On the first night of our six-stop restaurant crawl through the openings that made this list, it dawns on me how lucky I am to live in Southwest Florida. Even in a year when delays, labor shortages and shutdowns have challenged every aspect of the restaurant industry, our region has fared remarkably well. Here, a pop-up modern Tiki bar concept can garner enough community support to turn into a permanent fixture, pouring strong grog for enthusiasts who’ve recently transplanted to the area from major metropolises with high standards for their imbibing, as well as cocktail lovers who’ve been here for decades. A hotel restaurant can be a rallying point for the revitalization of the Fort Myers riverfront. And the food—from plump Florida coconut shrimp to Texas-inspired barbecue to a deconstructed interpretation of a favorite childhood dessert—is more varied and delicious than ever.
The restaurants that debuted over the past two years are also decidedly more casual than those we’ve featured in past Best New Restaurants lists. There are no steakhouses or white-tablecloth Italian restaurants included in these pages. Instead, personality and heart have replaced formality with passion projects that include a restaurant built around a 100-label grappa list (a nod to the chef-owner’s Venetian heritage) and an ode to luscious, slow-smoked meats and Florida craft brews. Nearly all have strong beverage programs at the core of their concepts, adding house-blended rum or esoteric cocktails that take days to prepare to the scene. In many cases, the experiences encourage sharing—whether that’s a 20-inch-long Roman pizza or Polynesian-inspired small plates.
It’s in pursuit of those Polynesian small plates and house rum cocktails that I find myself at Jungle Bird Authentic Tiki, the first stop of this culinary journey. Tucked along a residential block in Cape Coral, the restaurant is an oasis from the swelter of early fall. Within the wrought-iron gates, a tropical courtyard is segmented into seating areas where fans blow a fine, cooling mist over diners. The interiors are split into a dark bar, which is packed by 5 p.m., and a less busy millennial-chic dining room marked by palm-frond wallpaper and a green feature wall with pink neon signs. Started as a pop-up in 2020, Jungle Bird and its potent cocktails proved so popular that, within a few months, owner Jeremy Vincent had signed a lease for the space. Drinks fall into Tiki classics, like the Zombie and Hurricane, and house creations—all of which are strong enough to warrant calling an Uber. The Fighter Pilot is a blend of four rums, cut by tart passionfruit and citrus, smoothed out by spiced honey syrup.
The small plates, developed by chef Nicholas Hartmann, draw influences from Pacific Rim countries, steering clear of the overly sweet flavors that often characterize Tiki cuisine. With only enough time for appetizers, we tuck into the crispy deep-fried vegetable potstickers with a supple, umami-packed vegetable filling. Each is perched atop a bed of orange-hued kimchi and drizzled with housemade hoisin sauce. Juicy charred chicken skewers get a savory
boost from eel sauce, and the unassuming Hawaiian sliders are a tender, ribeye-and-filet blend, topped with house-pickled pineapple and slices of candied jalapeño.
A quick trip across the Caloosahatchee brings us to Luminary Hotel & Co. for dinner at its signature restaurant, The Silver King Ocean Brasserie. Stepping into the lobby, a violinist plays an instrumental cover of Sia’s “Chandelier.” The melody drifts across the space into Silver King’s dining room, where metallic fish leap across a tiled backsplash away from the open kitchen. Floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the patio with views of the Fort Myers riverfront that the hotel is credited with reenergizing. As the evening wears on, the dining room is packed with a mix of locals and visitors: bearded hipsters on the patio, stylish 30-somethings celebrating a birthday, couples on date night and one or two families with teenagers in tow.
After settling into a cushy armchair with a local whiskey cocktail in hand, the evening’s amuse lands on the table—just two or three forkfuls of ponzu-marinated salmon with microgreens, herbs and togarashi. Burrata toast follows, the milky cheese cradling fresh cherry tomatoes drizzled with syrupy balsamic vinegar, as does the charred octopus on a pool of earthy, complex mole with a pretty mélange of red, white and purple potatoes. Double-cut lamb chops—one of the most popular entrees—are rosy in the center with a whole-grain mustard crust. Sides are served in little Staub cocottes, and the best of the bunch is the cloud-like, super buttery mashed potatoes.
Dessert is the showstopper. In the most dramatic presentation of this six-stop odyssey, deconstructed s’mores are brought to the table under a smoke-filled glass dome. As the smoke dissipates, the dish’s components are revealed: squares of fudgy brownie, gooey pools of chocolate ganache, dollops of housemade toasted Marshmallow Fluff and spiced graham cracker crumbs cushioning a scoop of vanilla ice cream—all of it imbued with a subtle hint of smoke and a heavy dose of childhood nostalgia.
The following day, the caloric excess continues as we head to Naples’ Industry Beer & Barbeque, co-owned by LowBrow Pizza & Beer’s Chris Jones. True to the Central Texas barbecue that inspired the menu, meats are slow-smoked over a wood-burning fire. Briskets take up to 15 hours to become no-knife-needed tender with a layer of rendered, melting fat and sticky black pepper bark that’s synonymous with Lone Star ’cue. But first, beer. Industry has 72 taps with an emphasis on local craft brews. We try a tangy, grapefruit-colored guava wit; a seasonal Oktoberfest Märzen from Fort Myers Brewing Co.; a Sour Patch Kids-esque blueberry crumble sour; a hazy New England IPA; and a silky porter with a rich, chocolate finish.
After overordering in the name of research, our platter arrives laden with meats and housemade sides. There’s a coarsely ground hotlink with a snappy casing and building heat and tender bits of pork shoulder, glossy with their fatty juices. The off-menu Crispy Mac—macaroni and cheese heated on a flattop until one side is crisp and golden—is the only way I want to eat the comfort food favorite from now on. Braised collards are studded with smoky meats, and pineapple slaw cuts through the richness of everything with its bracing acidity. The pork belly is so spectacular—better than bacon, with intensely porky flavor and rich marbling—that not a single bite is left behind. A smaller-than-it-should-be takeout container and the tray’s juice-soaked paper liner are all that remain a leisurely hour later.
Recovered from our carnivorous exertion, we swing by chef and culinary director Everett Fromm’s Hogfish Harry’s for dinner. Pulling up to the Park Shore Resort, one could easily miss the fact that there’s a restaurant here at all. But a walk through the lobby and over a red plank bridge with turtles lazily swimming underneath leads to this buzzed-about establishment, which overlooks the pool where families are enjoying their last splash of the day. Inside, the white-and-blue dining room is packed, and servers weave between tables with pink palomas and glasses of white wine while a live band plays in the corner.
Seafood is the order here, and Fromm, who built his local reputation at The Bay House, Café Lurcat and 7th Avenue Social, knows how to treat it. Plump Gulf coconut shrimp have a deeply browned coating, while light, crispy calamari are tossed with cherry peppers and served with a translucent sweet Florida chili sauce. The grilled hogfish lives up to its place as the restaurant’s namesake—two perfectly cooked fillets served over fragrant jasmine rice, honey-roasted rainbow carrots and a silky pineapple-ginger sauce, which accentuates the fish’s inherent sweetness. And while all the portions are generous, the made-for-sharing Towering Carrot Cake is, in fact, as large as its moniker portends—four tall layers made even better with smooth cream cheese frosting.
A few days later, we visit Grappino, the Aielli group’s newest restaurant, which pays tribute to the grappa-drinking traditions of Venice, chef-owner Fabrizio Aielli’s hometown. At 6 p.m., the room is drenched in golden-hour sunlight, illuminating the whimsical ceiling installation of colored glass balloons. Along one side of the open U-shaped kitchen, dispensers hold 12 grappas, infused in-house with cumin, blueberry, pink peppercorn, hazelnut and other flavors. A collection of bottles, some short with gold-lettered labels and others with delicate, slender necks, are displayed on shelving in an adjacent room. To make the fiery spirit more approachable, bartenders also shake it into balanced cocktails like the Rosé All Day with sweet strawberry, St-Germain elderflower liqueur and lime.
The Alta Marea bruschetta, a thick slice of toasted bread piled high with chilled crab, lobster and shrimp, is a decadent start to the meal. The crux of the menu is the pasta selection, which allows the diner to choose from 12 fresh or dried shapes and 13 sauces. We opt for Ligurian trofie paired with pesto Genovese and tagliatelle with velvety Bolognese, its beefy flavor amplified by the addition of oyster, cremini and shiitake mushrooms. Tall, crisp Roman pizza—available in 10- and 20-inch-long pies—is also meant to be customized. That’s not the case with the masterful risotto—Aielli, again drawing on his Northern Italian roots, suspends grains of pearlescent rice in a sumptuous emulsion of starch and cheese, with either earthy mushrooms and black truffle or briny lobster.
The last stop on our epicurean adventure is Seventh South Craft Food + Drink. The restaurant, which opened in late 2020, amassed tremendous buzz for its coequal collaboration between kitchen and bar, the latter overseen by Barry Larkin, who co-owns the restaurant with his wife, Carolyn. Executive chef and managing partner Jay Schrednitz, an industry pal from the Larkins’ time at The Turtle Club, has recently replaced former chef Adam Nardis and the restaurant’s ethos—fresh, high-quality ingredients treated with playful creativity—remains unchanged.
Small touches make a thoughtful first impression. Two-top tables are wider than in most restaurants, allowing space to spread out with cocktails and plates; servers shuttle empty dishes away with attentive immediacy; and little extras that bookend the meal, like a shot of rich lobster bisque before dinner and a square of dark chocolate with the check, add to the sophisticated dining experience.
Larkin, who helped develop the bar program at The Continental, crafts a serious cocktail list. The Hemingway Daiquiri-inspired Iceberg Theory is reimagined with cabernet-barrel-rested Códiga 1530 Rosa Tequila, grapefruit, basil and bitters, while the New Orleans bourbon milk punch-inspired Let Me Clarify requires a complex six-day process of blending and filtering before it’s ready to be sipped. The cuisine rises to a similar level of technique and creativity. Supremely tender Portuguese octopus is plated with a swoosh of almond puree and a pool of pimentón sauce that, when paired with the delicious chorizo-potato hash, evokes patatas bravas. Ribbons of bitter endive and Honeycrisp apple get fabulous texture from sunflower seeds, nuts and chewy dates. And among the mains, the miso-broiled sea bass is moist and caramelized with intensely savory ponzu butter and satiny sake-braised greens.
After the meal, Larkin swings by to recommend dessert—Belgian chocolate cake with sour cherry gel—which he insists we try with his current favorite pairing, Daou cabernet, thoughtfully split into two glasses for the table. It’s a fitting end to our evening and the kind of detail that defines this year’s best new restaurants, all of which elevate our dining scene with a sense of approachability and a commitment to excellence, yielding menus that command a