I'm going to send you to Dragonfly Bistro. This restaurant has moved from its original cubbyhole on Fort Myers Beach to the Bell Tower Shops, where chef/owner Preston Dishman is indulging his substantial culinary talent with daily specials and an ever-changing luncheon menu with selections far beyond lunchtime burgers and Caesar salad. I'm thinking especially of chef's spicy chicken stirfry ($12). Exceptionally tender grilled chicken breast pieces perch atop a mound of colorful, crunchy fresh vegetables such as snow peas, rapini, cabbage, onion, carrots and more. The seasonings are Asian and moderately fiery. This marvelously full-flavored meal, healthy and with plenty of sparkle, is presented on a big white square plate and looks as appealing as it tastes. Notice that your silverware is oversized and heavy (it feels good in the hand) and that chef Dishman (who is a big man) gives you a textured cloth napkin the size of a baby's receiving blanket. Big wine list, too. After indulging, you can walk off your meal in the mall or amble into the cinema house for an afternoon movie. Not all of Southwest Florida's good times are spent in the sun, you know.
Dragonfly Bistro Bell Tower Shops, 13499 S. Tamiami Trail, Fort Myers. (239) 415-9463.