As we prepared our list of Best New Restaurants for 2024, one thing was clear—there’s an elevated focus on gathering in Southwest Florida.
After all, food is a primary vehicle for understanding and connecting to our communities. What and how we eat transcends cultural boundaries and languages and builds bridges. In a single recipe, you connect to a people, a history, a culture—or all three—via decades of fine-tuning and generations of guidance.
Food unites us, and more than a year after Hurricane Ian, it’s easy to see that’s the one thing we want to do: come together, deliciously. As I look back to the restaurants that have opened over the past year, among the most excellent institutions, I see an overflow of spaces nourishing body and soul. Places where food tells a story and where people connect. Perhaps it’s not surprising that many of the region’s best new restaurants also deliver sophisticated drink programs to commune around.
What better way to gather together than to partake in the Italian tradition of aperitivo? New spaces for light bites and appetite-stirring pours with friends, like Bayshore Art District’s Rebecca’s Cocktail & Wine Bar (more on this in our Best New Restaurants feature, p. 138) abound through Southwest Florida. Flock Wine Bistro led the charge when they opened in November of 2022, creating a gathering space for neighbors of a typically overlooked part of South Fort Myers.
Husband-wife team Matteo Affatati and Alyson Casey modeled the welcoming wine bar—splashed in moody blues, leather upholstery and wrought-iron finishes—after the hipster Monti neighborhood of Rome, where they lived for years.
Matteo trained at the Italian Kitchen Academy in Rome and was raised in a family in Puglia. He now flaunts his training and heritage in small plates that range from garlicky mussel linguine to sausage- and porcini-studded fettuccine. Flock imports most of its meats and cheeses from Italy for expansive charcuterie spreads, with tough-to-find delicacies like sharp-yet-sweet Rosso Imperiale (aged Gorgonzola wrapped in sun-wilted grapes). The couple holds back on classics for their wine menu, opting for lesser-known labels for the 30 to 50 bottles they pour in a list that touches on Old and New World producers.
Down in Naples, the post-work crowd in the up-and-coming Naples Design District congregates at the buzzy District Naples (and its accompanying speakeasy, Staff Only). The gastropub is cloaked in inky hues and neon accents, reflecting the city’s trend toward younger, hipper locales. Perched comfortably on a plush velvet bar stool, I pull out my phone for photo after photo of art-worthy drinks and bar snacks like prosciutto on a meat board hung from minuscule hooks, recalling curing techniques. Aside from the entire page of NA (nonalcoholic) sippers—props to District for the options—I adored picking over crisp truffle pecorino waffle fries, sage-infused cheddar cubes and paper-thin slivers of peppered salami.
When it comes time to connect with your one-and-only (or perhaps a small, core group of friends), maybe you’ll head to the tasting menu-focused Old Vines Supper Club. Their much-larger, recently opened Old Vines Naples at Mercato is already a hub for big groups. But, we’re partial to the original, snug East Naples chef-driven space, which opened last Valentine’s Day. The restaurant decor skews decidedly romantic, swathed in deep reds and inky blacks and decked in floor-to-ceiling ruby velvet curtains.
This is the domain of chef Brooke Kravetz, who pivoted from a pre-med program to attend Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. Locally, she made rounds through regional institutions, including a stint as general manager and executive chef of The Cave Bistro & Wine Bar and chef de cuisine at LaPlaya’s BALEEN Naples. The wines at Old Vines are worth mulling over, especially at one of the weekly Wednesday wine-pairing dinners the team curates. The Old Vines crew samples as many as 80 pours for any given month to find the just-right pairing for their bountiful menus.
The restaurant points to a new era of local fine dining. Instead of the typical à la carte restaurant experience, dining at Old Vines is more like purchasing tickets to a show. Brooke and her team execute dinner as a spectacle, and you need only to sit back and savor as the staff floats out one considered dish-and-drink pairing after another. Each course of the tasting menus is divided into two dishes; bring a friend and you’ve accessed the whole bounty of generously sized portions doled out in steady succession. Old Vines might take a crab salad, surround it with a cucumber gazpacho and top the parcel with a crisp squid ink tapioca chip. They might render a braised short rib so succulent, so tender, any cutlery is nearly pointless. For dessert, they may reimagine the s’more in a smoke-filled cloche, spooning morsels of graham cracker ice cream over dark chocolate crémeux and showering it with a hazelnut crumble.
Further north, at Sage on 47th, chef Ralph Centalonza III leans into his decades of Cape Coral culinary experience and cements the city as a bonafide dining destination. The restaurant is vibey in the best sense, with vaulted ceilings, marbled countertops, and an expansive live-edge bar. Live music is a weekend staple.
Local industry veteran Brittany Bowman leads the bar program, approaching drinks as if she were a mad scientist. All of her concoctions begin as a, ‘What if?’ What if she took the Chinese five-spice from the local Asian market, blended it into a riff on bananas foster and served it as a cocktail? The Mister Talley Man is what—all banana-infused sweetness and the ideal partner for Sage’s upmarket take on fries, topped with hunks of tender duck fat.
Riffs like these define the menu. Ralph asks head chef Jake Garrett and other staffers to take the food further with each iteration. Chicken wings are marinated in kimchi for 24 hours, then grilled to charred perfection. Lamb burgers are smothered in brown butter sage aioli and piled with pancetta, arugula and smoked Gouda cheese. Dessert is a just-sweet-enough chocolate pot de crème that melts on the tongue with a sigh of appreciation.
Then there’s Captiva’s new heavy-hitting Crow’s Nest Steakhouse—a buoy of hope for the island’s food scene and culinary recovery that’s enticed mainlanders back to the islands from the get-go. The ’Tween Waters Island Resort & Spa’s restaurant opened in July, with a few months delay due to Hurricane Ian. The fine-dining restaurant is named for its second-story perch over the resort’s more casual spot, The Shipyard. Floor-to-ceiling windows offer unfettered views of horizon-dominating sunsets on the Gulf— an apt backdrop for the white shiplap and navy blue flourishes.
Chef Greg Nelson, whose island-hopping stints include stretches at the beloved Mad Hatter and Doc Ford’s, focuses on expert preparation of time-honored classics. A mountain of black linguine is laced with gems of baby heirloom tomatoes with gargantuan, juicy curls of prawn at its peak. Or, opt for the almost criminally tender Wagyu filet, served with an assortment of three house-made whiskey demi-glaces.
With the last sauce spooned, pasta plucked, steak skewered, I set down my tools of the trade and peer at the Gulf’s horizon. I realize I’ve learned something from our bounty of new restaurants focused on community—with every bite, I gain a deeper understanding of us.