Best of the Gulfshore 2018: Eating & Drinking
Our food and wine editor picks her best bites and drinks of the past year.
Best news for downtown Naples food lovers: The same group behind the enduringly popular The Bay House and The Turtle Club have launched The Claw Bar in the Bellasera hotel on U.S. 41—longtime Bay House head chef Andy Hunter (left) is in charge, and that means chargrilled oysters every night along with his gooey, drippy, tri-meat-blended burger smothered in pimiento cheese.
Best fortnight of fun: Kudos that someone finally figured out how to do Restaurant Week right—and make it stick. With the help of two enthusiastic impresarios, it is now branded Sizzle SWFL and has grown to include two editions of prix fixes in June and December throughout Collier and Lee counties.
Best reinterpretation of a classic (tie): Thankfully, spring rolls are no longer just a thing of Chinese takeout. Perhaps the best restaurant in all of Lee County at the moment, Point 57 Kitchen & Cocktails does its version the Southern way with smoked gouda melted into pulled pork, complemented by a vinegary Carolina dip. And Society, a newbie in Fort Myers with great promise, serves “Cuban cigars” with all the elements expected from the iconic sandwiches wrapped up and delivered in a little wooden box.
Best place to catch a breeze: With only bistro lights between you and the night sky, plus the Caloosahatchee River steps away, the Downtown Social House (SoHo) biergarten is Fort Myers’ newest, chicest watering hole.
Best all-you-can-eat that’s fit for a king: Act fast—until May 15, Truluck’s, the posh seafood bastion on Fifth Avenue South, runs an annual promotion Monday nights during stone crab season. It’s $79 for unlimited medium-size claws with a choice of soup or salad and a side. (But don’t worry too much, because the deal will resume when fishing does on Oct. 15.)
Best kind of pearls: At Côte D’Azur, the quaint North Naples ode to the south of France, a pound and a half of lobster gets the royal treatment, wearing copious orbs of caviar enveloped by a champagne-truffle sauce and sliced porcinis.
Best everyman’s wine shop: Curious about the difference between a $25 cabernet and a $50 one? The Wine Grotto of Naples is the place for you, with organized tastings like that just mentioned, and a room in the back where you can mix and match 12 average-priced bottles to fill a case for $99.
Best not-so-simple salad: Leave it to chef Vincenzo Betulia to make something that’s been done a zillion times the best version you’ve ever had. At The French, a mélange of chopped endive is enlivened by imported bleu, candied walnuts and a cascade of paper-thin disks of pear, plus torn tarragon and chive (left).
Best second act: While it was a complete drag for both Kitchen 41 and Fuse Global Cuisine—two stand-out Naples eateries—to endure months of construction dust as the strip mall they are housed in was plastered, patched and repaved, now both are in quarters more suited to their modern cuisine and have larger patios to boot.
Best collaborative café: Fort Myers is excitedly awaiting its very own Whole Foods, which should launch later this year; even more exciting is that Mr. Artisan Chocolatier himself, Norman Love, is launching a sit-down café in the store that will exclusively feature his pastries, confections and savory baked goods.
Best round-trip to Florence on a plate: If charcuterie and cheese are your butter and jam, know that the owners of the charming Caffé Toscano in Fort Myers (next door to another Italian gem, Cibo) use their previous lives as importers of fine Tuscan foodstuffs to inform their menu here, from 12-year aged balsamic to Tyrolean speck.
Best pour of wine … that built something concrete: Thanks to the Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in March, around $20 million has been raised since its inception—and more than $10 million went to completing the Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida’s new facility that opened in 2017 (the wine fest was the second-largest donor after Tom Golisano).
Best hole in one for breakfast (no imported water required): Bagels are notoriously hard for anyone outside of New York to recreate; thanks to Steve Batitsas, who boils and bakes his fluffy softball-size wonders daily, Brooklyn Dough with a Hole in the web of streets east of 41 in downtown Naples is able to satisfy the pickiest connoisseurs.
Best reason to sit back and smell the coffee: At Grain de Café, a tiny French bakery and luncheonette, all brewed drinks that are served to those dining in come with a quarter-size muffin, usually cranberry but at times blueberry or chocolate.
Best Southern comfort: It’s undeniable that Timeless – an MHK Eatery is eclectic, but its chef knows how to throw down when it comes to shrimp and grits—jumbo Gulf crustaceans lie gently atop a perfectly moist disc of stoneground deliciousness that dissolves into the sublime country ham-infused gravy.
Best place outside the Parker House for such addictive rolls: OK, so we’re being facetious—the classic baked good’s namesake inn exists today only in lore. But regardless, Tony’s Off Third mounds the fluffiest, most savory version in Naples, and the rolls can be picked up any day or ordered at dinner in the adjacent Ridgway Bar & Grill. (P.S. Ask for the off-menu apple butter, too.)
Best confirmation good things come in pairs: Naples and Cape Coral can both brag they debuted pretty amazing restobars in the past year—The Bevy (near Third Street South) and Gather (at Tarpon Point Marina) function as uber-trendy watering holes and serve killer food to go along with the signature libations.
Best transformation artist: You’d never expect to find out that what looks like a coffeehouse in a hum-drum strip mall has not one but three chefs—but that is the delightful anomaly that is Café YOU. The eatery is open most days for breakfasts, lunches and crazy-delish baked goods (many vegan and gluten-free), and it morphs into a full-fledged restaurant on select nights with prix fixe menus that rival any of its neighbors’.
Best sandwich, period: Nothing pithy here, because this handheld from Table & Tap at Babcock Ranch is that good: Pork belly falls apart in your mouth, a beefsteak fried green tomato crackles and mixes with tiny grains of mustard, tangy slaw and mayo—every element combines to form the most mouthwatering bite that will inspire more trips to the Pleasantville-esque ghost town (which will hopefully see a flurry of development by the time you read this).
Best gatherings of top chefs: Playing the ever-attentive host is a skill both Vincenzo Betulia and Norman Love have mastered, and they put that to work to entertain crowds of the nation’s best culinarians this year. Betulia hosted an unofficial after-party at his Bar Tulia for the Michelin honorees and James Beard winners who cooked at the Naples Winter Wine Festival, and Love assembled a cadre of his friends at the top of the pastry game to fly in for the Celebrity Martini Glass Auction after-party.
Best news for Collier County kids: The Naples Winter Wine Festival is closing in on two decades, yet it’s undeniably fresh—40 percent of attendees this year at the $10,000-per-ticket event were first-timers, and the fund-a-need raised the most it ever has for at-risk children with $2.4 million.
Best place to move beyond Heinz: In the eastward expansion of Greater Naples, The Warehouse, while not fancy or with much frou-frou, is perhaps the first eatery near Collier Boulevard to appeal to contemporary foodies. E-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g is made in-house, down to the ketchup.
Photography by Erik Kellar