The Veranda in downtown Fort Myers is indisputably the grande dame of Lee County dining. Set in a building constructed in 1902, the restaurant has been open for more than 30 years. With a young, talented chef, Ryan Cook, in the kitchen for the past year, The Veranda continues to offer its upscale staples with a few bold new touches.
On the night of my recent dinner, my companion and I perused the menu and surreptitiously checked out the other diners. The Veranda has a reputation for being the favorite spot of a certain type of Fort Myers wheeler and dealer, the attorneys and politicians who wield influence in this town. We were, it seemed, not in luck.
Nevertheless, the menu fits that type of high-power diner. Oysters Rockefeller, crab cakes, prime rib, salmon—all the traditional steakhouse favorites with a slight Southern twist. The cocktail menu, too, reflected a certain dark-suited taste with nine different martinis and retro favorites like the negroni.
My companion and I began our meal with artichoke fritters ($10) and grit cakes ($8). The fritters arrived perfectly golden, filled with artichoke leaves and blue crab meat. They were a delight—tangy, flavorful, surprising. The grit cakes, too, offered a window into what Southern cuisine can be when it’s at its best. Each fried cake had a savory richness without being heavy, complemented well by a serving of grilled andouille sausage (left).
As we waited for the second course, I had a chance to observe the dining room. The Veranda’s décor is in perfect harmony with its menu, offering a stately Old Florida experience: plantation shutters on the windows, plush carpet on the floor, wrought-iron chairs on the patio. The waiters wear tuxedos, and mounted deer heads look down from the fireplace. There is a certain Gone with the Wind charm, if Tara had been set beside the Caloosahatchee.
Our main courses arrived, rack of lamb ($38) for my companion and the evening’s grouper special ($39) for myself. The lamb was cooked exactly to order, served with steamed vegetables and mashed potatoes, a classic right down to the mint jelly.
“Mint jelly?” I asked my friend. “I haven’t seen that since the ’80s.”
She handed me a bite, and I wondered why it ever went out of fashion. The sweet, minted flavor was the ideal accent for the lamb.
If her dish was traditional in every way, mine was daring and inventive. The Veranda hired Cook late last year, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he was responsible for my entrée, a filet of grouper pan-fried golden and served over creamy orzo mixed with tomatoes and basil. The dish was drizzled with a balsamic reduction on one half of the plate and a spicy pepper sauce on the other. The flavors were complex and modern, unexpected and delicious.
By the time we reached the dessert course, my companion and I were filled to the proverbial brim.
“How are you doing, ladies?” our waiter asked.
“Stuffed,” my friend said.
He laughed. “Then we’ve done our job.”
Still, we ordered a slice of the pecan praline pie ($9) and the chocolate pâté ($9—right). Both desserts, made in-house, were exceptionally good. The pecan pie was almost all nuts with a very thin layer of filling, not too sweet, and the pâté, three layers of chocolate served with whipped cream and berries, offered a decadent final touch.
As we were settling the bill and gathering our things, a group of men came into the dining room carrying drinks as if they’d come from the bar. They wore navy suits, toted briefcases and spoke in that Southern accent particular to this area. I glanced at my companion and she looked at me, eyebrows raised.
“Wheeling and dealing,” she said.
We’d finally gotten the full Veranda experience.
2122 Second St., Fort Myers, 332-2065, verandarestaurant.com. Open for lunch Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., along with a midday menu from 2-4 p.m. Open for dinner Monday through Saturday, 5:30-10 p.m. Closed Sundays. Wheelchair-accessible. Reservations suggested.