March/April 2002

Dining has become an important part of our cultural lives. That is especially true in Southwest Florida where a recent influx of talented chefs and innovative entrepreneurs have dramatically improved the food landscape. They have built their restaurants with creativity, hard work, and passion.
    We feel that all of the restaurants listed in our guide deserve your attention. We won’t, however, cloud your impressions with overblown critiques and personal preferences. Only you know what you like.
    Instead, we will highlight their efforts. Point out what makes them unique and what we feel might be worth your attention. Introduce their products, people, and atmospheres. And we’ll try not to be too darned serious—after all, food is fun!
    As we build on this body of work with each issue, we encourage your involvement. Your suggestions and feedback will only enrich this process. So, take a look at the list, pick one, and go have a nice dinner. You will have only about 87,660 meals in your life. Why waste one?
David Grant, Cuisine Editor

Aqua Grill: New American Upscale. Let’s start with the fish. At 15 feet in length and 500 pounds, the blue and silver sculpture of a scorpion fish presides over the room with a remarkably elegant presence. The room’s tone is set by the catchy lighting and interesting blend of silvers and multiple shades of…well, aqua. The open room allows for some enjoyable people watching. Similar in style to its sister restaurant, Bistro 41, but with a heavier emphasis on seafood (I think the Scorpion fish insisted), this is a restaurant of casual fine dining done well, such as the outstanding crispy prawns or whatever the steamer du jour is. Menu staples include a New York strip au poivre, chicken or pork loin from the rotisserie and, of course, the fabled Bistro Salad. The daily special sheet is the route to take for those interested in truly creative blending of food styles. There’s a lot of talent in the kitchen. The Waterside Shops, Naples, 941/254-1234.

Bacchus & Co.: Gourmet Wine Bar. Shannon Yates has created an oenophile’s dream, a bistro where innovative food actually takes second billing to the wine—and at wine store prices, no less. The bulk of the seating is outside, but to catch a seat inside is to be surrounded by all manner of wine with a view of an energetic, open kitchen/bar manned by a hip, talented band of chefs serving up refined Provençal Mediterranean fare. Start with a Bacchus board, one of the creative salads, and whatever special they’ve thought up that day. It won’t disappoint. They show off the grapes well with tastings every Monday and Thursday and frequent wine dinners. The late-night menu that keeps the kitchen open until 1 a.m. should serve as a siren call to all hungry insomniacs and bar hoppers. The Bell Tower Shops, Ft. Myers, 941/415-9463.

Big Hickory Fishing Nook: Seaside Seafood. There is a certain comfort in a seafood restaurant fronted by fishing boats and backed by a bait and tackle shop. Once inside, you’ll find a serious approach to seafood in this hidden hideaway just south of Lovers Key. Solid, casual menu with humorous touches and a playful special board shows off chef Charles Hartung’s considerable skills. Owner and former radio guy Michael Bode brings in nationally known soft jazz artists during season for reservation-only dinner concerts. Highbrow entertainment for such an off-the-beaten-path place. Same goes for the food. 26107 Hickory Blvd., Bonita Springs, 941/992-3945.

Bistro 41: New American Upscale. Don’t be fooled for a minute by the standard bistro menu before you. The scale is definitely “up” at this place. One look at the elaborate, inventive list of daily specials and you understand where the high acclaim for this spot comes from. Visually arresting presentations with leanings towards Eastern flavor components are paired well with a creative wine list. Seafood specials are typically splendid. A gorgonzola and walnut pesto-encrusted filet is a frequent special of note. Some regulars come only for the high-end comforts like the Bistro Meatloaf made of veal, pork, and beef tenderloin—just like Mom’s…not. We’ll stick with whatever chefs Gary Pfenning’s and Ralph Centalonza’s inspired minds have led them to today. The presentations alone are worth the price of admission. The Bell Tower Shops, Ft. Myers, 941/466-4141.

Blue Pepper: Gourmet to Go. Frankly, the food-on-the-run bender our world has gone on in the new millennium appeared destined for a screeching, tragic conclusion. That is, until this epicurean “convenience” sanctuary soothed our jangled nerves with walk-away fare such as a crab cake, sliced papaya, and sautéed baby greens between slices of grilled ciabatta, beef tournedos with truffled mashed potatoes, and veal medallions with wild mushrooms and gorgonzola risotto. Honey, how about if I get dinner tonight, hmm? A high-end meat department, well-chosen, boutique wine tastings at the ready, and a steady stream of exotic produce, cheeses, and food flavorings add to the “this isn’t your mom’s deli” feel. Cooking classes are available, but with this kind of quality, why bother? 7190 College Pkwy., Ft. Myers, 941/939-4700.

Bogert’s Chop House: Carnivorous Gourmet. Dry-aged, prime steaks may be the focus here, but Nico Bogert certainly takes advantage of the global expansion our palates have undergone in recent years. The Indonesian influences of his upbringing in Holland coupled with stints in Italy and Paris have sprinkled the menu and specials board with dishes worthy of epicures everywhere. Veal, pork, and lamb chops as well as table-side cooking are treats for those looking for more than a steak. Warm woods, private rooms, and a handsome bar are reminiscent of a big city speakeasy, and a club behind the Ft. Myers restaurant draws a large dance crowd for the 30-and-up set. 5990 Winkler Road, Ft. Myers, 941/590-6772; 24080 S. Tamiami Trail, Bonita Springs, 941/947-3333.

The Bubble Room: Eccentric Wonderland. The unwritten law of Captiva states that all first-time visitors must visit this nostalgia museum/food palace. We could start with the décor, but the magazine isn’t large enough to cover the details. Suffice it to say the atmosphere is a mad scientist’s creation of Christmas/antique/Wonkaville that happens to serve food delivered by khaki-colored “Bubble Scouts” in strange hats who would be visual over-stimulation enough. Truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The menu is chock-full of oversized, crazily named dishes, as if you’d expect anything less. Parents take special note: your children couldn’t possibly be loud enough to attract any undue attention here. Besides, they’ll be too busy staring at all the knickknacks on the walls and watching the toy train that circumvents the dining rooms. 15001 Captiva Dr., Captiva, 941/472-5558.

Chadwicks: Bountiful Buffet. Fresh vibrant colors, steady island rhythms, and a bill of fare they like to call “Floribbean” are the draws to this South Seas sanctuary at the end of Captiva Island. From the bayou to the Caribbean, each day has a different theme at this tropical buffet spot. The spreads are plentiful and the selections many, with local seafood always in the mix. Champagne Brunch, offered on Sundays, is worth special note. Open daily for lunch and dinner, the lounge adds some dancing and nightlife with island music in the latter half of the week. South Seas Resort, Captiva, 941/472-7554.

Chart House: Seafood. One of the few string-of-pearls type of chain restaurants out there today. A true fish house in every sense of the word with big wood, big boats, and a big view of the Caloosahatchee waterfront. A wine flight, a sampling of three different wines, is a fun way to start. Appetizers are generally seafood based, although the Portobello Steak Frites, served with a chipotle aioli and horseradish sour cream, merit attention. The dinner call here is for a selection from the fresh- fish board. Simply, yet superbly, each fish is prepared and presented to allow its essence to shine through. Typical features range from grouper to mako shark. The daily menu allows for some flexibility not often allowed in a corporate kitchen. Order the Hot Chocolate Lava Cake with dinner. Somehow, when it arrives, you’ll find room. 2024 West First St., Ft. Myers, 941/332-1881.

D’Amico & Sons: Twin Cities Italian. Affordable Italian gourmet food for quick eat-in or take-away served in a visually appealing trattoria-type setting that’s wrapped with a neighborhood feel. There’s little doubt that this Minnesota-based group is onto something. Homemade foccacias and artisanal breads, daily fresh salads, tasty sandwiches and entrées. The Tuscan Pot Roast is comfort food at its finest. Besides, you have to love a place whose motto is, “Feel the Warmth. Smell the Garlic. Look Around.” Bell Tower Shops, Ft. Myers, 941/489-0001; Promenade, Bonita Springs, 941/947-0033; Neapolitan Way, Naples, 941/430.0955.

Dolce Vita: Fused Mediterranean. Forget for a moment the charming supper-club feel. Ignore briefly the imaginative Mediterranean-based cuisine. Instead, focus on the essence of Dolce Vita. Its owner, Andrea, dancing in the middle of the room, arms raised in his best Zorba the Greek impression, chef Aziz joining the band for some serious conga playing. Now that’s entertainment. With a menu that deftly marries world cuisine with Mediterranean principles, many interesting choices abound. Main courses include barbecued saddle of wild boar with a tart juniper berry sauce, salmon topped with a balsamic shallot reduction, and a curried lamb shank with golden raisin compote. A delicious macadamia nut pie awaits you at the end. But don’t forget, there’s dancing to be done. 1244 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, 941/472-5555.

Dusseldorf’s on the Beach: Hops Haus. There are three great things about this place and all of them center on beer. First is the beer itself—hundreds of them in all shapes, styles, and ethnic backgrounds. Heaven on earth for all malt aficionados. Next is the food to eat while drinking the beer—hearty, German fare from Jaeger Schnitzel to Knockwurst to Gulasch. This is just the base one needs when sampling the suds. And finally, it is the people themselves. Imagine Cheers set in Dusseldorf without the subtitles. Friendly folks with a steady supply of opinions and knowledge about, you guessed it, beer. Join the Beer Club as thousands before you have and sample your way through the ever-growing selection. The nightly entertainment itself is worth a visit. 1113 Estero Blvd., Ft. Myers Beach, 941/463-5251.

Fernando’s of Martha’s Vineyard: Northern Italian. Tucked behind Mid-Island Marina on the southern end of Ft. Myers Beach and at another location on College Parkway lie a pair of restaurants whose food is the reason behind the full tables. In town, a large, inviting room creates a familiar family atmosphere; the beach finds a more elegant, yacht-club tone. In both, the focus is on fresh, from-scratch cooking—house-made mozzarella, hand-stuffed raviolis, signature bread born in Boston and baked to order. Look hard toward the Farfalle Fernando, Fusilli Tuscana, or the veal dishes. Should the Lobster Ravioli grace the special board that evening, consider yourself obligated. Now, mange! 4675 Estero Blvd., Ft. Myers Beach, 941/463-0026; 7381 College Pkwy., Ft. Myers, 941/939-5060.

The Green Flash: Well-Windowed Seafood. Steeped in the legend of Timmy’s Nook comes the Green Flash, an Intracoastal Waterway restaurant and local watering hole. All seats provide a terrific view of Roosevelt Channel and its finned and furry inhabitants. The bar sets itself apart with creative cocktails fresh from the blender and full of island imagination. Toasted Artichoke Hearts are hard to pass up. Seafood dominates the menu with plenty of shrimp and shellfish specialties. A couple of land-based items are worthy of attention, including a Wellington of Pork Tenderloin and the Veal Zurich, scallopini sautéed with shallots, mushrooms, lemon, and cream, served over house-made spätzli. 15183 Captiva Drive, Captiva, 941/472-3337.

Greenhouse Grill: Meticulous Mediterranean. Carlo DiSomma is a very picky man. Preparing everything fresh from scratch each day with exacting standards means big payoffs for the loyal customers of this retooled island favorite. With maximum use of minimal space, DiSomma and partner Diane Badalich have created a Mediterranean refuge that is upscale in menu, but family friendly in atmosphere. An expertly prepared lamb and interesting fish presentations from an authentic wood-fired oven are but a few examples of well-done cuisine. 2407 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, 941/472-6882.

The Jacaranda: Local Legend. Those who say you cannot be all things to all people have not set foot in “The Jac.” It’s a romantic, intimate dinner house. A relaxed, open-air gathering place. An energetic nightspot. All that and more. A selection from The Big Drink Menu sets the tone. Food ranges from splendid seafood inside to first-rate pub fare in the lounge. The baked stuffed grouper has reached legendary status. Chef Brad Kilburn augments an already large menu with a number of well-chosen specials. Reggae bands, well-tanned vacationers, and attractive locals make for an easy transition from the dining room into the lounge. This place hops year-round. The question is dinner, or dancing and drinks? The smart ones do it all. 1223 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, 941/472-1771.

Jerry’s: Family Fare. Welcome to the perfect breakfast. A coffee cup that is never empty, eggs done exactly to your style, a table next to Sanibel’s finest, and a waitress who calls you “Hon.” Now that’s how you start a day. But there is more than just mornings to this family-style restaurant conveniently located inside a supermarket. Big burgers and chicken sandwiches for lunch, prime rib and spaghetti nights for dinner fare. This is a local’s joint that is not fancy, just good. 1700 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, 941/472-9300.

Katie Gardenia’s Kitchen & Mermaid Club: Eclectic Global. A visual mélange of mermaids, murals, and Sanibel-Captiva memorabilia surround diverse tables full of highly creative cuisine. Asian, Mexican, and island influences share equal billing on an inventive menu. Blue cornmeal-crusted cracked conch served with a black bean and corn salsa and a beurre blanc spiked with chili, vanilla, saffron, and rum acts as a good starter. Entrées include an adobo-style prime rib, chili rellenos, a sage-crusted lollipop chop, and a Caribbean seafood stew. The Legendary Katie Kake is one of a dozen impressive desserts. Following a 10-year no-compete contract with her former store (Bubble Room), proprietress Katie Gardenia has brought forth a place with sensory overload and epicurean treats. 2055 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, 941/472-1268.

KeyLime Bistro: American Parrothead. Thank Sandra Stilwell and Randy Hunt for bringing a little local color into our lives. Make that a heaping bunch of pastel-colored, energetic charm that engulfs you at the front door and fills you with the cavalier casualness that island life is all about. Fun, funky drinks, stylishly painted fish, and a convivial coastal menu—if you can’t kick back and relax here, better check for a pulse. Chef Lee Seuffert’s eclectic menu is all over the map and filled with interesting twists—grilled red leaf lettuce, hearts of palm, and artichokes tossed in a tomato-orange vinaigrette, escargot baked with bleu cheese and tomato. Relaxed lunchers opt for a Ship to Shore Bloody Mary served with two prawns for their needs, nutritional and otherwise. Great food, entertainment always, late-night bar—this could be habit-forming. Careful, though: too many visits and you’ll start to miss Miami Vice. 11509 Andy Rosse Lane, Captiva, 941/395-4000.

La Brasserie: Fantastic French. When I think of France, what come to mind are rich, luxurious food, magnificent wine, and very ill manners. Fortunately, the operators of this diamond in the rough present an attitude that is warm and pleasant, which leads to a glorious dining experience. The setting is industrial yet warm, the appointments clever, and the food traditional yet quite contemporary. Home-made pâtés, decadent soups, salads of duck confit and mushrooms bathed in truffle oil, coq au vin, steak frites. It’s all there and all guaranteed to let your mind drift to the vine-covered provinces surrounding Paris. For a special treat, call a few weeks ahead and reserve “the Cave,” a six-seat chef’s table setting just off the kitchen. 15660 San Carlos Blvd., Ft. Myers, 941/415-4375.

La Casita: GourMexican. Fresh, funky, and purple, just like a well-made sangria. If Pee-wee’s Playhouse were ever reincarnated as a hot spot for Mexican food, it would look at this place with envy. But within the lavender-hued walls there’s some serious food going on. Moving beyond the Americanized “Mexican” we’ve come to expect, La Casita says its focus is on the regional cooking of Guanajuato—home-style, authentic, made-from cooking with an emphasis on freshness. Clever starters such as fresh fruit or cucumbers sprinkled with lime, salt, and red pepper, or chopped shrimp marinated in lime juice and jalapeños with tomato, onion, and cilantro let you know you are not in TexMexville anymore. The ensalada de la casa with its piquant, flavorful garlic-ginger dressing is a must. The entrée list features a number of inventive dishes. Hey, the place is clever, genuine, and purple. What more could you want? 15185 McGregor Blvd., Ft. Myers. 941/415-1050.

La Vigna Italian Restaurant and Grill: Modern Rustic Italian. This place understands that great Italian cooking comes from the heart. With virtually everything made from scratch or shipped directly from Italy, you’d be hard pressed to find a place this Italian in Italy. An open, expressive kitchen and light, uplifting room help convey the festive atmosphere. The waiters act as extensions of the chefs, making the menu merely a starting point. Anything from the wood-fired oven is a worthy selection. The scallopini dishes are otherworldly. Pastas, breads, and sauces are made daily. And the possibilities are as endless as your imagination. The staff will gladly recommend pairings from the diverse wine cellar. 1625 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, 941/472-5453.

Lazy Flamingo: Cold Beer Raw Bar. The oysters are fresh, the beer’s cold, and the conversation’s friendly. Hey, I’m home! The discerning staff presents only the plumpest of oysters worthy for consumption, a much-appreciated gesture. For those who prefer their oysters on the roasted side, The Pot is a couple of dozen oysters or clams steamed in beer and flavored with special spices. There’s steaming hot, nicely spiced shrimp anxious to be peeled. Did I mention the beer was cold? The well-worn, center-stage bar makes for some great social interaction as you watch the oyster cracking. Sports fans are drawn here nightly. 6520 C Pine Ave., Sanibel, 941/472-5353; 1036 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, 941/472-6939; 3522 Del Prado Blvd., Cape Coral, 941/945-0110; Waterfront at 16501-B Stringfellow Rd., Bokeelia, 941/283-5959 or VHF 16.

Lighthouse Restaurant and Bar: Waterfront. There is something about watching the sun fall into the mangroves around a marina of moored yachts that just makes food taste better. Not that chef Dale Tonell needs any help. Classically prepared dishes centered on fresh seafood and prime beef are the forte here. Shrimp Scampi, Steak Diane, and Veal Marsala are three solid choices among a large, well-executed Continental American menu. The social, circular bar of clear-cut Dade County pine from an old whiskey distillery makes for a good start and finish point. But the clincher, as always, is the water and that western view. With more than a dozen tables outside and a view of the water for all behind the windows, this stylish setting more than lives up to the food and vice versa. 14301 Port Comfort, Ft. Myers, 941/489-0770.

Matzaluna: Well-Smoked Italian. One is struck by the intoxicating smell of wood at the door; there’s nothing quite like the smell of a fire. And it is that very aroma emanating from the oven that flavors the pizzas so wonderfully. The Cinque Formaggi with Gorgonzola, ricotta, spinach, and artichoke hearts is but one favorite. There’s a full selection of fresh pastas, chicken, seafood, and veal for those so inclined. The festive atmosphere is a strong draw for families, but not as strong as those crisp, hot pies. 1200 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, 941/472-1998.

McT’s Shrimp House and Tavern: Casual Seafood. A line of locals waiting for the unlocking of the doors is typically a strong indication that you’ve stumbled onto something good. In case you missed the raw bar next to the host stand, let it be known that seafood rules the roost here—shrimp, oysters, and fish in all shapes, sizes, and sauces with 21 choices on the appetizer list alone. Home of the Mother of All Early Bird Specials—hence the line to get in—it features upside-down trees draped in lights, video games for the kids, and a great bar. Hard to make a bad dinner selection; the Sanibel Steamer has gained a cultlike following. Save room for the Famous Sanibel Mud Pie, a tower of chocolaty goodness that has made the rest of the dessert menu nearly invisible. 1523 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, 941/472-3161.

The Mucky Duck: Resort Comfort Food. Just as Captiva was becoming a destination for the world, the Mucky Duck flew in and made a home smack dab where the best sunsets in town are found. A quarter-century later, this British pub and hijinks shack has gained worldwide recognition and a steady stream of regulars who come to roost during their annual two-week escape from life. Start at the bar with a fresh pint from a long list of beers brewed on the other side of the pond—some even drawn the “proper” way with a nitrogen mix. The menu is a combination of Resort American and English Pub grub and of course there’s always (hello!) duck. Owners Victor and Kathy Mayeron lead a merry band of mischievous pranksters who force you to have fun no matter your mood. Ask for a window table with a view of the water. Sample the great outdoor patio with live music for drinks and starters. Sunsets served free nightly. And don’t forget to buy a T-shirt; everyone else has. Andy Rosse Lane, Captiva, 941/472-3434.

Noopie’s Japanese Seafood and Steakhouse: Japanese Teppanaki. There is something disturbingly fun about watching a man chopping things up. Rapidly. On a hot grill. Three feet from your face. Therein lies the appeal of a Japanese steak house. This small gem tucked in the Sundial Beach Resort with three cooking tables is an island treat. For cocktails have a Noopie’s Punch or a Purple Haze, a blend of sake and Chambord. Accomplished Teppanaki masters mesmerize you with flying salt shakers, sizzling shrimp, and onion volcanoes. The food is good, but the show’s better. Just remember to keep your hands by your side. 1451 Middle Gulf, Sanibel, 941/395-6014.

Origami: Sushi/Korean. Good sushi is about the subtle things. Fresh, clean smells. Soft and crunchy textures. That quick eyewash only a good wasabi can provide. The focus here is on rolls with an ever-increasing list of about 30. Try the No. 13, better known as the Eeligan by those in the know, similar to a California roll with strips of eel and avocado on the outside. The Korean side of the menu has some interesting items. Katsu, Kimchee, and a popular short rib called Galbi are three of 11 choices. But when you’re in the best sushi spot in town, it is your duty to saddle up to the bar for some communal raw-fish eating. And like any true sushi bar worth its weight, the chefs know your name by the third visit. Then you bring every friend, colleague, and acquaintance by just to revel in the recognition. Cypress Trace Shopping Center, Ft. Myers, 941/482-2126.

Osteria de Faro: Ethereal Italian. This elegant little place would be a treat anywhere, but the fact that it is in Bonita Springs is especially noteworthy. Schooled in the principles of true Italian cooking, Vito Mariano is turning out culinary exotica for those fortunate enough to find this romantic hideaway. Lavish, intricate dishes abound. The smart turn is to set aside the menu and ask the chef what you’ll be having. It will be a creative, sumptuous affair. The perfectly turned spinach crepes filled with fresh ricotta cheese and paired with both a fresh béchamel and marinara is one of the best dishes in recent memory. Simple, yet exquisite. 4271 Bonita Beach Road, Bonita Springs, 941/404-5618.

RC Otters: Otterly Beach American. The menu may be daunting, with over 115 choices not counting breakfast, but look at it this way: it’s got something for just about everyone. Open from early morning ’til late evening and there’s music outside more often than not. The menu doubles as the island’s Sunday comic section. Micro-brewed beer on tap includes a nicely malted Island Tan. Interesting twists on a Caesar salad with house-cured salmon, blackened scallops, etc. The big selection of sandwiches is highlighted by Uncle Hank’s Grouper Reuben. There’s also a kid’s menu that’s the size of most restaurants’ entire menus. Attire is mostly flip-flops and T-shirts, ties optional. 11506 Andy Rosse Lane, Captiva, 941/395-1142.

The Riviera: Northern Meditalian. This has all the trappings of a great romantic restaurant—twinkling lights, Old World warmth, and continentally suave owner/maître d’. Mix in the sensual notes coming from the piano and you may feel tempted to skip dinner and head back to the room. But then you’d have missed out on an array of interesting Mediterranean/Italian specialties. Langoustine, sea scallops, and shrimp poached and drizzled with truffle oil; ravioli plump with artichoke; hazelnut-crusted yellowfin tuna with asparagus, artichoke, citrus filets, and polenta; venison filets roasted with braised pears, chestnut purée, honey porto jus, and juniper berries. This is provocative cuisine done well. Remember to save room for a soufflé. 2761 West Gulf Drive, Sanibel, 941/472-1141.

The Sanibel Café: Home-Style Cooking. Ken Boyce is a stickler for consistency and for the better part of 17 years, he’s kept things the same. With family recipes from generations gone by, they turn out good old-fashioned breakfast, lunch, and dinner fare. Sandwiches include The Snooty Fox and The Rusty Pelican. All the beef is Certified Angus. Eggs Benedict and tasty waffles are available anytime. And Ken will probably be manning the grill. 2007 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, 941/472-5323.

Sanibel Grill: Local Color. Matt Asen knows all about marketing. And for this venerable sports grill, he chooses to promote…himself. More precisely, over a decade of photo ops with him and just about every athlete, celebrity, and star our country has to offer. This makes for an interesting bend on the old sports-bar-as-worship-hall theme we so often see. Much-better-than-typical pub fare, seasoned bartenders, and often-sought, seldom-found neighborhood-bar feel explains the popularity of this spot. The baby-back ribs and Crunchy Grouper are worthwhile before, during, or after the game. 703 Tarpon Bay Road, Sanibel, 941/472-HIKE.

The Sanibel Steakhouse: Steak House. A true beef connoisseur knows there is more to life than the filet mignon. Here, the porterhouse or dry-aged rib eye gain the nod, although it’s impossible to go wrong when prime beef is the option. With A+ quality ingredients and some serious skill in the kitchen, this is everything those upscale chain steak houses want to be. Savory crab cakes, meltingly wonderful carpaccio, and a wine list built for high-end beef. The food at the three Sanibel Steakhouses is true to course, but each restaurant has its own ambiance. On the island it’s intimate, cozy, and charming. In Ft. Myers, the feel is the men’s club charm of the traditional steak house. In Bonita, you’re surrounded by architectural splendor, truly one of the most beautiful rooms around. A fourth is scheduled to open this winter in Naples. 1473 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, 941/472-5700; 13401 Summerlin Blvd., Ft. Myers, 941/437-8325; 24041 S. Tamiami Trail, Bonita Springs, 941/390-0400; 8990 Fontana del Sol Way, Naples, 941/597-STEAK.

Sunshine Café: Continental Luminance. The open kitchen takes up most of the “dining” room, but everyone snags the outdoor tables anyway at this perfectly comfortable slice of the island. A small yet clever wine list sets the pace for a leisurely meal. An accomplished, well-chosen menu shows that sometimes it is indeed best to do few things, but do them well. The Asian duck appetizer with warm roasted vegetable compote is worthy of a plate licking. So, too, the whole roasted garlic and goat cheese. The Kahuna Steak with its special Sunshine marinade has developed a loyal following. 14900 Captiva Drive, Captiva, 941/472-1956; 8750 Gladiolus, Ft. Myers, 941/489-2233.

Thistle Lodge: Tropical Rendezvous. From the walk-through gazebo onto the cut-stone walkway leading into a charming Victorian-style mansion, this is a restaurant steeped in the ways of romance. Once inside, a subtle blend of rattan, bamboo, and tropical greens complete the relaxing tone. Terrific island cuisine with a focus on seafood adds to the allure, as do glorious views from almost any table. The outdoor dining is one of the area’s best. Following dessert, we recommend a walk on the beach. Casa Ybel Resort, Sanibel, 941/472-9200.

Trader’s Café: Boutique Bistro. For those who’ve longed to be able to order an armoire with your appetizer, an end table with your entrée, and door knocker with dessert, your prayers have been answered. Equal parts global home furnishing store and eclectic bistro, creative selections abound, be it furniture or food. The island menu, with its West Indies plantation house atmosphere, draws influence from a variety of cuisines. The Asian BBQ Lollipop Chop with Shiitake Garlic Potatoes, and the Blue Crab Stuffed Shrimp over Rock Shrimp Risotto are two such examples. The Bonita location leans heavily on inspiration from the wood-fired oven. 1551 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, 941/472-7242; 26501 South Tamiami Trail, Bonita Springs, 941/949-0202.

Varian’s: Downtown Upscale. Hip downtown eatery where the fashionably appointed Ft. Myers urbanites dine. Great champagne drinks like the Flirtini—Citron, pineapple, and the bubbly stuff. The small, creative menu includes Bavarian influences such as Wiener Schnitzel, Munich-style Onion Steak, and house-made spaetzle. Tuna and beef carpaccio captures the essence of two filets best appreciated rare. The seasonal menu changes…well, seasonally. A good people-watching spot later in the evening. 33 Patio de Leon, Ft. Myers, 941/461-2727. —D.G.