Not only did we have a great year, but Collier County—like the straight-A student it has proven to be—claimed a particularly precocious class of newbies (so much so I wished for more spots on the list). Per usual, my magazine foots the bill, so I can imbibe to share the full scoop (no special treatment from servers, managers or owners). And while food creativity and execution were my main concerns, I also factored in service, ambience and other intangibles. I have once again stayed focused on independent eateries, which led to some hand wringing—two chains still deserved recognition (see our honorable mentions). To be technical, there are two lists here: one for Collier and one for Lee. Because, really, raise your hand if you tend to stay in a 20-minute comfort radius—let alone drive an hour-plus on the interstate. But perhaps you should. Read on, get hungry and dig in.
1. The French Brasserie Rustique
365 Fifth Ave. S., Naples; 239-315-4019, thefrenchnaples.com
There’s no beating around the bush: Vincenzo Betulia’s venture into Gallic cuisine was by far the best new restaurant to hit all of Southwest Florida. His latest effort expanded beyond the rock-solid Italian base he has built with his Osteria Tulia and Bar Tulia, just steps away on Fifth Avenue.
You could dine à la parisienne outside on the sidewalk, in a café chair on the sea of mosaic tiles blanketing the floor or on a stool at the bar. (The fact that you need to elbow your way in says something.)
Anything Betulia touches turns to culinary gold, but his calling cards here are savory, herb-laden braises and roasts, in tune with his self-professed mission to elevate and refine rustic food. He gives it soul—I know I felt a personal connection to my half chicken with a multiple-mushroom cream sauce, and a lamb shank that was simmered with rosemary, thyme and a potpourri of vegetables.
Desserts are simple but satisfying. Betulia delivers the wow-factor plate after plate, time and again, just like the cuisine he takes inspiration from. Photo by Erik Kellar.
2. Timeless – an MHK Eatery
90 Tamiami Trail N., Naples; 239-331-4325, timelesseatery.com
As soon as you pull up to Timeless, you know you’re in for a treat. Housed in an ultra-modern, loft-like building, it marks the return of David Nelson, a chef who had won many fans from more than a decade at the fine-dining stone crab emporium Truluck’s. Here, he’s teamed up with architect Matthew Kragh (the MHK), flexing his creative muscles and dressing down his food for everyday fare—salads, sandwiches, pizzas and upscale comforts available seven days a week for lunch, dinner and delivery from Golden Gate Parkway south to Port Royal.
The vestiges of his past are evident from the finesse that is put to work on even the simplest dishes, like a brisket hash for weekend brunch (a rarity, on both Saturday and Sunday). A nest of frizzled leeks gives texture and salty punch; rainbow beets, sweet potatoes and carrots make for a root vegetable medley from heaven; and the meat itself has been cooked so long it falls apart the minute it enters your mouth—and let’s not forget the smoked tomato hollandaise and overeasy eggs.
The icing on the proverbial cake, or I should say, gâteau, is that it’s conjoined with La Colmar Bakery & Bistro, a symbiotic relationship in which guests pass from one eatery to the other, picking up the town’s best croissants, baguettes and artisan breads in the process. Photo courtesy Timeless.
3. The Bevy
360 12th Ave. S., Naples; 239-228-4220, naplesbevy.com
The buzz surrounding this place rivaled that of both The French and Timeless, and it lived up to the lofty expectations. The bar has quickly become downtown’s most popular gathering spot. I can’t think of any upscale restaurant from Cape Coral to Marco Island that’s got a setup quite like this (and I know my restaurants). On an offshoot of the unendingly charming Third Street South with tables flanking either side of the prominent three-sided bar, it is completely open-air to the point that the space has no permanent enclosure. It’s a dream to mingle on warm days and starry nights in front of the two botanical walls while the retractable roof is pulled back—but maybe, however, sit out a meal here during a downpour.
The Bevy is kind, too, to four-legged friends (offering, among other things, a three-course pup prix fixe) and pint-sized guests (my daughter and her friend were treated like princesses with coloring sheets, Wikki Sticks and constant attention).
Mains veer one of two ways—wholesome and simple (an expertly cooked salmon with a hint of lemon and a few asparagus spears) or delightfully complex (I’ve never had food envy like I did seeing my friend’s cauliflower “steak” with a cascade of heirloom tomatoes and Romesco). But I’ve been fixating on the poké and other shareables. Rather than diced to a salsa-like consistency, big bricks of yellowfin and avocado were piled up like Legos on delicate crisp wontons. I’d normally say it’s hard to call an octopus beautiful, but a charred tendril curled around bite-size pieces of chorizo and potatoes was lovely to behold—and a shower of grilled lemon made it a dish I won’t soon forget. Photo courtesy Erik Kellar.
4. Public House
Editor's Note 6/11/18: Public House has closed.
1514 Immokalee Road, Naples; 239-232-2551, publichouseofnaples.com
Each time I’m in the mood to bust out designer jeans and a helping of attitude, this place calls my name. The oversize bar has an unavoidable pull, and I slide up, losing myself in the soundtrack of classic and modern rock (or live music, if that’s on the docket). Hip drinks enhance the mood, like a tropical mule with Deep Eddy peach vodka tinged with pineapple juice and a blueberry-thyme infused number with Nolet’s gin, lemon and a touch of soda.
I’d also feel perfectly comfortable tucking into a corner table under a wall of vinyl record wall art—and chowing down. The dinner menu is small-plate-heavy, with a mix of global influences that all spell “yum” in their respective languages (ginger-hoisin pork belly tacos, red pepper hummus with pickled vegetables and toasted naan, blackened mahi mahi tostadas with roasted tomato and avocado salsa). Lunch, with more salads and sandwiches, is also equally fresh and fun. Photo by Erik Kellar.
5. El Gaucho Inca Bistro
Editor's Note 3/27/18: The Naples location has closed. El Gaucho Inca in Fort Myers remains open.
2700 Immokalee Road, Naples; 239-431-7928, elgauchoinca.com
I have to confess: Part of why I love this place is because my husband of nine years was born and raised in Argentina, and our adventures there have made me a connoisseur of empanadas, chimichurri and Malbec. Attempts at authenticity in the United States haven’t consistently hit the mark, until I came here.
And I haven’t even mentioned the Peruvian delicacies, including lomo saltado, tacu tacu and true-to-form pisco sours with raw egg white, from the “Inca”—the restaurant’s name is a representation of its owners, Buenos Aires-born chef Mariano Maldonado and his Peruvian wife, Rocio Navarrete.
The “bistro” signifies it’s a departure, albeit small, from their first venture of the same name in Fort Myers, and the sophistication manifests in dishes like the lomo a las très mostarzas, an incredibly juicy, 8-ounce filet mignon accented by a tarragon-laced three-mustard sauce and a chianti-honey reduction. The near-perfect milanesa a la Napolitana, a distant cousin of chicken Parm with slices of ham, tomato and mozzarella, is exactly how Italian immigrants in South America have passed it down.
All of this makes me ignore that chimichurri is delivered in tiny plastic cups, service can be a hot mess when they’re busy, and the wine list is woefully short (but a full bar makes up for that). Bias or no, this place deserved the final spot on the incredibly strong Collier list because you can imbibe and dine—deliriously so. Photo by Vanessa Rogers.
1. Point 57 Kitchen & Cocktails
3522 Del Prado Blvd., Cape Coral; 239-471-7785, point-57.com
I’ve been waiting for my chance to spread the gospel on Point 57. Everything I’ve tried has somehow surprised and enlightened—it goes toe-to-toe with Collier’s best—and is why I’ve slowly yet surely been enlisting my friends and family for pilgrimages.
If food is your first love, this place is for you. If you want a cocktail list with 30 rums alone, this place is for you. If you want to feel transported to some other plane of existence where time stands still for a few hours, this place is for you (one tiny quibble is the kitchen can be slow). And, barely any entrée is above $30. Now are you listening?
This Southern belle with a New Florida coastal-chic look makes you forget you’re a stone’s throw from the exhaust fumes and honks of Del Prado. It came to life thanks to chef-owner Matt Arnold, who spent time in two kitchens of Lidia Bastianich, a Grande Dame of Italian cookery with a long-running show on PBS. Arnold also received critical acclaim in Kansas City, Missouri, right before trying his luck here.
His food is primarily Southern, but influences seep in from all over. The pulled pork spring rolls are a revelation, the crisp wrappers bursting with shredded meat and offset by a Carolina dip, like an au jus, that’s as salty and vinegary as a weathered sailor. The mains are perfectly prepared to the requested doneness, and the sauces and sides are where Arnold’s imagination runs wild—from a savory mushroom bread pudding with Gruyère gravy and ham hoc jus to blue cheese grits with seasonal fruit chutney. The thrills continue to the end, with each of the sweets, including an insane double-chocolate blondie with bourbon-spiked caramel and salted pecans, made on-site. Photo by Erik Kellar.
2. Izzy’s Fish & Oyster
2282 First St., Fort Myers; 239-337-4999, izzysftmyers.com
It says something about the winds of change in Fort Myers that two well-known Miami Beach chefs have sailed in over the past year. Jamie DeRosa, who had run Izzy’s on Washington Avenue, relocated it here, taking over the French Connection space in the River District. His peer, Todd Erickson of the should-be-open-by-now Society, is dividing his time between the two coasts for his various projects. If happiness dining out means walking in, taking a good look around and saying “Whoa,” Izzy’s will whip you into a mini state of euphoria. There’s a mural of a giant squid on a white-washed brick wall, and glam nautical touches throughout like framed maps of New England, striped lounge furniture and a long sky-blue-tiled bar.
The seafood is what you’d find in Nantucket or Boston (including a broad selection of oysters), with a few local tie-ins, like Gulf snapper and fried Pine Island shrimp. What absolutely stands out is the raw bar—a ceviche special one night with yuzu was a dream. So, too, was the lobster poutine, a dish that starts in the fryer but carries a decided air of sophistication through the aged Gruyère and crumbled bacon atop waffle fries and knuckle meat. (Steer clear of the menu brag, a Zagat-famed lobster roll; it scored a few points for originality but felt like innovation for the sake of innovation.) Photo by Craig Hildebrand.
3. Taverna Wood Fire Kitchen
1227 Miramar St., Cape Coral; 239-257-1825, tavernawoodfirekitchen.com
Eyeing stacked take-out boxes and red pepper shakers on the tables, I thought I had stumbled into a pizza place with an incongruously cool live-edge wood bar. Then the pungent campfire smell hit me like a ton of bricks. For as overpowering as the air was from the old-school wood-burning oven, that was how light and delicately balanced the flavors were in every single dish I tried. I can’t understate the value of being surprised, and Taverna delivered in spades.
There is pizza (and a quaint patio if your olfactory senses are overwhelmed), but move beyond it for the real thrills. A fried ball of burrata was so good I had to stop myself from sopping up every last morsel of tomato sauce with the crisped encrusted cheese. A 21st century version of a wizard’s hat was the glass terrarium concealing a smoked tequila-glazed chargrilled octopus with a red fruit compote. Gnocchi baked until dry and crisp was something I’d never seen before—and I’m still thinking about its creamy thyme-enriched white wine sauce and how the plate was a pointillistic tableau dotted with the prettiest little edible flowers.
This is not a sexy place or one even with waiters in ties. But I can tell you an innovative chef is putting his all into what he does—and it shows. Photo by Vanessa Rogers.
16230 Summerlin Road, Fort Myers; 204-9345, lynq.life
It’s no wonder Jean Claude Roge and Chris Whitaker rushed to open a second spot and picked a prime location in the former Yabo nook, remodeling it in their fashion.
The two are longtime local restaurateurs who teamed up to open the blockbuster Blanc a little more than a year ago. Here, their influence is felt through a nightclub- and lounge-like feel with striking silver paneling, exposed brick and a long brushed metal bar—and half of Fort Myers’ young social set filtering in during any given week.
The point is also to “link” disparate food cultures through one menu. At times, it’s done with on-point results, like a gnocchi with pesto cream sauce that makes you want to poke your neighbor and say, “Order this.” The sushi, fresh and balanced (but with quite a lot of sauce that you can request to leave off), also gets positive reviews—which makes sense because Whitaker founded the original place that put rolls on the local map, Blu Sushi.
But some links don’t add up, most conspicuously the ramen (an off-putting and under-developed broth needed TLC)—but one of the strongest comes at the end. All desserts, clever concoctions like nutella crème brûlée, are made in-house and are the epitome of a sweet ending. Photo by Erik Kellar.
5. Divieto Ristorante
23161 Village Shops Way, Estero; 390-2977, divietoristorante.com
Coconut Point can be a microcosm of the revolving door of independent eateries our area-at-large has come to represent. One restaurant I hope does not get sucked into the rotation is this Italian-American pizza-pasta-and-more kind of place that has a sister with the same name in greater Miami. The black and white tiles and tin ceilings give off a lived-in New York brasserie look, and velvet curtains add a dramatic flair. It’s obvious the management cares—multiple people swing by to check on tables, and I love how there are personal, gracious responses to almost every Yelp review (something I wish others would learn from).
At first I couldn’t get around the fact that a place professing from-scratch cooking was using dried pasta in one of my dishes, but what truly matters is the marinara was killer, swirled with fresh basil and bursts of garlic, and there’s a time (and price) for everything. Any cheesehead has to order the ruota di Parmigiano, a dish whose theatrics are only rivaled by the intensity of its flavor. A server maneuvers an 18-month aged Parmesan wheel into position tableside, scrapes nearly a cup of fresh shavings from the bottom, pours in Alfredo sauce and fettuccine, and voilà. A salty, unctuous match made in heaven. Photo by Vanessa Rogers.
This year was just too good. Make it a point to try these places as well.
Table & Tap
I wish this place were in Lee County—it’s about 10 minutes beyond North Fort Myers in what promises to be a unique solar-powered utopia called Babcock Ranch (but right now it is more like a sparsely populated pioneer settlement). This rustic retreat on a huge, peaceful lake was one of the first structures to go up, and the developers were smart in luring not one but two incredibly talented chefs: David Rashty, who put Jack’s Farm to Fork on the map, and Richard Howze, of the brilliant yet short-lived Summerlin Jake’s. The good news is they’ve struck a deal with the community to keep this place going even though at times you can be the only diner there. When I last checked in, it was just small plates and sandwiches (peak season should see more variety), but those have remained objects of my food fantasies—I’d give anything to instantly be able to chomp down into the fried green tomato pork belly “BLT,” brought to life with tomato chutney, stone-ground mustard and a tangy slaw. Punta Gorda; tableandtap.co
St. Germain Steakhouse
Located in the old Stoney’s space, this is a classic steakhouse experience all the way, resulting from a partnership between the granddaddy of the model in Naples, Cloyde Pate, and a restaurant neophyte with a taste for the finer things in life, Bob Germain Jr. (of the regional car dealership fame). Some of the presentations are not the prettiest, but one bite and you're hooked, from an escargot meunière, with each sitting in garlic-soaked nests of capellini, to an outrageously flavorful prime rib crusted with fresh rosemary. An unexpectedly nice touch is that any cut of beef comes with a choice of potato included in the price, and two of the more popular desserts, bananas foster and cherries jubilee, are prepared tableside. Naples; stgermainsteakhouse.com
Hardly anyone I meet doesn't like this glamorous, elegant, split-down-the-middle-between-seafood-and-steak opus on the first floor in the Inn on Fifth. It’s part of a national chain owned by Ohio-based restaurateur Cameron Mitchell, which means the menu is more or less the same as the dozen or so other outfits, but everything from the sauces to the desserts is made on-premise. Cocktails elicit gasps as well, like the champagne-based Berries & Bubbles that mists and spills a thick wave of fog over the glass. Naples; ocean-prime.com
As Naples expands east, finer dining options are starting to spread that way, too. Along Immokalee Road near Collier Boulevard, this spot offers guests the whole package: contemporary-casual décor, warm service, a full bar, good value and, most importantly, a kitchen that puts an emphasis on carefully crafting its upscale comfort food down to the ketchup (but Heinz is available should you really need it). It might not have the panache to pull someone away from Third Street South for a Friday night out, but it’s a leader in its niche on the polar opposite end of town. Naples; thewarehousenaples.com
True Food Kitchen
Healthy food has never been more in our collective conscience—and it has arguably never tasted better as one cohesive everyday menu. The eatery, part of a growing chain run by Arizona-based restaurateur Sam Fox, sprouted up in the posh Waterside Shops, and it incorporates principles of the anti-inflammatory diet developed by Dr. Andrew Weil. It’s not for everyone, though, as burgers (beyond flavorful with an umami-mushroom sauce) don’t come with fries or chips, and some people just don’t want to experiment with quinoa bowls or tahini-slicked cauliflower (their loss). But for those who do, even sweet rewards await (a vegan Key lime pie with whipped cream is just as good as the real deal). Naples; truefoodkitchen.com