Click here to find out who made the list for 2017.
It’s time again for our annual roundup of the new kids on restaurant row. This year’s cast of characters doesn’t disappoint—a class clown, a butcher-turned-restaurateur and the second coming of the “Bull.” We’ve seen niche eateries to satiate any obscure craving, a profusion of small plates (and lower prices to match, hallelujah!) and a general trend toward sophisticated food minus a stuffy atmosphere. We dined undercover at all and then some to sort the best from the rest in both Collier and Lee counties.
Best New Restaurant: Collier County
7th Avenue Social
849 Seventh Ave. S., Naples; 239-231-4553, 7thavenuesocial.com
Owner Colin Estrem at 7th Avenue Social. Photo by Dan Cutrona.
Go big or go home.
You could say that to accurately describe chef David Lani’s cooking at downtown Naples’ latest hot spot that has quickly been dubbed “The Social” (an abbreviation of its name and an accurate commentary on the boisterous gathering place).
An alum of Vegas kitchens, such as Charlie Palmer’s Aureole and Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio, Lani relocated here to develop owner Colin Estrem’s vision for South Florida cuisine—take fresh Gulf fish, a dash of the deep South, mix in some citrus plus spice from Little Havana and allow room for some of the heartiness our European ancestors brought from the Old World.
To say the house has won is an understatement.
Of seven meals on seven different occasions (brunch, dinner, drinks, a social event, brunch again and another two dinners—but notably not lunch as doors don’t open before 3 p.m. except Sunday), we’ve never once left disappointed. From fried chicken to seven varieties of tacos to a “7th Avenue Social Stroganoff” with parpadelle, filet mignon tips, house-made glace de viande and a bright garnish of salsa fresca, you can taste the soul on the plate.
“I wanted to pick the most authentic cuisine possible,” says Estrem, who grew up in Minnesota, studied restaurant management in Mallorca, Spain, and opened the popular Avenue Wine Café eight years ago. “(Danish Chef) René Redzepi is a magician. I’d love to have him as one of my bros. What he did at Noma was fascinating. Why couldn’t we do some of that in Florida?”
Since he doesn’t “dig” molecular gastronomy, Estrem took inspiration by way of local sourcing and cooking techniques, like pickling and barbecuing. For those familiar with Redzepi and his Noma, don’t expect foraged mushrooms from the Fakahatchee, but you can expect tomatoes, sugar, fish, peppers and beef raised in the Sunshine State—“I’d rather go out of business than start selling frozen product,” Estrem says.
Even better, it’s totally possible to eat a satisfying meal under $25. Like at other places in town, now smaller plates of various sizes occupy the menu. The restaurant has increased the number of standing entrées after a recent menu revise (all ringing in under $30), but you can leave satisfied after a helping of chili-jam-capped shrimp over grits or a spicy chicken sandwich.
More telling is that it looks like Estrem and his crew have reversed the curse of a seemingly doomed space close enough to Fifth to draw some foot traffic but removed enough that success can’t be guaranteed. The funky vintage vibe of mismatched turquoise settees against photos of bucolic Old Florida regularly draws at-capacity crowds.
If there’s one thing diners should be warned of, it’s the noise level. As more and more people flock to the cozy space, even without the scheduled live music (which is worth a visit on its own) the decibels can be borderline out of control. For folks wanting fewer crowds and less of the convivial chaos, the shrub-lined front patio is an oasis.
1205 Third St. S., Naples; 239-659-0007, continentalnaples.com
The Continental has bragging rights to one of the best menus in town—and this "secret garden" for open-air dining.
It’s not so often we get a new addition to Naples’ posh Third Street South, as restaurants tend to make the beautiful street a permanent home. Which is why you could practically feel the ground shake when Neapolitans got word longtime restaurateur Richard D’Amico (the mastermind behind Campiello down the street, Lurcat on Fifth and Masa at Mercato, to name a few) had taken over some prime real estate.
No one quite expected what was in store—a million-dollar-plus renovation with bougainvillea draped from the roof to enshroud a secret garden of earthly delights with a reflecting pool, outdoor “cocktail lab” (a place for stiff yet smooth, high-concept drinks), live music, dancing, private cabanas, and, oh yeah, the inimitable “steak” and “not steak” menu. We learned from the encyclopedic tome that Piedmontese beef, one of the three heritage breeds sold, has less fat than chicken—but what really made an impression was the meat was so tender the steak knife nearly went unused.
That same ethos of urbane carnivorism permeates the pre-dinner selections, with modernized throwbacks like a caviar parfait and steak tartare accompanied by bone-marrow gelée. Even the sides are reimagined with full exposure to meat: The gratin of shaved Russets loaded with Parmigiano-Reggiano and flecks of Serrano ham is so addictive with currents of creaminess and saltiness that it should feed three or more but is possible to inhale without any help.
462 Fifth Ave. S., Naples; 239-228-7606, tulianaples.com/bartulia
Chef Vincenzo Betulia at Bar Tulia
At Bar Tulia, an Italian- themed gastropub, an oversized bar occupies half the dining room—but it makes sense because the same level of obsessive detail goes into crafting cocktails as it does a plate of squid-ink pasta with urchin butter and Calabrian chiles or a pizza with dollops of ricotta, shaved Brussels sprouts and pancetta.
Over the soft drone of electronic music, you can order an amaro like Fernet Branca with a splash of Coke, only to hear something unexpected: “I don’t think that would best bring out the flavor of the Fernet. Do you mind if I make you something special? I promise you’ll like it.”
The night we were there, the mixologist who could have passed for an Abercrombie model if he swapped his tight black T-shirt for rugby stripes garnished the off-menu libation with a single block of ice (to stave off dilution). And he was right: Fernet’s herbal undertones interloped perfectly with rye and a hint of sweetness from Benedictine and maraschino liqueurs, orange bitters and a strip of zest.
From a perch at the bar, you can at times see chef Vincenzo Betulia floating back and forth between here and his much larger Osteria Tulia next door. But the separate spaces have different kitchens, menus and visions—and Bar Tulia has stepped out of its older sibling’s shadow.
Some may blanch at the no- reservations policy, but if you want a meal later at night (midnight and beyond) and can hang with the town’s under-45 set at the bar until a table is ready, you’ll be in good hands.
Jimmy P’s Charred
1833 Tamiami Trail N., Naples; 643-2427, jimmypscharred.com
What a good year it’s been for steak lovers, indeed. The Pepper family, which for 20 years has owned and operated one of the country’s most successful butcher shops specializing in wagyu beef and exotic meats, decided to leverage their position and throw their hat in the fine-dining ring.
Herb-infused butter tops the steaks at Jimmy P's Charred.
The tiny space is connected to the original shop by a breezeway, but that’s about where the similarities end. Traditional dark wood banquettes with leather upholstery exude an aura of laid-back refinement, and at the end of a long granite-topped bar hangs a sign with the restaurant’s tagline, “A cut above.” Its positioning and posturing couldn’t be clearer.
Here, chef Christopher DeGenova has serious chops—past highlights include Miami’s The Forge and a restaurant featured in Gourmet magazine—and has worked his deft touch on the meats and seafood (a refreshing surprise). Nowhere else can you get a 14-ounce Frenched wagyu strip with two sides for only $46. It’s hard to top steak so buttery soft, so intensely flavorful, but it’d be a shame to overlook the flavorful tango of broccoli rabe and cherry tomatoes and cast-iron skillet layered with tender discs of potato and a decadent amount of melted cheddar, onion and bacon.
The family is still working out some kinks—experimenting with a no-reservations policy, trying to get hold of a full liquor license (there is an American- heavy wine list and easy-to-swallow corkage fee) and unrolling lunch service—but the bones are definitely there.
Fernandez the Bull Cuban Café and Bar
3375 Pine Ridge Road, Naples; 653-9097, fernandezthebull.com
The family behind Naples’ earliest outpost for pickle-stuffed ham sandwiches and ropa vieja could not have picked a better time to expand their brand. With Cuba being pried open, curiosity about the island’s sandwiches, coffee and rum is at a fever pitch.
The second location of the Fernandezes’ celebrated 30-year-old restaurant builds on tradition, but it’s hard not to notice a seismic shift informing every aspect of the 2.0 experience. The younger generation in charge is respectful of their elders, but they’ve taken bullish risks that are paying off. They’ve doubled the dining room and added a covered patio and full bar for rum-soaked Cuba Libres and a rainbow of tropical mojitos. The welcoming space is also a drive down pre-Castro memory lane: Both an azure 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air and a wagon wheel that looks as though it popped off a street cart in Havana are mounted to the walls.
Favorite dishes like mariquitas, paper-thin fried strips of plantain, a Cuban version of chips, are still painstakingly sliced each day for optimum freshness, but there’s more to be discovered with this menu. Deep-fried stuffed yucca that oozes spiced beef and melted cheese may well be the best version of the starchy vegetable we’ve tried. But most importantly, like how Cuba is now receptive to outside influences, the kitchen on Pine Ridge is, too: There’s a bruschetta with avocado slices and pulled pork, empanadas with creamy cilantro sauce and the El Toro (“Bull” in Spanish), a 32-ounce, bone-in rib-eye paired with an excellent chimichurri—not typical meals in Cuba. But who knows? The more the island opens up, they may well be.
Inca’s Kitchen Pavilion, 8955 Tamiami Trail N., Naples; 239-631-5954, incaskitchens.com
Tartine & Tartelette, 11121 Health Park Blvd., Naples; 239-888-1151, tartine-tartelette.com
The Catch of the Pelican, 475 Seagate Drive, Naples; (866) 951-8289, naplesgrande.com
Editor's Note 11/3/16: Read more about The Catch of the Pelican here.
Best New Restaurant: Lee County
TAG: The American Gastropub
23161 Village Shops Way, Estero; 239-949-4300, tagswfl.com
Server Courtney Hart shows off a watermelon salad and sliders at TAG—The American Gastropub.
If you find yourself at TAG: The American Gastropub, you might slide into one of the banquettes or pony up to the impressively lengthy bar and experience a moment of déjà vu.
Exactly a year ago, it had been a brasserie topping our best new restaurant list. But in the fickle world of restaurant ownership, a diverging set of interests between the original partners caused a wind of change to ripple through and transform the upscale space yet again.
Not much changed visually, save for the white tablecloths being swept away in favor of cool, individually painted epoxy swirls of bronze slicked on each table and a mix of neon plaster animal heads on the walls.
But where it matters—the kitchen—chef Jay Bucklin, who cut his chops locally at one of Charles Mereday’s restaurants, is churning out cutting-edge regional American fare.
“The inspiration for the menu came from our travels, where we’ve been. We want to keep the focus on small plates, trying a bit here and there. It helps with the price point and makes it fun and approachable,” says Chris Lowery, the restaurant’s director of operations.
Bucklin and Lowery have been able to take popular flavors and trends and smartly deploy them, without feeling forced or inauthentic. Southern fried green tomatoes topped with lump crab, wonton nachos spiked with a chili-lime soy sauce and an ultra-crispy flatbread covered in rootbeer-braised short ribs, sweet caramelized onions and pungent Gouda reads like a romp around the United States.
Deviled eggs featuring a melting pot of influences dominate the appetizer menu. From the North: a bagel and lox theme; from the South, beet-pickled with fried chicken skin; from the East, chunks of ahi tuna and yuzu sauce; and from the West, corn salsa and bison shavings. Sold by the piece at $2 a pop, you can try one or one of each—or order enough to feed your extended family—without ripping your wallet at the seams.
The TAG team has also been able to take staples like hot wings and reinvent them with a fresh, upscale twist. Take the grouper cheeks: ample chunks of Gulf fish get lightly dusted with flour and flash-fried in honey-sweetened sriracha, then placed upon a creamy pool of dressing with crumbles of blue cheese and curls of shaved celery.
Like almost every other dish, the grouper arrives looking just as it is pictured on the restaurant’s website, bearing a level of sophistication not often achieved plate after plate. If you’re keeping score, it’s yet another home run for the TAG team of Bucklin and Lowery.
15250 S. Tamiami Trail, Fort Myers; 239-849-0622, haroldscuisine.com
“No bad attitudes.” It’s the fine print on the door to the eponymous space from longtime noted restaurateur Harold Balink—and a demand he’s allowed to make.
After years as a partner at the popular Cru in the Bell Tower Shops, he stepped away this summer as his wife was recovering from cancer. Balink’s solution to feed his creative energy yet spend more time at home was downsizing to this new 32-seat, dinner-only, fine-dining restaurant barely larger than a food truck.
A few days after it had opened, without any fanfare aside from a Facebook post, a cross-section of Fort Myers foodies had squeaked in. We spotted a self-professed wine enthusiast chatting up a social media consultant, the owner of a local furniture empire and his wife bumping into a couple they knew—everyone was in good spirits to support Balink in his next endeavor.
Booking a table there means textbook flawless service and nothing but the best of hyper-local meats and veggies from an extensive partnership with Rosy Tomorrows Heritage Farm just a short drive up U.S. 41. In fact, Balink has tamed his impulse for wild culinary experimentation in favor of simply enhancing the natural flavors of, say, Berkshire pigs, Okinawa spinach or heirloom saladette tomatoes. From the first glass of complimentary mint- and orange-infused sparkling water to the final bite of a house-made chocolate sorbet sprinkled with salted caramel, roasted pistachios and a dash of cumin, a meal is an indulgence. But knowing you’re eating the best of the best and supporting local talent is priceless.
1520 Broadway, Fort Myers; 239-219-6463, thestandardftmyers.com
Two brothers, Chris and Doug Blauvelt, northerners who relocated to Florida just to open this restaurant, are setting a new standard in the River District for creative American comfort foods—for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Grab a seat at one of the massive communal tables (there’s room for at least 150 people), and start the day with a nontraditional pizza, like the “Brain Food” with house-smoked salmon and everything cream cheese. Or, later on, tuck into burgers and a plate of crispy-crunchy potato chips coated with barbecue seasoning and doused with cool, creamy blue cheese. There’s no shortage of entrées to choose from, although the fresh catch is always an exercise in innovation—chile-and-almond-dusted monkfish with curried veggies one day or pan-seared balsamic-glazed branzino sitting on farro, mushrooms and broccolini the next.
The brothers like to boast the kitchen doesn’t have a freezer large enough to store more than ice cream and some imported gourmet purse pastas (the little caché inside the bundled sheets is a tiny piece of pear surrounded by salty ricotta).
The only other place to catch a chill is at the bar, where Chris’ fiancée, Dawn Barbour, came up with a list of interesting craft cocktails—many are homage to the key players in the family (the “Miranda Rights”, named for daughter Miranda, pairs tequila with muddled ginger, ginger beer and freshly squeezed lemon juice).
Just roll up your sleeves to match the hipster-rockabilly- clad waiters and waitresses, kick back and you’ll fit right in.
15880 Summerlin Road, Fort Myers; 239-267-1310, osteriacelli.com
The fettuccine Bolognese at Osteria Celli
There’s a difference between food that’s presented prettily and food that just tastes so good you can’t stop forking it into your mouth. You hope for both, but if given a choice, it’s the latter any day.
My husband and I found that at Osteria Celli, a casual-chic cafe in a Fort Myers strip mall, what the dishes may lack in the initial “wow” factor, they way more than make up in taste.
The Gorgonzola-smothered plump gnocchi with a chiffonade of speck (cured Italian meat) was so amazing my heart sank when I took the last bite. My husband, who grew up in Argentina, where nearly half the population can trace roots to Italy, said the Bolognese was the best he’s ever had. I’d have to agree.
Freshly made pastas are the hallmark of chef-owner Marco Coricelli’s menu. He’s visibly proud of where and how he sources his food and puts a premium on using hormone-free meats and organic produce. He flexes his creativity with nightly specials—everything from swordfish carpaccio to lamb ragu with parpadelle. Also unique are his “wine specials.” If you don’t see them on the chalkboard in the open kitchen, ask and he’ll gladly pour you a Perdera Monica di Sardegna (a dry wine from a type of grape grown in Sardinia) or perhaps a blend of Sangiovese, Primitivo and Syrah. And that’s just it—his hands-on approach is what truly distinguishes this restaurant.
Cork Soakers Deck & Wine Bar
837 SE 47th Terrace, Cape Coral; 239-542-6622, corksoakers.net
Chances are if the name “Cork Soakers” rings a bell, this restaurant is for you. Fans of the Fallon era of Saturday Night Live may remember the rowdy skit in which he’s in a winery discussing the intricacies of soaking corks—a brash word play laden with sexual innuendo.
Taking inspiration from a sketch like that to name their newest venture, Cape Coral restaurateurs Ralph Centalonza and Jeff Gately (behind the popular Rumrunners) left no doubt they were gunning for an off-beat feel.
A sign advertising the weekly Thursday “Ladies Soaking Party”—hands-down the absolute best deal in town (two drinks plus four, albeit small, courses for $20)—incites rounds of chuckles for “If you don’t have anything nice to say, welcome to ladies night.”
That same irreverence shows in the décor (a giant photo of Ozzy Osbourne on the john in the john) and the menu. While there are jokes about “salt-rims” on margaritas and a sandwich called “The Hangover” featuring strips of fried bologna and a fried egg, this is a serious place for good food with nothing usually more than $15. If anything, you are left wishing there were more options to try. The menu, at just a page, is limited to mainly sandwiches, a few salads and a handful of mains—but nothing is short of delicious.
Time to Eat, 1311 Del Prado Blvd., Cape Coral; 239-573-6360, timetoeatmediterranean.com
Editor's Note 2/22/16: Read more about Time to Eat here
Cork and Barrel, 15880 San Carlos Blvd., Fort Myers; 239-208-8889, corkandbarrelfortmyers.com
Editor's Note 6/2/16: Cork and Barrel has closed.
The Lodge, 2278 First St., Fort Myers; 239-433-2739, thelodgefl.com
Editor's Note 11/3/16: Read more about The Lodge here.