Best noodles with no marinara in sight: If you believe pasta is meant only for tomato-based sauces or heavy cream, you’re missing out. Zen Asian BBQ’s Hokkaido ramen (left) is a soup-er dish, featuring delicate strands made from scratch each day swimming in a spicy broth that simmers for 17 hours—plus a poached egg, king crab leg, mussels, shrimp, calamari and sprouts.
Best reason not to turn away the bread basket: You may be into cutting back on carbs these days, but we urge you to throw caution to the wind when the tray of freshly baked cheddar-rosemary biscuits arrives tableside at 1500 South by Chef Art Smith in the Naples Bay Resort.
Best trip to Paris without getting on a plane: Chef Vincenzo Betulia’s latest project, The French Brasserie Rustique, has been predictably magnifique for its convivial Left Bank ambience, as well as expertly crafted orange duck and onion soup alongside more modern interpretations of the French canon.
Best dessert for breakfast: Naples locals swoon over Peace, Love & Little Donuts’ creative flavors, but the one that takes the cake is their rendition of s’mores, with a thick coat of ganache speckled with mini marshmallows, Golden Grahams cereal and a drizzle of chocolate syrup.
Best chance to settle a decades-long food fight: On Immokalee Road, Motor City Coney Island Grill is slinging natural-casing dogs with chili as it’s done in both Detroit and Flint. So order up and see how the two Michigan coneys stack up. (Or, opt for one of the specialty dogs, capped with new-age combinations like grilled watermelon, feta and chopped mint.)
Best secrets from the CIA: You don’t need to be an agent with Central Intelligence to pick up tips and tricks from chefs trained at the Culinary Institute of America and other top schools. Many local restaurants are offering cooking classes these days, such as 21 Spices by Chef Asif (left), Alexander’s and Sea Salt. Plus, the Naples Originals’ Foodie Camp each October is like basic training for wannabe chefs—and Norman Love’s summer pastry classes are the same if desserts are your thing.
Best (free) start to your meal: The chips and salsa at Tacos & Tequila Cantina are almost everything you need to kick off a fiesta. The tortilla triangles are light, crisp and served hot, and the salsa—mixed daily with chopped tomatoes, cilantro and onion—comes by the mason jar with little cups so you have the freedom to double-dip.
Best nudge to eat better: It has never been easier to go green. True Food Kitchen has joined places like Food & Thought and Organically Twisted in Naples, and several new spots have popped up in Fort Myers: Living Vine Café, Cajuol and Farmer Joe’s Organic Foods.
Best proof there are no limits when going local: CIA-trained chef Kristina San Filippo opened her own studio this year in Bonita Springs, Purple Spoon Culinary, and she let her passion for supporting local, organic farms be her guide. The result is an intriguing mix of daily lunch service, cooking classes, wine dinners and monthly tours of Inyoni Organic Farm—plus a weekly Wednesday farmers market at her storefront featuring the four purveyors she works with.
Best ooey-gooey goodness: It’s known across the country for its muffins thanks to The New York Times, but Sweet Caroline’s, a North Naples deli, makes a mean grilled cheese—pressed with cheddar and American, bacon and thick slices of tomato.
Best reinvention of a classic: Showing the best treats can sometimes be the small ones, we were deliciously surprised by the cheesecake tartlet at Naples’ Lamoraga (left). It’s unique due to a gingerbread-spiced crust and a fragrant scoop of violet ice cream.
Best way to get your kids to eat their dinner: At The Turtle Club on Vanderbilt Beach, little ones can’t control their excitement when their burgers, chicken fingers or grilled cheese is delivered on a Frisbee that they can take home—only after finishing their meal (wink, wink).
Best comeback: When 7th Avenue Social opened, the dining public couldn’t get enough of chef David Lani’s soulful Southern-meets-Latin cuisine. He took an extended break and moved away from the area, but he’s back—working his magic now at Catch 41 Bar and Grill, which launched in January. His menu this time is eclectic, but he still puts a premium on sourcing local ingredients.
Best “It’s better with bacon” moment: The pork belly tacos at Public House in North Naples, where the supple meat is glazed in sweet hoisin and foiled by a refreshing cilantro slaw, are guaranteed to make you rock and roll at the dinner table. Not to mention, the pork belly pastrami slider at another Mike Hernandez restaurant, MidTown Kitchen + Bar, is one of the most memorable in town.
Consistently great restaurants:
7th Avenue Social (above)
Best meal—or sweet ending—in a wrap: The petite Café Gourmand that opened last year in North Naples has French salads and sandwiches galore, but its specialty is crepes of all kinds, from ones stuffed with chicken, mushrooms and onions to others with caramelized apples and cinnamon.
Best layering: There’s just so much at work in Bha! Bha! Persian Bistro’s Haleem Bademjune (left), an eggplant and lentil spread scooped up with pita points, that it’s hard to begin describing the textural masterpiece it is. The appetizer’s creaminess is punctuated by sweetness from crispy caramelized onions, an undercurrent of tartness from a dollop of sour cream, fresh slivers of scallions, and walnuts for crunch.
Best continued remastering: Shannon Yates and Brittany Bowman’s decision to camp out in Cape Coral has no doubt been the fuel for the neighborhood’s dining renaissance. First there was Nevermind, the duo’s gritty dive with killer drinks and clever bar bites. Their Animal House just opened its doors to the public for cocktail hour (dinner remains invitation-only), and Mix Rocktails and Tapas Bar, a gastrolounge, also debuted. Up next is takeout joint Danger, Danger, with the folks behind Nice Guys.
Best bite of Southwest Florida on the go: Ford’s Garage, named for Fort Myers’ famous automaker and winter resident, is expanding its burgers and beer formula nationally. Pretty soon you’ll be able to order quarter-pounders with “bling” while staring at model Model Ts even while you’re road-tripping.
Best reason to cheer the return of hot weather: Tons of coffee shops and companies have started offering cold brew, such as the new Rebel Coffee Roastery and Tea Lounge in Fort Myers. Joyful Juicing in Bonita Springs even has a nitro-bottled rendition. But one small-batch Naples-based company, Black Tulip Coffee, has developed a serious following for its iced coffee at the Third Street South Farmers Market. (You can also buy it at Kunjani near Waterside Shops.)
Best healthy “splurge”: Açai bowls done right are downright deceptive—close your eyes, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re eating a sundae. At The Bowl in Naples, you can savor every blissful bite knowing all the ingredients are organic, from the icy purple açai puree and almond butter blend to the local honey and blueberries on top.
Best makeover: The courtyard and interior of La Corte Bistro, the former Brew Babies, have been given new life—and the food, laced with Italian and French influences, will keep people coming back.
Best melt-in-your-mouth indulgence: The buzz around Blanc centers on its robata grill, but some of the most winsome dishes are not meat- or seafood-based. Case in point: the deep-fried artichoke fritters. Once the thick crust lands in your mouth, it dissolves, soaking up the lemony brine from the vegetables.
Hot Spots: Part Deux
Even for casual observers, there’s been one theme that has wound its way through the plot of the past year: We’ve seen more and more second acts.
Why mess with a good thing?
Second (or third) outposts of successful concepts: Brooks Burgers, Komoon Thai Sushi & Ceviche, NY Pizza & Pasta, Shea’s at Lansdowne Street, Tacos & Tequila Cantina, Thai Udon, The Crust
When one door closes, another opens.
Same place in a different space: Café Luna, Henning’s Chicago Kitchen
Shake it up.
Owners’ winning bets for complete conceptual overhauls: Ocean Prime, South Avenue Restaurant and Bar, Summerlin Jake’s Seafood and Steaks
Similar yet different.
New restaurants with some elements in tune with sister properties: El Gaucho Inca Bistro, Jimmy P’s Burgers & More, MidTown Kitchen + Bar, Public House