September/October 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. 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

The Bubble Room: Eccentric Wonder land. 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 Christ-mas/antique/Wonkaville that happens to serve food delivered by khaki-colored “Bubble Scouts” in strange hats who would be visual over-stimulation enough. 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, 239/472-5558.

Chadwick’s: 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, 239/472-7554.

Crazy Gator: Tall Tails & Cold Beer. Tank-tops, flip-flops, and leave all your pretensions at the door. This casual alcove is into the fine art of kicking back and letting the fun come as it may. Predominately a sandwich and burger joint, there are a few surprise items on the menu such as Grilled Bologna, the “Ever Famous” Peanut Butter & Banana, and the Crazy Gator Open-Face, a Southern-style meat sandwich topped with french fries and lathered with Cheddar cheese sauce. Fried crawfish and the eponymous Gator Bites are perfect partners for the cold beers. 630-1 Tarpon Bay Road, Sanibel, 239/472-6300.

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, day 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, 239/489-0001; Promenade, Bonita Springs, 239/947-0033; Neapolitan Way, Naples, 239/ 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 Boris” joining the band for some serious conga playing. Now that’s entertainment. With a menu that deftly marries world cuisine with Mediterranean principles, 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, 239/472-5555.

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 of the seats provide a terrific view of Roosevelt Channel and its finned and feathered 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, 239/472-3337.

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, 239/472-1771.

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, 239/472-9300.

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. Famous on the islands for her culinary expertise, proprietress Katie Gardenia has brought forth a place with sensory overload and epicurean treats. 2055 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, 239/472-1268.

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, 239/472-5353; 1036 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, 239/472-6939; 3522 Del Prado Blvd., Cape Coral, 239/945-0110; Waterfront at 16501-B String-fellow Rd., Bokeelia, 239/283-5959 or VHF 16.

Mad Hatter: New American Euro Wonderland. A pretty, pink cottage with a million-dollar view and a world-class chef. Sounds like paradise to me. Swiss-born chef Daniel Riedener continues to uphold the well-deserved reputation of this highly esteemed outpost with an infused cuisine of classical European techniques and Far Eastern fare. Sweet chili and soy-glazed Yellowfin Tuna encrusted with sesame seeds is an architectural delight set upon chilled soba noodles and wasabi oil. So, too, the encrusted Rack of Lamb with Asiago and roasted corn risotto cakes. Imaginative wine list to match the fare. 6460 Sanibel-Captiva Road at Blind Pass, Sanibel, 239/472-0033.

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 twenty-one 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 cult-like 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, 239/472-3161.

Morgan’s Forest: Jungle Food. Tropical, lush, and very green. No, it’s not a salad, but an entire restaurant complete with trees, birds, and vines. If you ever wanted to take your family to a South American rain forest for dinner, then here’s the spot for you. Lots of eye appeal for the kids and a huge menu for Mom and Dad with interesting choices such as Matambre, an stuffed tenderloin of Argentinean heritage, or a Brazilian snapper rolled in romaine with crab meat and butter, grilled and topped with a mushroom béarnaise sauce. Save room for some Tropical Forest Pie. And don’t forget to bring your pith helmet. 1231 Middle Gulf Drive, Sanibel, 239/472-4100.

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. Sample the great outdoor patio with live music for drinks and starters. Sunsets served free nightly. Andy Rosse Lane, Captiva, 239/472-3434.

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 a corner of 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 sides. 1451 Middle Gulf, Sanibel, 239/395-6014.

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, 239/395-1142.

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 puree, honey porto jus, and juniper berries. This is provocative cuisine done well. Remember to save room for a soufflé. 2761 West Gulf Drive, Sanibel, 239/472-1141.

Roy’s: Haute Hawaiian. The Bonita outpost is everything one would expect from the Yamaguchi chain. Vibrant room with an open kitchen that seems to operate with the mute button on. Menu steeped in exotic seafood and Hawaiian, Far Eastern, and European fusion. Full boat of handpicked unusual wines and sakes. Lick-your-plate-clean sauces that add the magic to every dish. The room is alive, the staff well informed, and the specials usually include a fish you’ve never tried before. If only the other chain restaurants could do it this well. The Promenade, 26831 South Bay Drive, Bonita Springs, 239/498-7697.

The Sanibel Café: Home-style Cooking. Ken Boyce is a stickler for consistency and for the better part of seventeen 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. Celebrity 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, 239/472-5323.

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, 239/472-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 high-end 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 ambience. 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. 1473 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, 239/472-5700; 13401 Summerlin Blvd., Ft. Myers, 239/437-8325; 24041 S. Tamiami Trail, Bonita Springs, 239/390-0400.

The Seafood Factory: Fish Foundry. Given the name, you can guarantee some serious attention is given to our friends from the sea. But this carefree spot gives attention to beef and pasta with equal aplomb. Start with some Crazy Shrimp in one or more of five funky flavors. She Crab Soup is a staple that deserves consideration as you make your way through the extensive menu. The Lowcountry Supper also pays homage to the Carolinas. Locals know that the Seafood Platters of Shrimp, Oysters, Scallops, and/or Grouper are especially tasty when you take the buttermilk-and-battered route. 2499 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, 239/472-2323.

Siam Hut: TopShelf Thai. Who would figure you had to travel to Cape Coral of all places for top-flight Thai food? This charming spot, nestled into a quite forgettable strip mall, serves as a haven for fans of curries, lemongrass, and iced coffees. Kick off the meal with either the Glew Za, pan-fried dumplings filled with ground pork, ginger, and scallions, or the Naem Sode, a traditional salad of ground chicken, lime juice, peanuts, onions, and chili peppers. The curry offerings are all splendid, with the Panang a particular standout. Excellent fish, shrimp, and frog leg selections, plus the obligatory Pad Thai. 4521 Del Prado Blvd., Cape Coral, 239/945-4247. – D.G.

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, 239/472-7242; 26501 South Tamiami Trail, Bonita Springs, 239/949-0202.
– D.G.