If it’s May, it must be time to reveal our findings on the very best ways to savor the abundant delights of Gulfshore living. Our pleasure patrol—the editors, with the help of a panel of experts—combed all of Southwest Florida to bring you the ultimate joys in dining, shopping, entertainment and more. Turn the page and dive right in. And that’s not all. Once you’re finished with our picks, read on for the results of our Readers’ Choices poll and our editors’ personal favorites as well.
Best Walk Through the French Countryside
Bleu Provence in Naples, which was founded by a couple from Provence, France. The décor, the food and the wine (more than 20,000 bottles) inspire the feeling of being there. Although this vision will be mere fantasy, the taste of the food and wine on your lips is a blissful reality.
Best Grilled Calamari MiraMare Ristorante in Naples. One of the few places in town to serve calamari not of the fried variety, MiraMare accents it perfectly with a lemon oil dressing.
Best Fried Cheesecake
Charlie Chiang’s Modern Asian Kitchen in Naples. Even our editor in chief, a cheesecake traditionalist from New York, can’t stop gushing about this delectable version of his favorite dessert. Take his advice and you’ll be grateful you did.
La Bamba Mexican Restaurant in Naples. On one hand, queso is simply melted cheese in a bowl. On the other hand, anyone who’s tasted La Bamba’s version—matched perfectly with homemade chips—would never diminish it so.
Best Fresh Florida Crab
Truluck’s Seafood, Steak & Crab House in Naples. This restaurant has its own navy—16 boats—operating out of the Isle of Capri. The result? Delectable Florida stone crab from the Gulf to your plate in a matter of hours.
Best VIP Dining Service
The Chef’s Table at Sea Salt in Naples. Esquire’s best new restaurant of 2009 does everything well. But by ordering The Chef’s Table, eight to 10 foodies can experience the highest treat: multiple courses prepared personally by Chef Fabrizio Aielli, not to mention the perfect accompanying wines.
Best True-Florida Ambiance
The Turtle Club in Naples. Follow the sounds of undulating waves to a Gulf view that’s second to none. You’ll discover a postcard sunset over a white-sand beach and some of the freshest seafood around.
Best Place to Take an Out-of-town Date M Waterfront Grille in Naples. Trying to make a lasting impression in the short time you have with that special someone? This restaurant’s bay views will make you seem romantic, the luxury décor reflects your maturity, and the modern fare magnifies your hip sensibilities. Trust us; they will be visiting much more often.
Best Slice of Pizza Heaven
Just try the thin-crust Super Six pizza at Aurelio’s Pizza in Naples—loaded with sausage, cheese, green peppers, ham, pepperoni and mushrooms—and you’ll learn the meaning of divine. And, yes, you’ll be returning for more over and over.
Best Collaboration of Chef and Sommelier
Angelina’s Ristorante in Bonita Springs. Some of the finest Italian fare created with the most natural of ingredients isn’t enough for Angelina’s. The bistro features a 30-foot wine tower and a sommelier on location to create the perfect matching of food and drink from a seemingly infinite wine list.
Best Organic Desserts
Chef Brooke’s Natural Café in Fort Myers. Stay fit and organic (and vegan, if that’s your thing) without losing taste with Chef Brooke’s Faeriecakes, brownies and double-chocolate cookies.
Best Use of History
The Veranda. The two buildings that house one of Fort Myers’ best restaurants were built by Manuel Gonzales. The houses went up in the early 1900s and were joined together by Peter Pulitzer, son of the famous publisher. That’s a lot of history to go with some serious Southern-comfort food.
Best Fishmonger Andy’s Island Seafood in Matlacha. This fish market, set in the funky arts hamlet of Matlacha, may not smell like a fresh-caught haven, but that’s because of the seductive aroma from Andy’s fresh bread and chowder. Don’t worry; it still boasts the freshest grouper, snapper, mahi-mahi, tuna, stone crab claws and more, pulled directly from the adjacent Gulf.
Il Tesoro. A.J. Black’s Italian powerhouse is tucked away on Sanibel, but the cuisine he cultivated while second chef at Rome’s Grand Hotel and perfected at restaurants in Manhattan and Martha’s Vineyard is worth the toll.
Best Use of Water Grimaldi’s Pizzeria in Fort Myers. Many pizza shops claim to be “New York style,” but only Grimaldi’s hired a chemist to analyze and recreate the mineral content and composition of the Big Apple’s H2O so the dough tastes as authentically Empire State as possible.
Lazy Flamingo. The local seafood staple made its name on the islands (two on Sanibel and one on Bokeelia), so its move inland to Fort Myers is a bit of a shockingly good surprise. The new location is under construction on McGregor Boulevard.
Best Place to Network
University Grill. Lunchtime isn’t free time anymore; visit the University Grill during the noon hour to liaise with Fort Myers’ powerbrokers.
Best Place to Eat and Never Leave
Tarpon Lodge, Pineland. It’s worth a trip for the food alone, sure, but after visiting the Calusa Indians’ pre-Columbian mounds, hitting the golf course and spending the day fishing Pine Island Sound, there’s a chance you might never leave.
Best Transcontinental Business Lunch
Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in Bonita Springs. Who says the economic downturn has spoiled executive luxuries? Meet with colleagues across the country via Ruth’s Chris’ new satellite broadcasting feature. It’s like Skype, if Skype served some of the best steak in the world.
Best Place to Feel Like a Tourist
Key Lime Bistro at Captiva Island Inn. Live music every day, a uniquely Sunshine State menu and the best kind of Old Florida décor will make you feel like a Florida first-timer.
Best Place to Be Seen
We suppose it’s appropriate that Naples’ hottest new hotspot is a place called Burn. All wordplay aside, this super-sophisticated cigar lounge is one destination our local glitterati can’t seem to resist. But with its posh global flair and world-class cigar selection, there’s a good reason Burn is on fire.
Best Perch for a Friendly Drink
Sidle up to Bayside’s rooftop bar and feel your worries drain away. With its wide water views of shimmering Venetian Bay and easygoing atmosphere, this breezy hideaway is the cure to whatever ails you—and the martinis are marvelous, too.
Best 19th Hole for Golfers
Merlo’s Grill at Old Corkscrew Golf Club in Estero offers great food of the caliber you won’t find at many 19th holes, as well as plenty of ice-cold after-round drinks. But what puts it over the top is the presence of proprietor Everaldo Merlo, who always remembers your name, laughs at your jokes and doesn’t mind working hard.
Best Place to Beat the Heat
When the mercury rises, get to Silverspot Cinema at Mercato for a fix. The combination of a no-stress ticket-buying system, cushy leather seating and gourmet eats is sure to leave you cool-as-you-please. We also love the Opera in Cinema lineup, which grants a chance to see works not often performed locally.
Best Themed Event
In January, the David Lawrence Foundation held India: An Exotic Journey as its signature fundraising gala. From the invitations to the place settings, no detail was overlooked to create a lively and authentic evening. Guests donned their best Indian-inspired apparel, too, making this soiree a bit more colorful than the average black-tie affair.
Best Place to Get Your Feet Wet
They say you fall in love with Florida when you get sand in your shoes. But once you’ve dipped your digits into the cool, clean waters at the Fakahatchee Strand State Park as part of their swamp walk and experienced this seldom-seen side of the Sunshine State, we think you’ll be asking, “What beach?”
Best Place to Watch Sports at 2 a.m.
It’s already known as the place to go for a pint. But for those who seek something not easily available at the average corner sports bar, The Pub at Mercato is the hangout of choice for such events as the English Premier League soccer matches.
Best Place to Create Your Own Art
Picasso we are not. Yet it hardly seems to matter at Naples’ Earth & Fire pottery painting studio. This fun and funky little shop is for making memories, not masterpieces, and appeals to artists of all ages and skill levels.
Best Place to Spy the Butterfly of Your Dreams
The newly expanded Naples Botanical Garden is a daydreamer’s delight, but we like best to linger inside the Pfeffer-Beach Butterfly House. Here, docents are on-hand to explain what wonders are winging by, and if you wait long enough, you might be the lucky one to serve as a landing place.
Best Place for Fishing Advice
The folks at Sunshine Ace Hardware in Bonita Springs know local fishing, from what time of day to go to what kind of tackle to take. Even if you don’t buy a single fly, they will gladly share their knowledge. We call that admirable angling—and good customer service, too.
Best Place to Take Your Grandkids with Pole and Worms
The Sanibel Causeway is the perfect place for a quick, grandkid-friendly fishing trip. Pack a picnic and pull over for a bit of shore fishing, and the kiddos can play in the sandy waves when they tire of trying to land the big one. Restrooms are available, too.
Ahoy, island-hoppers. Bokeelia’s Tropic Star is the cruise line of choice for savvy Southwest Florida adventurers, a casual and convenient way to visit secluded spots reachable only by boat. So grab your camp gear and climb aboard a ferry ride to Cayo Costa State Park, or try one of Tropic Star’s scenic trips, such as a shelling excursion.
Best Place for a New Age Escape
Crossing the bridge into Estero’s Happehatchee Center is like entering an earlier era. Once a part of the historic Koreshan settlement, Happehatchee remains an unspoiled environmental gem, making it ideal for the center’s multitude of self-enrichment offerings, including yoga, Reiki, drum circles and more.
Best Place to Go on a Bender
So you’re stuck in a workout rut. Break out at Naples’ Beyond Motion, which boasts a bevy of exercise offerings, including Pilates, cardio classes and personal training. They also teach Nia, a low-impact, high-energy fitness class that blends the best of martial arts, dance and yoga.
Have a sweet tooth? Hurry to Sassy Cakes in Naples, where baked beauties with names like “Mocha Make My Day” await you. Our favorite temptation is “Strawberry Blonde Supreme,” a frothy delight of butter- cream cake filled with strawberries and topped with a crown of pretty pink vanilla icing. Yum.
Best Frozen Treat
Estero’s Yogurt Mountain is all about making choices. First, you decide what kind of yogurt you want, how much and what sort of toppings. Finally, you decide when you’ll come again—because, believe us, you will. This self-serve yogurt shop is insanely addicting.
Best Key Lime Pie
Sure, everyone swears to have the best Key lime pie, but Randy’s Fish Market in Naples may have the fairest claim. Always creamy and light, with just the right balance of sweetness and citrus, this graham cracker crust-wrapped treat is like biting into a piece of paradise. Plus, they ship.
Best Mender of Heels and Soles
Dog chewed your Choos? Head to E & J Shoe Repair in Naples for the remedy. Few footwear fiascos are beyond their purview—and they’re never stingy about sharing good shoe care wisdom either.
Best Shopping Concept
Take some local and national retailers. Make sure it’s a vast, varied and upscale mix—then stir. It’s the recipe behind the Franklin Shops, and the resulting creation is a downtown Fort Myers shopping sensation that’s ingenious and long overdue.
Best Odd Pairing Under One Roof
Bring your custom embroidery and monogramming projects to Cosy Wine Corner & Embroidery in Bonita Springs, and while you’re there, learn how to make your own wine. Here’s a toast to the unexpected—and the utterly charming.
Best Shortcut for Drivers in a Hurry
As Estero grows, so too do its traffic woes. The Estero Parkway flyover offers a way to get from U.S. 41 to Ben Hill Griffin Parkway without tangling with Corkscrew or Alico roads. And since it was completed in September 2009, it’s still a bit of a secret among locals, meaning it’s seldom busy.
Best Exhibit of Prestigious Art
Dawn’s Forest is the newest addition to the Naples Museum of Art, and we’re glad to have it. Consisting of a dozen separate sculptures and considered the last major work of iconic postwar American artist Louise Nevelson, this installation captivates with its size and complexity.
Best Place to Throw Your Bread Around
The pond at the Pelican Bay Community Park is easy to miss in the craziness of the day, which makes it a serene spot to grab a handful of leftover crusts and spend a half hour feeding our feathered friends. What are you waiting for? Get quacking.
Best Outdoor Spot for a Peaceful Brown Bag Lunch
The Collier County Public Library’s Orange Blossom headquarters courtyard is an elegant enclave that’s suited to everything from quiet reflection to people watching. Best of all, you don’t have to bring your own book.
Best Places to GET A LAUGH
Ah, laughter; the universal medicine. no matter young or old, everyone loves a good chuckle, and we made it our mission to find the best spots in Southwest Florida to do just that. Here are our funniest finds—no joke.
Jimmy Keys is the quintessential entertainer with an act that spans piano playing, comedy, impressions, Broadway tunes and some interesting costume choices. We’re fairly sure you’ve never seen anything like him. Luckily for part-time residents, he spends lots of time performing on our sunny shores during season and on occasion throughout the year (when he isn’t cruising Europe and the like). Check his schedule at www.jimmykeys.com.
The Naples English Pub on Linwood Avenue just south of Davis Boulevard has more on its menu than bangers and mash. Regular quiz nights can lead to some teasing, and hermit crab races on Wednesdays are sure to bring smiles. We even hear that patrons sometimes arrive dressed as pirates in an attempt to get discounts on their bills. No word yet on their success rate.
Of course, we couldn’t go without mentioning Off the Hook Comedy Club. It takes a lot to get Fort Myers (and even Naples) residents to make the trek to Marco Island, but somehow they seem more than willing when they see the lineup of well-known, national comedians owner Capt. Brien pulls in each year.—Jennifer Freihofer
Best Events to Mix Good Looks and Good Deeds
Southwest Floridians are nothing if not philanthropic. They also love to shop. So the opportunity to combine the two efforts? Well, there’s no surprise it’s wildly popular. Here are our best ideas for mixing a little business with pleasure—stylishly.
Dubbed “the ultimate feel-good shopping spree,” the PACE Center for Girls’ annual Love That Dress! event is a chance to snag new and gently used designer goodies at seriously discounted prices. (Its last go-round raised $70,000 for the PACE Center.) Mark your calendars: The next event will take place Aug. 31. And if you can’t wait that long, you can still shop the remaining dresses at Hope Hospice’s thrift store, Hope Chest, in North Fort Myers.
What woman wouldn’t be jazzed about something called a Handbag Happy Hour? Island Coast AIDS Network’s annual fundraiser blends live and silent auctions for designer and celebrity-donated handbags with music, a fashion show, food and drinks. Clearly a recipe for success, as the last one raised more than $35,000 toward support services for more than 400 HIV/AIDS-infected individuals and their families in Southwest Florida.
Designers for the American Heart Association’s annual Fashion Obsession create one-of-a-kind garments from the fabrics generally reserved for home decor at the Miromar Design Center. The authentic couture pieces are then sold during a live auction and fashion show to benefit the Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign. It’s creativity and good will at their best.—Jennifer Freihofer
FOOD AND DRINK
Best Overall Restaurant
Naples Tomato (Naples)
Best New Restaurant
Pure Urban Oasis (Naples)
P.F. Chang’s China Bistro (Fort Myers, Naples)
Bleu Provence (Naples)
Naples Tomato (Naples)
Sushi Thai (Naples)
Finalists: Thai Basil (Naples), Siam Hut Thai (Cape Coral)
Sushi Thai (Naples)
The Capital Grille (Naples)
Best Non-Chain Pizza
Gatsby’s Pizza (Naples)
Finalists: Joey’s Pizzeria & Pasta House (Marco Island), Cosmos Café & Pizzeria (Naples)
Five Guys Burgers and Fries (Cape Coral, Estero, Fort Myers, Naples)
Rib City (Bonita Springs, Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Naples)
Jason’s Deli (Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Naples)
Souplantation & Sweet Tomatoes (Fort Myers, Naples)
First Watch (Bonita Springs, Fort Myers, Naples)
Naples Tomato (Naples)
The Cheesecake Factory (Naples)
Best Romantic Dining
Turtle Club (Naples)
Best Business Lunch
Shula’s Steak House (Naples)
Best Waterfront Dining
Turtle Club (Naples)
Best Family-Friendly Restaurant
Mel’s Diner (Bonita Springs, Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Naples)
Best Hotel Restaurant
The Grill Room at The Ritz-Carlton (Naples)
Best Special Occasion Restaurant
The Grill Room at The Ritz-Carlton (Naples)
Naples Tomato (Naples)
Best Ice Cream Store
Royal Scoop (Bonita Springs)
Blue Martini (Naples)
Best Restaurant Wine List
Naples Tomato (Naples)
Best Wine Shop
Total Wine & More (Fort Myers, Naples)
Best Gourmet Grocery/Market
Fresh Market (Bonita Springs, Fort Myers, Naples)
GOODS AND SERVICES
Best Hair Salon
Robert of Philadelphia Hair Design (Bonita Springs, Naples)
Finalists: Allure et Beauté (Bonita Springs, Naples), Salon International (Fort Myers)
Best Health Club
NCH Wellness Center (Naples)
The Ritz-Carlton Spa (Naples)
Finalists: Golden Door Spa at Naples Grande Beach Resort (Naples), Spa 41 (Naples)
Gene’s Fifth Avenue Florist (Naples)
Best Garden Center
Driftwood Garden Center (Naples)
Best Pet Pampering
The Wigglebutt Inn (Naples)
Finalists: Groomingdale’s of Naples (Naples), Camp Bow Wow (Naples)
HOTSPOTS AND HIGHLIGHTS
Best Place to Take the Kids
Naples Zoo (Naples)
Finalists: Sun-N-Fun Lagoon (Naples), King Richard’s Family Fun Park (Naples)
Best Place to Take Visitors
Naples Botanical Garden (Naples)
Finalists: Naples Pier (Naples), Fifth Avenue South (Naples)
Vanderbilt Beach (Naples)
Finalists: Barefoot Beach (Bonita Springs) Naples Pier (Naples)
Best Golf Course
Best Black-Tie Event
Naples Winter Wine Festival (Naples)
Finalists: Heart Ball (Collier and Lee counties), Angel Ball (Naples)
This list is a result of our Readers’ Choices ballots, which were mailed in or submitted via www.gulfshorelife.com.