July/August 2001 Issue

Front Row Seats
Open kitchens make for a thrilling meal

Want to add an exciting twist to a dinner on the town? Reserve your seat at the heart of the action—near an open kitchen in one of our area’s fine eateries.
We really like to pop into Twilight Café (751 Tarpon Bay Road, Sanibel, 941/472-8818). Those lucky enough to secure a barstool will be facing the grill; at Twilight, this is a ringside seat and you’ll enjoy watching the innovative head chef and owner Robert Parks at work. The restaurant “specializes in cutting-edge cuisine, using only the freshest seasonal and regional ingredients,” he says.
    The smoke-free policy accentuates the mouth-watering aromas from the kitchen and its oak-burning wood grill. The four seats at Twilight’s bar are intended for dining. “We do take reservations for those seats,” says Parks.
    Twilight Café is located in a charming, historic building and shares its traffic with neighboring Tower Gallery co-op.
    The minute one walks into Sanibel’s Greenhouse Grill (2407 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel Island, 941/472-6882), it’s evident that the kitchen is not behind closed doors. All tables are well within aromatic range of the open kitchen, where owner/chef Carlo DiSomma might be grilling New Zealand spring lamb chops, or spicing up a grilled scallop entrée with a side of garlic spinach.
    A whole new look greets diners as they enter the newly refurbished Greenhouse; the dining room has a crisp look, and all tables have a kitchen view. New owners DiSomma and Diane Badalich anticipate a loyal local clientele. “Once someone comes in, they always come back,” says Diane.
    It’s a sure bet you’ll enjoy yourself when you visit Traders Store & Café on Sanibel (1551 Periwinkle Way, 941/472-7242) or the newly opened Traders in Bonita (26501 S. Tamiami Trail, 941/949-0202). Blending primitive art and industrial décor in an interior with high ceilings and intimate spaces, Traders on Sanibel has ambiance to spare.
    For the best view of the chef’s activities, grab a seat at the left end of the bar. You still won’t be very close; however, all food leaving the kitchen passes by the bar, so these are great seats for watching chef Michael Patnode and crew plate their creations. Café manager Mike Schwartz points out that Traders has no heat lamps. “Everything goes out fresh,” he says.
We notice an extra bonus at this particular open-kitchen scenario. One can observe all the comings and goings of a busy café without the one part a diner never wants to see—the cleanup. We see only plates of fabulous food served up as fast as its comes off the grill, such as the blue-crusted Portobello.
    Traders doesn’t take reservations for its bar seats, but if you have to wait, you’ll enjoy walking around the retail store, which shares space with the café. It’s filled with home furnishings, books, toys, and clothing from around the world.
    Want to see some of the hardest-working chefs in all of Florida? Stop by any Lazy Flamingo (6520 Pine Avenue near Blind Pass, Sanibel, 941/472-5353; 1036 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, 941/472-6939; Four Winds Marina, Bokeelia, 941/283-5959; or 3522 Del Prado S., Cape Coral, 941/945-0110). This locally owned restaurant has a casual environment, terrific food, and cold beer. The kitchen is as much a part of the restaurant as the tables are, especially at the location near Blind Pass.
    Visit this “Santiva” Lazy and you’ll be in awe of a kitchen operated entirely by one person, even when the restaurant’s full. Orders are taken by the bartender, who clips them up and sends them flying back to the chef on a steel wire.
    Chef Russ, Sergio, or Tom will be mixing Caesar salads, grilling grouper and burgers, cooking pasta, making garlic bread, and preparing seafood—all at the same time for an entire restaurant of hungry locals and visitors. And while you might not consider a bartender part of
the kitchen, at the Lazy, the barkeep is shucking oysters, serving meals, pouring beer and wine, calling out names for tables, taking all the orders, and taking the money.
    Our favorite seat might be at the bar in Captiva’s Sunshine Café (Captiva Drive, in the “village,” 941/472-6200; Gladiolus and Winkler, 941/489-2233). With only six tables inside and a handful of open-air tables on the porch, Sunshine is one of the coziest places in town. Reservations are recommended, particularly if you want a barstool—there are only two!
    Many staff members are original to the cafe’s inception in the mid-1980s and the well-orchestrated kitchen staff works side by side in Sunshine’s 10-by-20-foot kitchen. Head chef Freddie Beraz oversees the magic. “It’s impressive how they do what they do, like it was nothing,” general manager Jeff Archambault says of his kitchen crew.
    Sunshine uses a wood-fired grill and enticing smells are constantly emanating from the kitchen, including its signature roasted clove of garlic, which accompanies beef dishes.
Diners seated at the bar couldn’t be closer to the action. Desserts are made directly in front of them, all meals are plated just to the right, the grill is 8 feet ahead. This is exciting dining, an excellent example of how thrilling an open kitchen can be.
    Just a stone’s throw from Sunshine is the Village Café (Captiva Drive, in the “village,” 941/472-1956), an energized, yet intimate bistro that has won the hearts and palates of islanders. Food lovers will enjoy the orchestrations of head chef and owner Paul Minoui.
Diners can see the kichen from every table in the restaurant, but cooking enthusiasts will want to reserve the two seats at the bar, overlooking the action. (Four can be accommodated there with advance notice).
    No matter where you sit, mouth-watering aromas will make their way to you. “Paul uses a really nice curry dusting on the scallops,” says his sister, Janel Minoui, who is one of the Village wait staff. “When he sears the tuna, you can smell that, too.…You smell it all,” she says.
    Sunset Grill (Pine Avenue at San-Cap Road, Sanibel, 941/472-2333) is another inviting island eatery with an open kitchen. Guests in the intimate dining room will enjoy watching executive chefs Dan Konopnicki and Dana Pucin at work—if they can tear themselves away from the view of the Gulf of Mexico just across the street.
    Sunset’s oak- and mesquite-fired wood grill adds tantalizing smells to the sizzling sounds of the grill. Breakfast sets this restaurant apart. If you are an early riser, perhaps the smell you’d most enjoy would be bacon on the grill.
    La Vigna Italian Restaurant and Grill (1625 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel 941/472-5453), owned by Carlo and Martino Rao, puts the kitchen front and center as you walk in the door. While there’s lots of action and an elevated, oak-fired oven to greet you, it might be the cleanliness that you notice first. Everything from floor to ceiling sparkles at La Vigna.
    “The public is tired of having everything behind closed doors,” says manager Barry Baker. “The trend is open kitchens, no hidden factors.”
    The restaurant’s kitchen staff is abuzz, whipping together vitello, pesce, manzo, pasta, and antipasti dishes.
    Dining room tables all provide a kitchen view; La Vigna’s bar is cozy and secluded from the kitchen area.
    While Bistro 41 (Bell Tower Shops, Ft. Myers, 941/466-4141) has plenty of seating, the seats nearest the kitchen are “where our heavy hitters sit,” according to sous-chef Ralph Centalonza. “People who come here two or three times a week request the seats we call ‘the 40s.’ They like to see the food that comes out of the kitchen. Heads turn; we can impress them while they’re here.”
    Chefs often have pans on every burner, making quick work of it.
    Dishes, which are deglazed with vodka, send flames shooting skyward as the alcohol is released. “It leaves the flavor behind,” says Centalonza. Patrons will also enjoy the constant aroma of garlic and shallots wafting into the dining room.
    Bistro 41 is part of the restaurant group that includes the newly opened Aqua Grill at Waterside Shops, and Michael’s in Naples.

Island resident Libby Boren McMillan loves the opportunity to enjoy a good meal in one of the area’s restaurants.