Southwest Florida makes no secret of its love for cocktailing. We host two major wine festivals, enough craft beer festivals to flood the Everglades with malty goodness and so many champagne receptions you’d think we were settled by Dom Perignon, himself.
You know what else folks down here love? A good deal. So it’s no surprise happy hour is our favorite hour—or three.
As such, we felt it our duty—nay, sacred obligation—to come up with a list of the best places to kick off the weekend, or an especially festive weeknight. While by no means exhaustive, this list is, in our opinion, a representative sample of the very best that happy hour can be, whether you are looking for beer, wine, spirits, food or just a cool place to hang out.
What we graded on:
Beer: Great deals on our favorite hoppy substance.
Wine: Perfect places to get a glass or bottle for cheap.
Cocktails: Wine might be fine, but liquor is quicker. Best places for cocktailing.
Food: Drinking on an empty stomach is bad.
Atmosphere: Happy hour is more than just libations. These places are cool sober, too.
1. Avenue Wine Café
Editor's Note: Avenue Wine Cafe has closed.
2. Blue Martini
9114 Strada Place, Suite 12105, Naples
Great for: Cocktails
When: 4-8 p.m., daily
If mixed drinks are your game, then you need to be at Blue Martini. Not only is its happy hour deal spectacular—half off all beverages—but you can’t beat the location for pre-dinner drinking. You’ve got access to all the fun Mercato has to offer. Be warned: Blue Martini has an overly aggressive singles scene that can be a turnoff to the already coupled and the not- looking-that-second crowd. bluemartinilounge.com
9123 Strada Place, Suite 7135, Naples
Great for: Beer, cocktails, food
When: 3-6 p.m., Sunday-Thursday. 3-6 p.m. and 11 p.m. to close, Friday and Saturday
A must-go for their spicy habanero-infused margarita alone. If heat isn’t your thing, there’s a host of other tasty margs and cocktails for $5. For $6 you get the delicious tacos, quesadillas, and chips and guac. If you are on a super-tight budget, just nosh on the tasty, and free, chips and salsa. masarestaurant.com
494 Fifth Ave. S., Naples
Great for: Food, atmosphere, cocktails
When: 4-6 p.m. and 10 p.m. to close, daily
Like its sister restaurant, Masa, Bar Lurcat’s happy hour is a great blend of pre-dinner fun and late-night carousing—$5 at a time. But it’s downtown and has a darker, sexier vibe. Plus, there are warm cinnamon sugar donuts. That’s the best way we can think of to top off a nightcap. cafelurcat.com
5. The Firestone
2224 Bay St., Fort Myers
Great for: Atmosphere
When: 4-7 p.m., everyday
During season, when sunset tends to coincide with the nicest part of the day to be outdoors, there isn’t a better place to be cocktailing than the roof-top bar at The Firestone. The view, of the Caloosahatchee and downtown Fort Myers, is spectacular. The vibe, with chill music and laid-back seating, is unbeatable. And the happy hour prices—$3 domestic beers, house cocktails and wines—are more than wallet-friendly. firestonefl.com
6. Angelina’s Ristorante
24041 S. U.S. 41, Bonita Springs
Great for: Wine, food
When: 4-6 p.m., everyday in season
If one glass of wine isn’t enough to truly kick off your happy hour in style, Angelina’s ups the deal by three. Instead of half-off glasses, it offers half-off bottles (up to $175). And when you have a cellar as big and diverse as Angelina’s, that’s a lot of wines. Plus, there is half off some amazing appetizers. So grab a plate of foie gras and pate-covered crostini and a bottle of Duck- horn Merlot and have the classiest happy hour in Southwest Florida. angelinasofbonitasprings.com
7. Blu Sushi
13451 McGregor Blvd., Suite 23, and 10045 Gulf Center Drive, Suite E-105, Fort Myers
Great for: Cocktails, food, atmosphere
When: 4-6:30 p.m., Monday through Friday; 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday
One of the saddest parts of the slow demise of Third Street Plaza was that we lost the Collier outpost for Blu Sushi, with its impossibly hip atmosphere and even better sushi. But luckily, the flame didn’t die out. You can hit up the McGregor Boulevard or Gulf Coast Town Center locations, still. With $6 martinis, double-tall well drinks and appetizers, including their slamming spicy salmon roll, it’s worth the drive from wherever you reside. blusushi.com
8. Seasons 52
8390 U.S. 41 N., Naples
Great for: Wine, food
When: 4-6:30 p.m., Monday-Friday
One of the best deals in town has to be the $15 Flights and Flatbread, which gets you three different pours of white or red wine, a full glass of whichever you like the best and a flatbread. Plus, since they count the calories on all their menu items, you won’t have to feel guilty indulging a little before you make your way to dinner.
Editor's Note: Yabo has closed.
1290 Third St. S., Naples
Great for: Food, wine, atmosphere
When: 3-6 p.m. daily
One of Naples’ best-designed bars, with its cool green walls and ceiling and large communal table, Barbatella is a great place to grab a few casual drinks anytime. But half-off cocktails, beer and wine by the glass, plus some complimentary nibbles when you order a drink? Well that makes it one of the very best places to while away an afternoon. barbatellanaples.com
Cool Drinks—Minus the Alcohol
Attention, dieters and designated drivers: You can have a delicious drink, too. Whether it’s work, your waistline or anything else barring you from alcohol while out on the town, you can still say “Cheers” with a fun alternative.
Bartender Matt DiNicola of DUSK at The Ritz-Carlton, Naples and assistant beverage director Andre Fierro from The Firestone give us mocktails most bars would be stocked to deliver and you would be stoked to drink.
DiNicola says fresh elements like squeezed juices, fruit purees and herbs are key to keeping it flavorful and festive. For example, muddle fruit with soda water or sparkling cider, or try a mock margarita: fresh lime and orange juices, simple syrup and soda water complete with salted rim.
DUSK’s two most popular options can be re-created almost anywhere or modified to your liking. The deep-red Rising Sun is a base of watermelon puree crisply balanced with pomegranate molasses, house-made spiced grenadine (like a simple syrup boiled down with cut chilies) and pomegranate seeds. The Shiso Sensation, an amber-colored beverage brightly garnished with the Japanese herb (which tastes similar to cumin) and cucumber slices, begins with a cider-like cloudy apple juice and is mixed with cucumber water and fresh lime juice. Fierro fills the Collins glass with three fruity drinks on the rocks.
Strawberry lemonade grows up a bit with added ginger ale, fresh-squeezed lemon, sliced strawberry and lemon peel. Sprite becomes a Cactus Cooler with pineapple, cranberry and orange juices and agave nectar, topped off with a pineapple slice, orange slice and cherry. And the tropical treats continue with the Po-ngo Freeze, a blend of mango puree, pomegranate juice and Sprite garnished with an orange wheel. Each option is so pretty and refreshing you won’t miss a thing.
Barhopping on Fort Myers Beach
We started with rules: no beers over 6 percent ABV, and absolutely no shots. Simple yet essential guidelines for a day of barhopping along Fort Myers Beach—the only place in Southwest Florida where happily stumbling from one bar to the next is possible.
But first, a pit stop at Murphy’s Tavern on Bonita Beach Road. It seemed like the right place to launch this adventure, giving us a pint of courage before embarking on our quest. Red Solo cup lights hang around the bar, and there’s an offer of a free drink on race days if you wear your favorite NASCAR shirt.
A few landmarks line Fort Myers Beach, Junkanoo on the south end, Top O’ Mast on the north and Lani Kai right in the middle, time-tested destinations that are a little too dark during the day and a little too light at night. When you walk into Lani Kai you walk into spring break, where they have hula-hoop, balloon toss and booty-shaking contests and the beer flows from a can. By the way, be prepared to drink beer from a can so you can collect signature Fort Myers Beach beer koozies. Lani Kai’s a great place to listen to live reggae, people-watch at the always-packed rooftop bar, or sit on a barstool and “soak up 40 years of DNA,” as my friend not-so-daintily notes.
If you want the best shrimp tacos in Lee and Collier counties, cross the street to The Beached Whale for their Yucatan shrimp taco that has just enough butter to coat your booze-soaked belly and just enough spice to need some more. The live music downstairs is also great on the weekends, and I could sip the day away on the top deck. If you like to stay poolside, there’s a hidden gem oasis at the Lighthouse Tiki Bar with live music, friendly bartenders and rows of tabletops under the shade. We ducked in here for a couple beers but broke our beach barhopping rules with a shot of Jägermeister. We decided to think of Jäger as a digestif. A fitting way to end a day where the goal was just to take home a buzz and a koozie.
The Art of the Wine List
When writing a wine list, you have to consider a number of factors. What kind of cuisine are you serving? Where are you located? Who’s your customer? What’s the hot wine trend now, and what is it going to be in six months or a year?
When thinking about cuisine, disregard the old adage, “White wine with fish, red wine with meats.” It’s not what’s on the center of the plate. It’s how the food is prepared—grilled, sauteed, blackened, etc. If a restaurant’s focus is grilled, then the wine list should be slanted toward reds. If the focus is sauteed, white wines should dominate the list.
In Connecticut, my wines lists were red-heavy—Zins, Cabs, Syrah, Barberas and Shiraz. The wine lists I have written for my Florida restaurants feature crisper whites from New Zealand and California, lots of sparklers and lighter reds like Pinot Noir. Yes, there are some bold reds for those steak lovers, but the emphasis is on wines that are less tannic and more refreshing. Our Naples clientele are well-traveled and have experienced a variety of wines from Spain, France, Italy and South America.
It is tempting to write lists that reflect what wine critics are talking about—California, California and then California. But I have found that our guests want options, so my lists are generally 40 percent California and 60 percent international.
As I was thinking about how I go about making a wine list, I pulled out a list penned for The Chef’s Garden in 1987. To give you an idea of how much the wine industry has changed, of the 27 Chardonnays on that list, only two are on my current wine list at Ridgway Bar & Grill. California
—Sukie Honeycutt is the co-owner and wine director for Tony’s Off Third, Ridgway Bar & Grill and Bayside Seafood Grill & Bar. She’s opening a new wine store, Sukie’s Wine Shop, at The Village this month next to Bayside.
‘Everybody’s Happy to See the Liquor Guy’
A look at liquor distribution in Southwest Florida
Lou Bernardi likes to tell people he barhops for a living. And as the assistant general sales manager of Lee and Collier County for distributor Southern Wine & Spirits of Florida, he might have you fooled.
“Everybody’s happy to see the liquor guy, you know what I’m saying? We hand out T-shirts once in a while,” Bernardi jokes in his thick Long-Island accent.
But the professional is not there to party. (In fact, he and his sales team rarely taste along with clients. And if they do, they spit it out.)
He lives by some Southern words of wisdom he received from his first manager back in ’82: “Your first drink is your last call,” he told him. You don’t drink and sell. “And if you tell a customer you are gonna bring a yellow pencil with a purple eraser tomorrow, tomorrow, boy, you better bring that purple-erasered yellow pencil, because all you got is your word, boy.”
In Florida, and the majority of the country, alcohol distributors are the middle- men in a three-tiered system, between producers and retailers. Each distributor—Southern Wine, Premier Beverage and Republic National are the major ones in Southwest Florida—has exclusivity of the brands it sells. Headquartered in Miami, Southern Wine & Spirits covers 35 states and employs 15 salespeople among Lee and Collier hotels, restaurants, groceries and independent shops.
Andrea Houser, a Southern Wine sales rep for three years, has about 80 ac- counts between Coconut Point and Fifth Avenue South. She drives 100 miles to see eight to 10 clients a day, organizing new products to pitch, writing proposals, tracking ever-changing quantities, searching for perfect answers to requests and creating fun promotions to draw crowds to her accounts.
She and Bernardi say it’s all about customer service.
“You have to be their partner,” Bernardi says. “You have to look out for them in terms of what you’re selling them, because you’re going to be selling to this account day in and day out, month in and month out, year in and year out. This kind of job is not hit-and-run, make all your goals and run.”
There’s pressure in constantly studying the opportunities for each brand in each trade channel in each market. There’s pressure in working with multimillion-dollar corporations and with retailers’ livelihoods. And there’s pressure in the fact that, as a distributor, you don’t own anything yourself. “We have four walls and a warehouse,”
Bernardi says (that warehouse, by the way, is a state-of-the-art Lakeland facility about the size of four football fields). “If our suppliers are not happy with the way we are selling their wines and liquor, by all means, they could walk across the street to my competitor and give him all our brands.”
Most tastings are done between Mother’s Day and Thanksgiving, Bernardi says, when retailers can slow down to re-write their beverage lists and promotions. During season, there’s lots of texting, never-ending phone orders and much less face-to-face touching base (but much more income—up to 50 percent more).
With Southwest Florida’s international visitors, educated individuals and ample wealth, distributors really have to know their portfolio. And while what they sell to The Ritz-Carlton Resorts isn’t what they sell to sports bars, they “absolutely” sell more high-end products here than they would elsewhere. Bernardi finds one of the top sellers in this fine-wine hotbed a little bemusing.
“I don’t know what it is about this town,” he says, “but they love New Zea- land sauvignon blanc.”
Personal Tour of Collier County Dive Bars
Where you drink often says a lot about who you are. Why else would John Boehner, the current Speaker of the United States House of Representatives and son of a barkeep, spend his time drinking canned beer and well liquor at Stan’s Idle Hour on Goodland? If he wanted to impress, he’d spend time at the bar at The Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort, Naples, where he likes to play. But at Stan’s—with the over-tanned masses and, relatively, scantily clad older women dancing the “Buzzard Lope”—that’s where his heart is.
Stan’s might be the tackiest dive bar in Collier County. But isn’t the only one. Heck, it’s not the only one on Goodland. Just a few blocks down is Little Bar, home to Southwest Florida’s only Spam-sculpting/ pajama-wearing gathering. When I first moved to the area from rural Missouri, I spent a lot time at Little Bar and a now defunct bar on Isle of Capri called Backwater Nick’s. They reminded me of home.
In Naples, you had a few staples. There was the English Pub off Lindwood, which lost its charm when it moved to the East Trail. You can still hit up the North Naples Country Club, which was a great place to take folks new to town only to see them show up a little overdressed for a place that has Southern rock cover bands and a tabletop shuffleboard game.
When I still smoked, I would go to Castaways Backwater Cafe off Davis Boulevard, which is housed in what was once Naples’ first bowling alley. They had a decent happy hour and a reggae duo on Fridays.
No Naples dive bar conversation would be complete without a quick mention of Paddy Murphy’s. It’s the only place you can still smoke inside, which is why even on a hot summer night most people will be sitting outside. What it lacks in dive bar pricing, being on Fifth Avenue South and all, it makes up for in drunken coupling (been there) and Irish Car Bomb consumption (drank that). It’s also where I learned to properly mic a kazoo.
I once had a guy, who I didn’t realize until much later had been arrested for closing in on 10 DUIs, tell me that the Jason Bourne characters were based on his dad. He claimed Robert Ludlum got the idea when they were sharing a liquid lunch at Harold’s Place.
Pelican Larry’s on Pine Ridge Road is the scene of more fumbling hook-up attempts each weekend than all of Judd Apatow’s work times infinity.
These days, the only dive I spend any time in is Grumpy’s Ale House. Nestled in the Pavilion shopping center on U.S. 41 and Vanderbilt Beach Road, it seems like the last place you’d find a dive. They’ve got killer karaoke on the weekends and an amazing bottled beer selection, while still serving a ton of Fireball shots.
Inside, you’ll find the strangest collection of people gathering all at once in Naples. You’ll see a city councilman and his wife, a hodgepodge of off-work service industry folks, opera singers in town for a performance at Artis—Naples, gay kids, skater kids, bikers, punks and outlaws of all stripes. Yes, you are going to see obviously high women dancing to every song, a bro who strips his shirt off halfway through the night and knocks over at least two full tables of drinks and a goofy guy doing pop and lock moves to country songs.
But it might just be the most Naples bar. After all, there are also photos circulating on Facebook of Naples Winter Wine Festival trustees singing karaoke there, too.