Could you, on a dare, or maybe just because it sounded like fun, eat at 10 restaurants in the course of a weekend? What if you were told they were hands-down the best new places to eat in Southwest Florida?
That’s the task I set out to complete when Dorothea presented me with her culled-down list of recent openings. For the past year, Gulfshore Life’s food editor has been taking notes as she tasted her way through buzzy new restaurants in an effort to identify the very best. As a curious journalist with a healthy appetite for good food, I was up to the task. Besides, in these parts, it’s not all that strange to go out to eat several times a day, every day.
My wife agreed to come along, and as we mapped out our schedule, we found this wasn’t some outrageous TV-style binge but a feast we’d recommend for exploring this burgeoning food scene. Dining around, we found age-old principles stand true: Seafood is the star along the coast, and restaurants display an utter lack of pretension. Even fine-dining spots reject foofy and formal for casual and laid-back.
But, the region’s culinary scene is also growing up and branching out. Chefs are embracing vegetables—and locally picked ones, at that—in a big way, and turning out ever more creative dishes with unexpected pairings and sleek presentation, all served up in stylish dining rooms that range from warm and tropical to cool and edgy. Truly, there’s never been a better time to eat your way through Southwest Florida.
So, let’s go.
Driving down to Marco Island on a Friday night, a line of dark clouds threatened to the west, hovering over the Thousand Islands. The coast was clear when we arrived at the expansive beachfront JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort. We were here to tick off the first restaurant on the list—and also one of the finest. Tesoro is the crowning jewel of the JW. Its fifth-floor perch is a stunning, cavernous space topped with a ceiling of wood, bent and curved to look like crashing waves, and pendant lights that glow like jellyfish—a quiet and elegant homage to the area’s biggest asset: the sea. This is also reflected on the menu, which serves lobster, grilled octopus, whole branzino and a market fish. The dishes here are inventive, and that was most evident by the chef’s use of vegetables.“Top Chef” alum Gerald Sombright doesn’t just prepare them in novel ways, but also puts them front and center. One eggplant appetizer features the aubergine a couple of ways with sweet, roasted chunks served atop a sauce made from a puree of smoky Japanese eggplant burnt to a crisp. Each layer tastes like a different ingredient altogether. We were also pleasantly surprised by the tuna tartare, which is sandwiched between marinated slices of apples.
Produce as the star is a recurring theme one encounters when dining out in Southwest Florida these days. At Harvest & Wisdom, in the historic Shangri-La Springs in burgeoning downtown Bonita Springs, the restaurant spreads out onto a patio near the 4.5-acre garden. There are few prettier settings to celebrate a milestone. When we arrived on a Saturday afternoon, wedding planners were setting up chairs under a fig tree strung with lights, while a woman at a neighboring table rang in her 70th.
The plates that come out of the kitchen are every bit as special, displayed as if arranged by tweezers. Chef Allen Fisher trained under the famed Daniel Boulud and earned name recognition with an appearance on “Chopped.” His menu benefits from the property’s garden, where the team plucks heirloom tomatoes that pop with color in salads accented with edible flowers and mini cukes. Fisher does his superb tartare with beets, the egg yolk subbed by mango puree. Meat eaters, on the other hand, stick to the umami-packed burger with cooked-down onions stolen from a French onion soup.
My wife and I spent the next few hours gushing over the rainbow of colors in the photos we took of our lunch.
Dinner is planned as a progressive supper, starting with appetizers at Ember Korean Steakhouse, a modern take on traditional Korean barbecue. The place looks like a nightclub, but at the start of happy hour, it was quiet with only one other couple at the bar. Our appetizers rolled out with dumplings that look more like empanadas, crispy outside and filled with a tender mix of ginger-spiced kimchi and beef. Cauliflower is presented over a sauce of cooked-down soy. No fewer than three employees stopped by to encourage us to head to the charcoal grill tables, where diners happily cook their own meats and dig into clay pots of bibimbap. The staff’s pride in the place seems not pushed by management but a sincere belief in the product.
That’s also true across the street at Liberty – Culinary Workshop. Bob Boye opened this simple bistro in the former Mad Fresh space. The place is delightfully DIY: dropped ceiling, a simple avocado-green bar full of seats that provide a view of the dishes being made in the small area, about the size of a guest room. Boye’s menu is made up of things he likes to eat and cook, and the items change based on his mood—a true chef-driven concept. Before the dinner rush, he joined us at the high-tops facing the kitchen. Boye lit up as he talked about his ingredients and where they come from. He held up a spinach leaf. “This was grown in Pine Manor. Can you believe it?” he said. My wife and I exchanged unknowing looks. The chef and a server explain in unison that it’s in a ‘rough area.’ Over the past few years, the low-income area has raised community gardens, where neighbors can grow produce for themselves and to sell at the Alliance for the Arts Saturday farmers’ market. Based on the fresh taste of the Parisian-style gnocchi—done with potato dough instead of flour, crunchy cashews and barely-sauteed spinach—it’s no surprise the greens were grown nearby.
Later that night, with one round of appetizers and one shared dinner down, we took the causeway to Sanibel for Malia Island Fusion Cuisine. Sitting in the dining room, with its floral wallpaper and wood trim, it’s easy to feel that you’re caught somewhere between 1920s Florida and 1960s Havana. Even though Malia only opened a year ago, the tropical restaurant has the feel of a time-honored spot for regulars. We watched colorful plates of pineapple-topped octopus and yellowfin tuna nachos pass by before digging into our own technicolor appetizer: a haloumi cheese and watermelon pairing. The sweet, juicy fruit contrasts with the smokiness of the grilled cheese. We wrapped by splitting the Moroccan chicken thighs, spiced with a jerk-like seasoning and served atop a can’t-stop-eating-it rice with bits of apricots. We’d been eating for eight hours straight, and yet we couldn’t help cleaning the plate.
The next morning, we found ourselves taking a door next to a laundromat in a Naples strip mall. It was the first day Andy Hyde served brunch at his new BYOB restaurant, Hyde N Chic. As we sat down, he was holding court with his young staff gathered around. Like many of the area’s better restaurants, the exterior doesn’t hint at the beauty that lies within. The miniature space holds original art, tables draped in white linen and gold woven placemats. The chef, who built his name as a top caterer for Naples’ high society, started us with some star items: cacio e pepe with house-made noodles, tuna tartare atop avocado with a squid ink cracker and a coconut-squash soup with airy foam and a crab cake in the center. For our main meal, we ordered the filet and Kentucky hot brown, a comfort food dish that starts with toasted brioche topped with roasted turkey, crunchy bacon and poached eggs, all covered in a rich mornay sauce, a cheese-flavored white sauce. Hyde came out of the kitchen to add the finishing touch to our scrambled eggs order: a pile of white Alba truffles, which he shaves tableside. By definition, brunch should be indulgent, like a reward for a workweek completed, and Hyde delivers. The dishes define fine dining, but there’s an undeniable laid-back charm to the place—a trait that carried through everywhere we went.
We took a short food break before making for Barbosa Kitchen for appetizers. In this downtown Naples space, a Cuban-born chef, who lived in Spain, and the Dominican front-of-the-house manager come together on a menu dominated by traditional tapas. The mushrooms and garlic shrimp we ordered came out sizzling in circular earthen bowls, and we alternated dipping Cuban-style bread in the dish’s wine-fortified gravy. With the art on the walls among the only decorations in an otherwise nondescript space, Barbosa almost looks more like a gallery—except for the granite-topped bar where we sipped tempranillo in the back of the room. Nibbling on slices of Iberico ham and manchego cheese, we felt fortunate to be in on what may be Naples’ new best-kept secret.
Reluctantly, we left the intimate space and drove the five minutes down to Fifth Avenue, where we walked for a little while to make room for dinner at La Trattoria Naples.
Another laid-back, welcoming spot, La Trattoria looks like an Italian restaurant of yesteryear, the kind you see in old-timey movies, with red-white checkerboard tablecloths, faux legs of ham hanging from the rafters and shelves dotted with chunky wine bottles wrapped in rope. Nonna used to take us to places like this with menus filled with hearty fare like mussels in red sauce, squid ink pasta with crab meat and garganelli in bolognese. Wine—mostly Italian—is quaintly served in water glasses. We began with a salad quickly declared as something we’d eat every day, greens topped with roasted veggies, boiled eggs, an oozy hunk of burrata cheese and a light oil-and-vinegar dressing. The strictly Neapolitan Margherita pizza, too, couldn’t be better, with its chewy crust, slightly sweet crushed tomatoes and milky islands of fior di latte cheese.
The promise of more stellar pies lured us across town, where we’d heard Mister O1 Extraordinary Pizza – Naples, which opened in March, serves up some of the best this side of Alligator Alley. We cruised into the restaurant just as it got busy with a Sunday night crowd and convinced the owner to sit down with us. Laina Kennedy spent nine months talking the owner, a pizzaiolo from Italy, into letting her open a franchise after visiting one of his Miami locales. Mister O1 has quickly picked up a loyal following, and that mostly comes down to its fresh approach to ingredients, especially the flour. After dinner, Kennedy gave us a tour of the spotless, open kitchen and storage room. My wife, who recently got a small milling machine and has since become a dough fanatic, tried to decipher the secret to the proprietary mix shipped directly from Italy. Kennedy shrugged her shoulders coyly as my wife ran through a list of telling clues. Unlike the traditional pie we had at La Trattoria, this menu takes a modern approach, using unlikely toppings (coffee, honey) and a creative, deliciously functional presentation. For the signature star pizza, the edges of the crust are cut in a series of slices and then pinched together, creating pockets that are filled with ricotta, like a gourmet cheese-stuffed crust.
As tempting as it may be to order a round of pies, we made our way to Lake Park Diner. Opened by developer Adam Smith and Chef Michael Voorhis—the enterprising duo behind forward-thinking eateries like Smith Organics and The Bevy—the restaurant is a breath of fresh air for the local dining scene. Like Mister O1, Lake Park reflects a shift toward stylish, young, casual spots that don’t waver on quality. All the seating is outside, and diners order at the window. We walked up and ordered what’s already become Lake Park’s calling card: the milkshakes. The Nutella shake is topped with an entire slice of chocolate cake, while the Crackerjack shape comes out with a salted caramel cheesecake hovering on top and dotted with caramel popcorn. Like any quality dessert, this was a messy order that oozes down the side of the glass and over everything, as we dug in.
These decadent sweets were the denouement to our culinary feast, a 10-stop tour of the best new restaurants in the area. By the end, it was clear the fresh wave of dining establishments are like playgrounds for chefs who experiment with local produce and global flavors. Any one of them could be your new favorite, or the place where you take out-of-towners to show them just how good Southwest Florida looks and tastes.