After nine years as a food writer, here are a few truths I’ve learned: An exceptional bread basket bodes well for the rest of your meal. Entrees are usually the least interesting part of the menu. It’s perfectly OK to be the only person who orders dessert. And the bar is often the best seat in the house.
There’s more style and action at the bar. Designers treat the space as a focal point of restaurant design, imbuing it with style. Bartenders treat their stations as something of a stage, demonstrating the twofold mastery of their craft: Generously poured cocktails and attentive conversation. For groups, dining at the bar encourages sharing, while solo diners find ordering a dry-aged Prime rib-eye and an ice-cold dirty martini utterly indulgent. In Southwest Florida, where your chances of securing a last-minute reservation at a popular restaurant in season are about on par with hitting the Powerball, there’s no singular elation more powerful than skipping the wait and sidling up to the bar. Those who orchestrate such carefully cultivated experiences know this well.
“If it’s just me and my wife, I’ll go to the bar,” Aldo Novoa, executive chef at The Ritz-Carlton Resorts of Naples, says. “I like the corner seats. You see the whole restaurant. You get to engage with the mixologist, and when someone’s passionate about what they do, you see it.” In 2020, Aldo oversaw the development of the poolside bar Ría at The Ritz-Carlton, Naples, Tiburón. “Ría translates to river,” he says, explaining that the Latin street food-inspired menu is a nod to the hotel’s lazy river. “In ancient times, street food markets were next to rivers because that’s where people would travel.” For his menu, humble fare, like a trio of mini Argentinian choripán with confit pepper escabeche and regional Mexican tacos are presented with five-star panache on custom wood boards and painted stands. The authentic flavors carry to the craft cocktails, with libations like sweet, spiced rum horchata.
Designing a centerpiece bar was also top of mind for restaurateur Skip Quillen when he embarked on the million-dollar renovation of Chops City Grill in Bonita Springs two years ago. “We wanted to make it very sexy but with an old-school, retro feeling,” he says. To achieve that effect, the long, polished maple bar is decked out with seven shimmering chandeliers, and the menu features modernized steakhouse classics, like oysters with cucumber-vodka mignonette and a spectacularly marbled Snake River Valley Gold Wagyu tri-tip, discounted 20-plus percent from the regular menu. As part of the revamp, corporate bar manager Kendra Rizzi also refreshed the cocktail program, creating a leather-bound tome of more than 50 cocktails, presented in crystal glassware with custom ice and special garnishes, like whole-charred long hot peppers.
“It’s really about the mixologists,” Valeria Zanella, partner and marketing director of Gather in Cape Coral, says of sitting at the bar. “It’s that one-to-one feeling and the opportunity to turn to your bartender and say, ‘I like this and that; can you make something?’” The cocktail program is also a major draw at The Oyster Society on Marco Island, where a line often forms before the doors open at 4:30 p.m. “People come to see the bartenders,” co-owner Francesco Caravelli says. “They’re very knowledgeable about the history of cocktails.” He means that literally—while a section of the menu is dedicated to Prohibition-style cocktails, the bar team also looks forward as they chat about the latest trends, such as the Midori sour’s ongoing revival. The Oyster Society shakes it up with a Japanese spin by showcasing yuzu and green tea-infused shochu.
That’s not to suggest patrons only show up to imbibe at these bars. The Oyster Society’s seafood towers and more than 25 varieties of bivalves make for a well-fed bar crowd. At Gather, the mains, including housemade pastas and Wagyu filet, are just as popular as the upmarket bar snacks, like the warm pretzel with truffle honey mustard. “We have people who prefer to sit and have a full dinner at the bar,” Valeria says.
Not everyone follows a familiar format. Liberty in Fort Myers places the culinary team, not bartenders, on display. Ten counter seats overlook the restaurant’s kitchen, where chef Bob Boye tinkers with a treasure trove of seasonal and luxe, imported ingredients. (You’ll need a reservation if you hope to snag one of these coveted spots.) From their perch, patrons observe as eclectic tasting menus come together, from the very first crispy layered potato with black truffle and egg yolk to the final and impressively gooey medium-rare chocolate chip cookie.
Nearby, LYNQ has more space to mingle. Anchored by a splashy, backlit resin bar, the indoor lounge area flows to the patio. With room to spread out, the bar draws a robust happy hour crowd, who tuck into sushi rolls and spicy ahi tuna nachos and pluck their choice of fruity Patron margaritas that dangle in small bottles from the ‘margarita tree.’
Perhaps as much a fixture—and draw— as the food and drink at these local venues is the live music. In the heart of downtown Fort Myers, The Veranda oozes Old World charm, with a grand piano and its wood-paneled bar. Tuxedo-clad bartenders pour rye Old Fashioneds or uncork bottles of Caymus for regulars, who delight in veal piccata and rack of lamb finished with rosemary merlot wine sauce. Other than the occasional spontaneous chorus of “Piano Man,” it’s thoroughly civilized. “One of the things we take pride in is we don’t have TVs,” assistant manager JD Clutch says. “There are no sports playing. We want people to have conversations.” In Naples, the long, horseshoe-shaped bar at Vergina hosts live music every evening at 8:30 p.m., from flamenco to classical guitar.
The Tavern at The Bay House in Naples is certainly one of the area’s most atmospheric. A neon-lit raw bar and leatherback chairs are visual preambles to sweeping views of the Cocohatchee River. Here, live bands perform nightly during season as platters of stone crab whisk through the room. When owner Grant Phelan acquired the Naples institution in 2021, he followed the previous owner’s inspiration. After all, he was already well acquainted with the allure of dining at the bar. “It’s one of my favorite things to do,” he says. “When I go to other cities, my wife and I always dine at the bar. I can talk to the bartender and the regulars. I can find out what’s going on in that restaurant and in that community.”
But it isn’t necessarily that these locales are simply in vogue, marching to the beat of cultural shifts and developing palates. In more ways than one, they’re responsible for setting these stylistic tones and epitomizing what it means to raise the bar.
Next time you’re out, aim for a stool over a booth. You may learn a few new truths of your own.