Like every year, 2013 saw a flurry of activity in the dining scene. Scores of restaurants opened and closed. And, as we do each year for our dining issue, the Gulfshore Life team set out to survey the culinary landscape for the coming year. In doing so, we were struck by one nagging question: Where should we eat now?
We all know the old standards, the venerable establishments that have served us countless wonderful meals over the past years. But where are the new places, the up-and-coming gems, that deserve to be elevated into that pantheon of dining?
So after looking at all the places that opened since November 2012, we came up with a short list of a few dozen places and passed it around to folks in the know—chefs, gourmands, people whose taste buds we trust. They helped come up with our inaugural list of the 10 best new restaurants in Southwest Florida.
BEST NEW RESTAURANT
Mereday’s Fine Dining
Chef Charles Mereday’s eponymous restaurant has taken dining up a notch in Naples.
With a lot of restaurants—especially buzz-worthy places—it can sometimes be easy to question all the fuss. After hearing raves from your friends, you have a lovely but otherwise uneventful meal and wonder why everyone was so glowing.
Let’s get this out of the way: Whatever you’ve heard about Mereday’s Fine Dining, it’s so much more. Once you get past the unconventional menu, devised into three-, four- and five-course meals, and start eating, you’ll wonder what took you so long to get there.
And if chef/owner Charles Mereday lives up to his word, pretty soon we won’t be calling his eponymous spot in Naples Bay Resort the best new restaurant in Collier County; we’ll just be calling it the best restaurant.
“We’re not even 50 percent of where I want us to be in terms of refinement,” Mereday says shortly after serving an impeccable tasting menu featuring the best seared scallop I’ve ever eaten and a luscious foie gras with a raspberry demi-glace that has just the right amount of acid to combat the fatty indulgence of goose liver.
Much more refinement and Naples might have its first place worthy of a Michelin star. And that’s what Mereday’s Fine Dining is angling for. Mereday came up cooking at The New York Times-rated four-star Ryland Inn in New Jersey and the three-star Michelin-rated La Maison Troisgos in France. Everything on the plate is carefully calibrated for maximum flavor and enjoyment.
Take the simple tomato salad with goat cheese. This humble five-bite offering seems nothing special at first glance. But by pairing a different variety of basil microgreens on each bite, Mereday offers a treatise on the complexity of a humble herb most often thought of as a pesto component or casually tossed in a long-simmering pasta sauce.
All of this great food can be paired with a small but very drinkable wine list that includes some unexpected treats. You don’t see a lot of white Riojas outside of Spain, but there’s a bottle nestled amongst the more commonly seen chardonnays and sauvignon blancs. It’s a little touch that shows how carefully curated everything is despite the sommelier calling the list “on training wheels.”
Inside, the space hasn’t changed a lot since it was L’Orient or Olio. The Asian inspirations have been stripped away in favor of cool whites and casual blues, all of which showcase the real star of the interior, the views of Naples Bay.
For many restaurateurs, being tucked in the back of Naples Bay Resort would be a difficult sell. Little foot traffic and no roadside presence are definitely a hindrance in drawing crowds. But those are actually selling points for Mereday.
“We want this to be a destination restaurant,” he says. “We want people to plan on dining with us, to make the commitment to enjoy what we have to offer.”
500 U.S. 41 E., Naples. 732-0784, meredaysnaples.com
Fish, 4360 Gulf Shore Blvd. N., Naples. 263-3474, fishrestaurantnaples.com
Most people had high hopes when Sal Sinzieri said he was opening a seafood spot near the Venetian Village location of his lovely Italian place, MiraMare. But when the expansive menu came out, a few people privately wondered how on earth a restaurant could offer such an enormous selection and make it work night in and night out. Anyone who doubted has now been convinced otherwise. Fish offers the best of the Gulf and beyond, prepared simply with great ingredients. Dishes such as alder-wood-grilled rainbow trout with wild mushrooms, bacon, almonds and brown butter or pan-seared, herb-crusted black grouper with tomato confit and braised white asparagus have made Fish the best new seafood place to open in Southwest Florida in the past five years.
Masa, 9123 Strada Place, Suite 7135, Naples. 598-0887, masa-restaurant.com
Another home run from the D’Amico gang—proprietors of Campiello, Café Lurcat, and D’Amico and Sons. As with its previous restaurants, the company took a concept it perfected in Minneapolis and brought it fully realized to Southwest Florida. So when Masa opened, it hit the ground running, churning out amazing, authentic Mexican cuisine in a tremendous Mercato location. Since then, it’s hard to walk by without seeing a packed house. It’s worth going just for the chips and salsa alone, which outpace other spots in town by several orders of magnitude. We love the kick of the habanero-infused Diabolita margarita and can’t get enough of the pork steamed in banana leaf.
With a modern, comfortable dining room and food made from local vendors, The Local has quickly become one of the must visit restaurants in Naples.
The Local, 5323 Airport-Pulling Road N., Naples. 596-3276, thelocalnaples.com
We waited for what seemed like years for the folks behind this locally sourced restaurant to get up and running. Turns out getting the permits to revamp even a former restaurant location is tough. But when it finally opened, our patience was rewarded tenfold. Founded by two chefs who trained at the Culinary Institute of America, the food has been spot on from the start. From the simple touches—a decadently creamy white bean purée offered instead of butter with fresh bread—to the big dishes—braised lamb with house-made silk handkerchief pasta, peas and mint pesto—the flavors are bold. Add in a sleek, stylish dining room and the feel-good factor of knowing you are supporting local farmers, all of which make The Local one of our favorite new spots.
Osteria Tulia, 466 Fifth Ave. S., Naples. 213-2073, tulianaples.com
Chef Vincenzo Betulia wowed us for almost a decade at Campiello, with his sophisticated take on classic Italian food from around “The Boot.” But since he opened his own spot last year, he’s really come into his own, cooking the rustic cuisine of his Sicilian heritage. We can say without reservation that his pastas, made in-house daily, are already the best in Southwest Florida, offering the perfect balance between tender and chewy and soaking in the flavors of his amazing sauces. Try the torchio—aptly named for their hollowed out torch shape—with Portuguese octopus, bone marrow and red wine sauce. Or perhaps you’d prefer the tortelloni with roasted beef short rib, foie gras emulsion and marsala wine. We dare you to find better.
The Chapel Grill, 811 Seventh Ave. S., Naples. 206-4310, thechapelgrill.com; Thai Udon Cafe, 5926 Premier Way, Suite 116, Naples. 596-7331, thaiudoncafe.com; Veranda E, 290 Fifth Ave. S., Naples. 325-3474, hotelescalante.com/restaurant
BEST NEW RESTAURANT
Chef Marbin Avilez pulls from a variety of influences to take diners on a culinary journey at The Firestone.
You won’t hear a lot of restaurant owners cite a theme park as inspiration, but Mike McGuigan says he took a lot of what he and his partners are trying to accomplish from the Epcot Center.
“Everything there is an immersive experience,” he says. “When you are in China, you feel like you are in China.”
So McGuigan, and his partners, the Kearns family, set out to create immersive dining experiences named for some of Fort Myers’ most famous former residents. Although they kicked off their domination of the downtown dining market with Ford’s Garage (see p. 125 for more), The Firestone is clearly the crown jewel of the empire.
With three floors of dining and bars, plus the best rooftop bar this side of Miami, the restaurant is built to offer something for everyone. The attention to what the customer wants is so acute that things change depending on the time you arrive.
“Our servers’ uniforms change slightly based on the time of day,” McGuigan says. Zak Kearns, the company’s VP and son of partner Daniel Kearns Sr., says that how the spaces are used changes, too. Some of the seating areas on the rooftop Sky Bar go from casual gathering places to VIP, bottle service areas once the shift is made into nightclub mode.
Inside the main dining spaces on the first two floors, the aesthetic is sort of industrial chic, with acid-washed steel walls and a conveyor belt moving tires overhead. The light fixtures are customized to look like something McGuigan saw in an old photograph.
“Everything we do is meticulously researched and carefully thought out,” he says. That’s the only way to get the immersive atmosphere.
Of course, none of that would matter if the food was bad. “The menu is really the heart of what we are doing,” Zak Kearns says.
To create the vision of an upscale eatery, without the soaring prices (all dishes come in at less than $30), the partners hired Marbin Avilez. Although he learned his trade at his grandmother’s side in his native Nicaragua, his cooking draws from myriad influences. You’ll taste the French flavors in a wood-fire-grilled scallop with a roasted tomato and Boursin cheese sauce. His butter fish, the restaurant’s biggest seller, skews Asian with a soy sauce glaze and wasabi mashed potatoes. Then there are vegetables by way of, well, everywhere—wood-fired broccoli smothered in a sauce made from bleu cheese smoked on site.
All of which is to say that, although The Firestone might lure you in with a hip interior, a ravishing sunset view of the Caloosahatchee and top-notch service and amenities, you’ll keep going back for the food.
2224 Bay St., Fort Myers. 334-3473, firestonefl.com
The signature etouffee at Fancy’s Southern Cafe is just one of many down-home classics that have made the restuarant one of our favorites.
Fancy’s Southern Café, 8890 Salrose Lane, Fort Myers. 561-2988, fancyssoutherncafe.com
We’ve long pined for some Southern flavoring in Southwest Florida, and the brothers behind Fancy’s have certainly obliged. A quick look at the menu—peppered with items such as frog legs, chicken and waffles, catfish and deviled eggs—lets you know the kind of meal you have coming. The charming, down-home chic atmosphere coupled with a mean étouffée go a long way in our books to making Fancy’s a regular stop. But really, they had us at deep-fried cheese grits and crispy fried chicken. That all but two entrees top out at less than $20 means our wallets stay as robust as our waistlines.
Fish Tale Grill, 1229 SE 47th Terrace, Cape Coral. 257-3167, fishtalegrill.com
Merrick’s Seafood has long been a go-to spot in the Cape to grab some quality fish to take home to cook. But what if you aren’t in the mood to do the work? By taking the same super-high-quality seafood it is still selling to local restaurants and cutting out the middle man, Patrick and Kerry Krieg have created the Cape’s best new seafood place. Rare is the dish that doesn’t best its pricier competitors, thanks to two talented chefs hired away from CrÜ. The Kriegs hope to keep expanding the restaurant and menu to take advantage of their bountiful catches. That’s good news for seafood lovers in Lee County.
Ford’s Garage, locations in Fort Myers, Cape Coral and Estero. fordsgaragefl.com
This local chain has quickly taken Southwest Florida by storm, jumping from one location to three in less than a year, with more on the way. The concept is simple. Ford’s is just a neighborhood burgers and beer joint. The execution is what sets it apart. The ingredients are top-notch, the beer selection bold and diverse and the atmosphere anything but cookie-cutter. There’s just enough kitsch, with the old-fashioned gas pumps and early-model cars, but the substance is thoroughly modern and fun. Another great concept from the folks behind our best new restaurant in Lee: The Firestone.
Mad Fresh Bistro, 12995 Cleveland Ave., Fort Myers. 362-2363, madfreshbistro.com
Last season, the owners of what was Mad Fresh Urban Takeout decided it was time to stop the in-and-out churn of customers at their shop just north of Bell Tower Shops. So they closed it down and reopened with their take on a modern bistro. The results are the same fun, funky menu in a vibrant atmosphere. If you are looking for a quiet, staid dining experience, then Mad Fresh isn’t for you. But if you are looking for bold flavors and a lively crowd, you’ve hit the right spot. Just typing out descriptions for dishes such as the Euro Meaty—Serrano ham, chorizo, salami and arugula salad open-faced on French bread and topped with a rich house specialty spread—or the MadFresh quinoa salad—with walnuts, tomatoes, scallions, red onions, red peppers, baby spinach and a shallot vinaigrette—makes us hungry.