After another year of dining, drinking and dining some more—springing out of bed at 5 a.m. with the pros and cons of a particular place weighing heavy on my brain—I’ve come up with my annual list of where you should be dining right now. As per usual, this is technically two separate lists, as we’re a tale of two counties—and the honorable mentions this year should make your itinerary, too. Your belly won’t have any regrets.
The Claw Bar
221 Ninth St. S., Naples, 239-231-3912, theclawbar.com
For loyal readers of this magazine, you no doubt know my fan-girl affection for The Bay House, that quintessential Southern belle of genteel Lowcountry cooking nestled in Naples’ verdant mangroves.
So when the chef headed downtown to open a fraternal twin, a shining black and gold edifice lodged in Bellasera Resort, my heart skipped a beat.
It’s a Bay House 2.0 experience, with the classics making the cut—butter-soaked lobster “potholes,” coastal pan roasts and the sent-from-heaven Nashville chicken, a juicy hot-sauce-slicked breast on a bed of savoy cabbage sweetened by a honey gastrique. Chef Andy Hunter, of course, has added some proprietary dishes, including an excellent chipotle roasted lobster tail, his version of oysters Rockefeller with Parmesan and Pernod, and cilantro- and basil-studded street corn.
A huge upgrade is that, because of its perch in a hotel, it’s open daily for lunch—not to mention, the tables outside overlook a pretty pool. The exceptionalism extends to cocktails and desserts, too. I celebrated my birthday there shortly after it opened and was giddy seeing the “Birthday Cake” on the menu, a scrumptious tiered confection of cream cheese frosting, white cake and festive sprinkles that I’d recommend to anyone on any day of the year.
2110 Ninth St. N., Naples, 239-529-2819, doronanaples.com
My husband and I had already become semi-regulars at this Aielli Group restaurant by the time we innocently called to see if the kitchen was still in swing on a random September Tuesday at 9:30 p.m., otherwise known as deadsville in restaurantland.
What happened cemented it as one of our favorites in town. Not knowing who was on the other end, the manager said, “We’ll keep the restaurant open for you. We want to be here for regulars—we want you to know we care.”
By the time the clink of our prosecco glasses echoed throughout the Venetian glass chandelier-bedecked dining room it was close to 10—but rather than be rushed, we were given the ultimate private dining experience.
We shouldn’t have been surprised, knowing who was behind the steering wheel: the dynamic and philanthropic couple Fabrizio and Ingrid Aielli, who have had major success with Sea Salt and Barbatella on Third Street South. Although Dorona is what they’re calling their modern Italian steakhouse, it is so much more than phenomenal cuts of premium meat (and a mashed potato churned with burrata and rosemary that I’d give my right arm for).
There’s also a burrata-topped breaded pork chop with an heirloom tomato salad, salmon that’s seared to a perfect crisp and perched on a pea-flecked al dente cavatelli, and cheeses so fresh they taste like what we ate throughout Italy.
Each dish has been memorable and left me craving more—and with customer service the Aielli way, there’s every reason to keep coming back.
301 Fifth Ave. S., Naples, 239-360-2000, sailsrestaurants.com
On the corner where two of Naples’ toniest thoroughfares intersect sits this sumptuous ode to fine dining designed to appeal to the jet-setters with mega-mansions in Port Royal. But that doesn’t—and shouldn’t—mean it is not for you, too.
The Old World elegance is par excellence: all class, all the way. Even though I judge restaurants on their craft cocktails, I kind of love how there’s no cocktail list here—it’s as if you’re to order a Glenmorangie neat or a martini shaken, not stirred, just like a suave someone would in a movie.
I’ve been comforted lately that online grumbles about the prices have been replaced by applause for both the exacting service and the culinary feats. It’s either people have finally caught on or the kitchen has hit its stride—or a sprinkle of both.
The jewel of the Sails experience is its miniature sea on ice, where you hand-select from the day’s global bounty. Prices are by weight, so be smart—ask how heavy that $58/pound wild-caught turbot is from the Spanish Mediterranean, and they’ll gladly tell you. It’s then in your court to decide if one of the menu’s plated entrées is a safer bet, like the Acquerello risotto with exotic shellfish and a hint of citrus for $46. Speaking of fixed costs, the various crudos and tartares are under $22—each a work of art, exploding with fireworks of color and taste.
New for this season is lunch service with live jazz Thursday to Sunday, as are special events, like a Champagne dinner held in November to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Billecart-Salmon, giving visitors the push to float into this opulent seafood palace.
Namba Ramen & Sushi
8847 Tamiami Trail N., Naples, 239-592-4992, nambanaples.com
If this Japanese noodle house and sushi bar could have permanently reserved seats, I’d be the first to line up and get my name etched. (I’m there on average once every other week, so why not make it official?)
But I found that when I would describe how obsessed I am with the soupy silky nests at the heart of what this tiny eatery does, I’d use a qualifier: “If you like salty ramen, you have to go there.” Recently, though, a friend and fellow transplant from Manhattan rightly reminded me, “Dorothea, what kind of ramen is it if it’s not salty?”
I felt liberated—that nothing needed to be couched in the context of Florida heat and health fanaticism, especially not a dish as good as this one. While my go-to is still the beef Hayashi, there are several broths and customizable toppings, like duck that’s been steamed for three hours and finished in a smoker and sautéed wood ear mushrooms (among the many vegan-friendly).
Because of a carefully controlled strategy, the team here started small and has added new items at a crawl, but to great effect. True sushi connoisseurs—those who recognize rolls are about the quality of the fish and not zigzags of mystery sauce on top—are comforted knowing the never-frozen protein is flown in from the Pacific and kept only a couple of days max. There are also a handful of other items that wow—shareable plates of beautifully blistered shishito peppers, delicate wagyu gyoza dumplings and a five-hour-braised octopus.
Saying the menu is limited is an understatement, but it also misses the point: Once you’ve hit perfection, there’s no need to overreach.
Kareem’s Lebanese Kitchen
4270 Tamiami Trail E., Naples, 239-315-4167, kareemskitchen.com
Everything about this intimate bistro—from the copper accents and pink-tinged orchids to a menu that has its fair share of trusted flavors in addition to ones that push the envelope—strikes the right balance between authentic and innovative.
It wouldn’t be hyperbole to say I’ve found chef Rachid Eido’s hummus life-changing. The whipped concoction takes on an almost creamy texture and has absolutely ruined my go-to grocery store snack. He also expanded my horizons on how it can move beyond a simple dip, diving into sea-parting levels of deliciousness with his “favorite signature” hummus trio: There, his original Beiruti recipe is topped by crumbles of ground beef and pine nuts; a harissa-spiked variety is tamed by chunks of feta and tomato; and, finally, his garlic version (my favorite) is capped with chicken shawarma.
You could do as they would in the Mediterranean and make a meal of the mezze, but that’s underselling how good the main attractions are. I could eat the fatteh lamb, a haystack of shaved halal meat with dense yogurt and juice-filled pomegranate seeds, till I turn blue in the face or my stomach reaches capacity, whichever comes first.
There is also a healthy friendship between chef Eido and his neighbor in the same East Trail plaza, chef Asif Syed of the highly regarded 21 Spices—and that continues to produce intriguing collaborations, such as an occasional vegan lunch buffet showcasing the cuisine from both.
5971 Silver King Blvd., Cape Coral, 239-673-9939, gathercape.com
As I sat one evening at the impossibly cool bar, eyeing the Tikiware collectibles and Jackson Pollock-esque splatter paintings on the walls, I made fast friends with the locals to my side. One of my new besties leaned in, looked around and surreptitiously spilled the beans: “You know, I live in Cape Coral, and I never thought in a million years I’d love a restaurant that’s basically part of a hotel.”
To set the record straight, it’s not quite in the Westin Cape Coral Resort but rather beside it at Tarpon Point Marina, a stretch of crisp blue and white yachts fronting a few eateries and shops.
It’s great for a decadently melty Frenchie grilled cheese of Gruyere and creme fraiche, or a barramundi caressed by a truffle foam so intense I felt compelled to swipe the last bubbles off my plate. The eatery does lunch, a bottomless mimosa Sunday brunch, plus breakfast in season, and it has assumed its place in the crème de la crème of Lee County dining—and that’s not even to speak of the magic behind the bar.
Cocktails come from an ever-evolving leather-bound illustrated manual that highlights their nuances but belies their jaw-dropping theatricality. In one instance, two bartenders were shaking in tandem so vigorously I wondered if they had to work out by day to stay in shape for night. Another time, coffee and bourbon were lit on fire and poured from one carafe to another for a good two minutes as flames flickered.
When I got up to head home that evening, the bartender pleaded with his rapt audience, “You can’t leave.”
But I had to—I needed to write down what I saw so as to encourage others to pay him a visit.
2430 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, 239-558-8919, t2traders.com
It’s been called many things: T2, Traders 2, T2 Traders, little sister, preppy, retro and petite, to name a few.
Only two facts are on a need-to-know basis: It has Traders lineage, sharing owners and management with that grande dame of island dining, and, as often is the case, good things come in small cottages.
It’s my new preferred après-beach hangout on Sanibel for refreshing cocktails and satisfying bites. I can roll up with tousled hair, smelling coconutty, with smears of sand on my legs, and still have a meal that will linger in my mind for weeks on end.
That’s because executive chef Mike Patnode—he has long been in the Traders fold—possesses a gift for merging textures and tastes in unforgettable combinations. Most of what’s offered is unique to T2, with the exception of a few carryovers (I was thankful the white gazpacho made the cut, in its garlicky glory).
The kitchen makes everything from scratch down to the flavored tortillas (try the herby basil) and Key lime pie. Extra flourishes abound, from water with a lemon wedge served on a Caspari flamingo napkin with a green bamboo paper straw to the tacos and flatbreads being delivered with wet wipes and extra napkins.
Design-mag sensibility (think vintage tropical prints, brass fans and black subway tiles) and doting service only add to the appeal. T2’s strongest suit, however, may be how it nails simple comforts, daring you always to make space for just one more bite.
16571 S. Tamiami Trail, Fort Myers, 239-208-8368, vietvillagefl.com
When I heard a Vietnamese family with a pedigree from the Twin Cities food scene was taking over a former Pizza Hut on U.S. 41, I wondered how they’d do it.
It became a lesson in the power of wood floors and good lighting—and of delicacies that can be described only as slurp-to-the-last-drop gobsmacking.
This place hovers in the midfield between the kind of forward thinking that defines a Kareem’s or 21 Spices and a hole in the wall specializing in grandma’s recipes. For as charming as the décor turned out, the wine list is minimal with seven generic reds and whites, the service perfunctory and the menus laminated. But the pho—oh, that pho—with its broth-cooked slices of rare beef and oodles of basil? I would have knocked it back as quickly as it was placed in front of me if I weren’t forcing myself to eat my way through three other entrées (I rushed to reheat my leftovers the next morning for breakfast). The signature rice clay pot also knocked my socks off. The deeper I dug through the dish crunchy and caramelized from the earthenware edge, the more treasures I found—crumbles of zesty sausage, sliced bamboo, sautéed mushrooms.
Both dishes excused our server being an overtaxed jack-of-all-trades, taking orders, busing tables, mixing my (memorable) Vietnamese iced coffee, and running plates from the kitchen. I’m hoping I caught them on an off night or that they’re working out the kinks. But even if not, it is a small price to pay to the food gods for dishes you won’t soon forget.
13499 Bell Tower Drive, Fort Myers, 239-334-0900, societyfortmyers.com
This place gets a lot of press for being the life of the party. It’s something its owner, first-time restaurateur Brad Cozza, wants to toast with no shortage of Red Bulls and vodkas. He was gunning to bring a slice of big-city (and big-drinking) Miami to Fort Myers. There’s a wild Sunday brunch with sparklers popping out of champagne bottles, guest deejays who make the rounds on the club circuit (like Caitlyn Jenner’s son, Brody, and actor Shawn Wayans) and a rooftop “treehouse” with live music—but the eclectic modern American menu is surprisingly great.
My friend, a keto freak who subsists on meat and has a pedigree of dining at some of New York’s finest steakhouses, said his strip was the best he’s eaten in Southwest Florida.
As for me and my husband, they had us at the Cuban cigars—egg rolls stuffed with the trappings of a Cuban sandwich, deep-fried for an unbeatable crunch, with Swiss oozing between julienned ham and pickles.
A meal there has the uncanny ability to bring a bit of Vegas and a dash of LA to a weekend rendezvous at the Bell Tower Shops, and that breezy rooftop bar (which often has live music) offers onlookers front-row seats to the gorgeous crimsons and inky navies that define Southwest Florida sunsets.
8951 Daniels Parkway, Fort Myers, 239-887-4844, artisaneatery.com
Halfway through the best cheesesteak of my life, I started to fully take in and analyze my surroundings.
Did I like the fact there’s a huge (albeit rustic wood-paneled) garbage bin by the door? Was I OK there’s no outdoor seating? Would I enthusiastically recommend this café to people?
Yes, yes and yes.
If you can get beyond the fact that you’ve got to put in a little work for your food (paying at a delightfully retro diner-style counter, carrying a glass of wine to your table and busing your dishes), you’re in it to win it here—if notching whimsical and flawless epicurean comforts at affordable prices is your jam.
There’s little beyond breakfast plates, sandwiches and flatbreads on the daily menu, which is why you should always defer to the five to 10 specials chef-owner Tim Yoa has featured on his chalkboard that day. It could be red velvet waffles, pumpkin-spice French toast or Key lime bread pudding; a crab cake soufflé, seared scallops over risotto or a rib-eye with chimichurri.
He’s redefining the yardstick with which we measure restaurants—and our dining scene stands to improve because of it.
This year, I could have easily gone beyond a top 10, as these eateries command a ringing endorsement as well.
The Cave (Naples, thecavenaples.com): With the look of a scintillating subterranean wine cellar and a wine list to match that of a bistro in Napa, this spot’s small-plate menu encourages you sit and sample as you sip by the glass or bottle (it already has earned Wine Spectator’s Best of Award of Excellence).
Fuse BBQ (Naples, fuseglobalcuisine.com/fusebbq)
LowBrow Pizza & Beer (Naples, lowbrowpizzaandbeer.com): The frat feel belies the seriousness of pizzaiolos ingeniously prepping gourmet pies with artisanal touches like fennel-chile sausage and pickled red onions.
The Magayon Restaurant (Naples, themagayon.com): Filipino, organic, with nary a misstep, this tiny dining room should be on your food agenda despite its limited hours Thursday through Sunday.
The Rooster Food + Drink (Naples, theroosternaples.com): Two forces on the food scene joined together to launch this breakfast and lunch joint (with dinner two nights a week) that features fantastic Southern specialties like biscuits, grits and fried chicken.
The Saloon (Estero, thesaloon.net): If you can get past the kitsch (Western lithographs, fake tomes lining a bookshelf), every dish and cocktail from this kitchen is enjoyable—and the mouthwatering smoked-then-fried wings are enough alone to make this your default when visiting Coconut Point.
Silk Road (Fort Myers, 239-689-4845): Feel-good service from the family who own it gives the warmest welcome to the culture and cuisine of their central Asian homeland of Uzbekistan, characterized by kebabs, beef dumplings, rice pilafs and herbaceous chopped salads.
Skinny Dogz Brunchery (Fort Myers, 239-362-2693): Benedicts that surprise, build-your-own waffles and a pretty lake cottage setting are the hallmarks of this morning and midday spot.
Published January 2019