From tasting the flakiest snapper with fresh mango slaw to raising a salt-rimmed margarita kissed by local limes, nothing makes either better than a gentle breeze at your back and the sight of our sea-green waters as far as the eye can see. And if you know where to look, there is no shortage of Gulf-side bistros, charming watering holes lining canals and stilted bungalows bravely built between mangroves on back bays.
This is our list of can’t-fail spots for memorable food and views. But before acting on that persistent daydream to spend your Friday devouring coconut-flecked Sanibel shrimp with your boat tethered nearby, double-check the opening hours of where you want to go. In the shoulder months, a lot are on hiatus, taking advantage of the calm before the frenzied seasonal storm.
9891 Gulf Shore Drive, Naples; 239-598-5707, laplayaresort.com
Strap me to a polygraph, and I will say with zero hesitation that Baleen at LaPlaya Beach & Golf Resort is the best Gulf-front restaurant on the 100 miles of coast from Captiva to Everglades City.
It spans the back of the hotel’s prime real estate just north of Vanderbilt Beach, and the tiered set-up guarantees transfixing views, whether you want to sink your toes into the sand, sit under a fan on the wide patio or be completely sheltered inside a chandelier-dotted dining room. The kitchen consistently makes the right impression, starting with the most important meal of the day (I love the quirky play on sausage and pancakes, wrapped up like pigs in a blanket). Lunch can be predictable and pricey, but dinner shines. A three-course prix-fixe is a steal at $39—watermelon-arugula salad, orange-ginger pork and mango-lychee cheesecake, anyone? A similar brunch deal adds in bottomless champagne, but, for something really special, call in advance and splurge on a private candlelit table along the surf.
The Bay Houses back deck offers a mangrove view along with its Southern-slanted cuisine. (Photos by Vanessa Rogers.)
2. The Bay House
799 Walkerbilt Road, Naples; 239-591-3837, bayhousenaples.com
It amazes me when locals concede they’ve never heard of this back-bay stunner, but I remind myself it is about the last stone you’d unturn to find vibrant, sophisticated, deep Southern cuisine. Enveloped by mangroves and set on an inconsequential street in North Naples, the secluded spot is where I first saw a manatee in the wild from my perch in the main dining room. An outdoor deck overlooking the winding water is also ideal for kicking back shrimp and grits, house-made pimento cheese in a miniature Mason jar, and a “sea BLT” with fried green tomatoes and lobster meat. The neighboring sister restaurant, Tierney’s Tavern, doesn’t have quite the impressive views as the main room (nor the white tablecloths), but the menu, a broader mix of raw bar staples, pastas and sandwiches, is my go-to for a no-reservations night. (And yes, if you were wondering, it’s the same Peter Tierney who is also an owner of the popular Vanderbilt Beach restaurant The Turtle Club, a casual toes-in-the-sand option just south of Baleen.)
3. The Village on Venetian Bay / Bayside Seafood Grill & Bar, Fish, M Waterfront Grille and more
4200 Gulf Shore Blvd. N., Naples; 239-261-6100, venetianvillage.com
Fish is among several waterfront eateries at The Village on Venetian Bay.
When faced with the idea of picking one, maybe two places to highlight at this development inspired by Venice’s canals, my head spun before I realized it’s impossible to go wrong—the quaint, colorful swathe jutting into a turquoise bay is home to a host of top-notch restaurants. The haute cuisine and impeccable service at M Waterfront Grille is hard to best, but, depending on your mood, so too is the outstanding lobster mac and cheese at Fish and juicy burger at The Village Pub. Bayside, celebrating its 25th year with new dishes each week in October from iconic chef/owner Tony Ridgway, has water-level and raised dining rooms, plus a fun rooftop bar. And if there’s not a cloud in the sky, the wide-open courtyard patio at MiraMare is a stunningly gorgeous corner to sample simple Italian dishes like lemon-spritzed calamari fritti.
4. HB’s On the Gulf
851 Gulf Shore Blvd. N., Naples; 239-435-4347, naplesbeachhotel.com
Everyone equates The Naples Beach Hotel with lively summer concerts, but what people may not know is the Old Florida charmer has bands on constant rotation at its waterfront pavilion—and the food, at both the upscale HB’s On the Gulf and the much more casual Sunset Beach Bar & Grill, never disappoints. (Although I may start a lobster roll protest since Sunset removed my all-time favorite sandwich in Southwest Florida from the menu.) While some may prefer the climate-controlled and noise-cancelling carpeted inside of HB’s for a more traditional feel, the covered seaside patio protects you enough from the elements to be able to savor the ridiculously flavorful mussels—big chunks of pancetta, slivers of onion and herbs cooked into a simmering broth begging to be sopped up by several slices of bread—without distractions other than a glass of wine and the faint trace of Buffett in the background.
5. The Mad Hatter
6467 Sanibel Captiva Road, Sanibel; 239-472-0033, madhatterrestaurant.com
The Mad Hatter serves up dishes like this rack of lamb just steps from the Gulf.
You may say, “How mad can Neopolitans like me be to drive 58 miles from downtown Naples for a meal on the beach?” But this is one rabbit hole worth the plunge for a whimsical fine-dining experience. The tiny, one-room beach cottage is adorably adorned with murals starring Alice, the White Rabbit and, of course, the tea-partying Mad Hatter. Thankfully, here Alice (and you) can sit all evening to appreciate the epicurean wonders.
Starting with an amuse-bouche of, perhaps, dainty crab claws with microgreens in a delicately truffled vinaigrette, there is no shortage of playful modern American cuisine. I’d drive back again and again just for another taste of the panko-dusted scallops capped with a caramelized shallot beurre blanc. Because there sadly are no outdoor seats, if you arrive early, buy a glass of wine and walk the short path to the shore for the ultimate sunset toast. Do yourself and other guests a favor, too: If the front parking lot is full, pay $3 and pull into the Blind Pass beach lot a block down. There are extra spaces behind the bungalow, but wouldn’t you rather see one less BMW blocking the sea oats?
6. Tarpon Point Marina / The Nauti Mermaid Dockside Bar & Grill, Marker 92 Waterfront Bar & Bistro, Melograno Italian Gourmet Bakery & Bistro, Pinchers Crab Shack
6179 Black Marlin Lane, Cape Coral; 239-549-4900, tarponpoint.com
I don’t know if I’ve ever glimpsed quite as spectacular a sunset as the night I happened on the Nauti Mermaid’s hexagonal promontory bar and patio at the Westin Cape Coral. (To boot, as an avid supporter of mom-and-pop anything, I was this close to not giving the hotel’s eateries a fair shot.) But with the marina to the right, a half-mile of placid water in front of a horizon of lush mangroves and the light bouncing off the clouds, it was an Arsenault painting brought to life.
Go for sunset drinks and stay for dinner at Marker 92, the resort’s more upscale restaurant that touts dishes like macadamia-crusted grouper with papaya slaw and coconut risotto. Or, if you’d rather not be reminded you’re at a hotel (unavoidable from the large print on the menu and coasters), walk a few steps down to the new Melograno, an Italian bistro—or opt for the casual, dependable Pinchers Crab Shack.
7. Camellia Street Grill
208 Camellia St. W., Everglades City; 239-695-2003 (click here for hours)
For eight years, this stilted wooden structure in airboat country has been serving its unique breed of hyper-local food—visitors can often see workers in the gnome-inhabited garden picking herbs and veggies that end up on their plates. But if gator tracking isn’t on your agenda, chances are this is the best-tasting food you’ve never heard of. I admit: I balked seeing a $24.99 grouper dinner at a cash-only, counter-service, weathered hut in the middle of nowhere, but one bite of the heavenly fresh fish and I knew it was a far cry from the fried sandwich sprinkled with supermarket cheese I had the day before (shame on you, unnamed Bonita Springs eatery!). Served with fluffy, lightly seasoned rice and mixed vegetables cleverly infused with bacon, that dinner has been on my mind for the past month. So too has the herbaceous salad with a finely diced relish laced with rice wine vinegar—and a creamy Key lime milkshake (I hadn’t lived until downing that pie in a glass).
Wait, I forgot the views: osprey, pelicans and whirring boats in the surrounding Barron River, plus pastel birdhouses, Dutch clogs sprouting basil and colorful kitsch in the garden. Grab a mismatched chair and a Corona in front of the turquoise stage where bands play in season—it’s the type of laid-back living and cookery Florida was meant for.
5848 Cape Harbour Drive, Cape Coral; 239-542-0200, rumrunnersrestaurant.com
This month, Todd Johnson is joining a group of talented local chefs, including Norman Love and Fabrizio Aielli, for an appearance at New York’s James Beard House. Year in and year out, he’s been a fixture at the Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest. Where else has he been a fixture? Rumrunners, on a quiet, mangrove-lined canal at the southern end of Cape Coral.
Since 2003, he and his team have been turning out approachable haute cuisine in an impressive indoor-outdoor setting. Sure, with the sun at your back and a fan overhead, you can call it an afternoon with his cult-classic crunchy grouper sandwich, but from a salad of grilled peaches and prosciutto-wrapped watermelon cubes drizzled with feta and sweet balsamic vinegar to an angel hair pasta topped with Sanibel’s favorite pink crustaceans in a garlic-and-basil-infused tomato broth, there are multiple opportunities to tickle your taste buds and take in breathtaking vistas.
9. Fresh Catch Bistro
3040 Estero Blvd., Fort Myers Beach; 239-463-2600, freshcatchbistro.com
Fresh Catch Bistro’s picturesque sand-side deck fills up quickly
Despite the fact most of the Fort Myers Beach mainstays seem to exist in permanent spring break mode, the sand below is still one glorious stretch. Away from the heaviest concentration of the hullabaloo sits one of the area’s nicest establishments, complete with lust-worthy panoramic views and expertly prepared fish. You’ll ignore the slate-blue carpet and builder-grade tile floors even more so once you’ve had a bite of the salmon Oscar with Key lime hollandaise or the lemony jumbo prawns in a creamy risotto. Not one dish I’ve had there hasn’t tasted good: The simple look, and retro (but, ahem, not intentionally ironic) presentation, belies the satisfying punch of flavor. If you want one of the outdoor seats on the small elevated deck—trust me, you do—call early. The day’s fresh catch will never taste better than with a clear view of the turquoise ahead.
10. Sale e Pepe
480 S. Collier Blvd., Marco Island; 239-393-1600, marcobeachoceanresort.com
The Marco Beach Ocean Resort takes its flagship restaurant so seriously it has its own separate driveway and valet—and 700-bottle wine list. While anyone can be seated for a meal from dawn till dusk (it’s in a hotel, after all), dinner is where the Italian chef’s reinventions of classic dishes from his homeland sing, like a white Bolognese ragu with house-made spinach garganelli. Some might call the formal dining room sumptuous, while others might gamble with stuffy or how Disney would interpret a Roman villa. Either way, the service is impeccable and the views of the soothing waves in the distance can’t be beat—in fact, sit al fresco on the spacious fan-covered patio for the best seats and soundtrack. Then dive into perfectly al dente fettuccine and a glass of Pinot Grigio.
- Coast (1901 Gulf Shore Blvd. N., Naples, 403-2000, edgewaternaples.com)
- Gumbo Limbo (280 Vanderbilt Beach Road, Naples, 598-3300, ritzcarlton.com/naples)
- The Mucky Duck (11546 Andy Rosse Lane, Captiva, 472-3434, muckyduck.com)
- Tarpon Lodge Restaurant (13771 Waterfront Drive, Pineland, 283-7658, tarponlodge.com)
- Thistle Lodge (2255 W. Gulf Drive, Sanibel, 472-9200, casaybelresort.com)
- The Turtle Club (9225 Gulf Shore Drive N., Naples, 592-6557, windwardhospitality.com)
On a marina or canal
- The Boathouse Tiki Bar & Grill (5819 Driftwood Parkway, Cape Coral, 954-2628, theboathouseusa.com)
- Buzz’s Lighthouse Restaurant (9180 Gulf Shore Drive N., Naples, 597-2551, buzzslighthouse.com)
- Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille (708 Fishermans Wharf, Fort Myers Beach, 765-9660, docfordsfortmyersbeach.com)
- The Dock (845 12th Ave. S., Naples, 263-9940, dockcraytoncove.com)
- Fathom’s Restaurant & Bar (5785 Cape Harbour Drive, Cape Coral, 542-0123, fathomsrestaurant.com)
- Roy’s Naples (475 Bayfront Place, Naples, 261-1416, roysrestaurant.com)
- SS Hookers (17501 Harbour Point Drive, Fort Myers, 466-5377, sshookers.com)
- Three60 Market (2891 Bayview Drive, Naples, 732-7331, three60market.com)
By the mangroves or bay
- Bayfront Bistro (4761 Estero Blvd., Fort Myers Beach, 463-3663, bayfrontbistro.com)
- The Blue Heron (387 Capri Blvd., Naples, 394-6248, the-blue-heron.com)
- City Seafood (702 Begonia St., Everglades City, 695-4700, cityseafood1.com)
- Coconut Jack’s Waterfront Grille (5370 Bonita Beach Road, Bonita Springs, 676-7777, coconutjacks.com)
- Flipper’s on the Bay (8771 Estero Blvd., Fort Myers Beach, 765-1025, flippersotb.com)
- Marker 8.5 (127 Bayshore Way, Goodland, 394-8818, marker8goodland.com)
- Tarpon Bay (5001 Coconut Road, Bonita Springs, 390-4295, coconutpoint.hyatt.com)