For decades this stretch of Southwest Florida cuisine flew under the radar, its classic seafood haunts and vintage Floridian dining rooms little known outside the region. All that has changed in recent years with the arrival of talented new chefs and an exploding number of creative, genre-bending restaurants. Add to this the gorgeous beach-and-sunsets setting and first-rate local ingredients (fresh catch of the day from the Gulf, locally raised produce and meat), and it's no wonder foodies and restaurant critics alike are hailing the Floridian renaissance underway.
Cutting-edge fusion and global cuisine
With immigrants from across the globe, it's no surprise that Southwest Florida would embrace flavors and accents from Latin America, Europe, Southeast Asia and beyond. On Sanibel Island, one iconic place that should be on every foodie's itinerary is the Blue Coyote Supper Club (www.bluecoyotesupperclub.com). Here you'll find a rich combination of miso glazes, coconut curries and mole-style sauces that bring dazzling flavor to roast meats and Gulf seafood. The rosemary and panko-crusted Kurobuta pork chop is a delectable work of art, while the sautéed escargot with truffled crostini continues to wow diners.
Near the north end of Sanibel, the Mad Hatter ticks all the boxes for discerning diners. Creative New American cuisine and memorable views over the Gulf make this elegantly set dining room a top choice for a romantic evening. Beautifully prepared rack of lamb or black truffle sea scallops go nicely with the fiery sunsets (and a bottle of Bordeaux).
Fort Myers Beach has a trove of great Italian eateries, meaning you won't have to travel far for a rich housemade pasta and a perfectly pulled espresso. Tucked into a Fort Myers Beach strip mall, Cibo (www.chibofortmyers.com) seems like one of the most unlikely settings for first-rate dining. Don’t be fooled – this place turns out some of the best Italian recipes in town, including savory polpette alla mama ('mama's meatballs', made with veal, beef and pork) and ravioli that melts in your mouth. Good wine selections add to the appeal of this friendly and approachable spot.
Venerable Floridian dining spots in the area have been turning heads for decades. When you want to impress, nothing quite compares to an old Southwest Florida classic, where time seems to have stood still. Take the Fort Myers icon, The Veranda (www.verandarestaurant.com). Set in two turn-of-the 20th-century homes, The Veranda brings more than a dash of old-fashioned grandeur, with candlelit tables and impeccable service from its tuxedoed wait staff. This is the place for oysters Rockerfeller, perfectly grilled chateaubriand and Florida icons like key lime pie. Before dining, be sure to stop for a drink at the elegant wood-paneled bar with well-mixed cocktails, live piano music and black-and-white photos of days gone by.
Overlooking the Port Sanibel Marina, the Lighthouse Restaurant (www.lighthousewaterfrontrestaurant.com) has a gorgeous waterfront setting that has made it a favorite spot for weddings and other events. With serene views, there's no bad time to dine, whether you come for eggs Benedict at weekend brunch, pork belly sandwiches at lunchtime or heartier seafood plates at dinner – like jumbo lump crabcakes with saffron beurre blanc. Book a table on the screened-in porch and enjoy the cool breezes across the mangroves. There's live music on the weekends.
Fort Myers and its nearby westward-facing islands are ideally set for taking in spectacular sunsets. Although there are many great places to catch them, a few choice spots in this corner of Florida provide the ideal setting for dining, drinking and toasting to Florida's best free evening show. The aptly named Sunset Beach Tropical Grill (www.sunsetbeachtropicalgrill.com) enjoys a prime position overlooking Fort Myers Beach and its long, photogenic fishing pier. This lively spot serves up the fresh catch of the day and plenty of sizzling barbecue, with a side of creative cocktails and live music. Come early to score the best seats in the house. You’ll also enjoy magnificent views atop the newly remodeled Lani Kai Island Resort, where the Island View affords looks out over deep blue sea and the sugar white sands of Fort Myers Beach. At this festive eating and drinking space, there are many options for diners depending on your approach to a romantic night out. You can reserve a windowside seat for panoramic views while dining on wood-fired fish of the day, or you can grab a seat at the raw bar and slurp down oysters, little neck clams and crab claws.
For a casual meal without all the fuss, head up to Captiva to the Mucky Duck. With a magical view over the beach and lapping waves, you can dine on fresh oysters, crispy jumbo coconut shrimp and a decadent duck a l'orange - one of the restaurant's signature dishes. It's run by Swiss restaurateur and local luminary Andreas Bieri.
While the region is a known spring-break hotspot, the nightlife goes far beyond that in The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel. After an incredible dinner, you’ll find a wide range of cocktail lounges, brewpubs, wine bars, music venues and even kitschy western-style saloons to explore with your sweetheart.
Downtown, the 86 Room (Facebook) offers bespoke cocktails and moonshine amid old-fashioned décor that channels a speakeasy vibe. It’s tucked down a narrow alley with no sign, and finding it is half the fun. Beer lovers will want to make their way over to the buzzing Fort Myers Brewing Company (Facebook), with its quality microbrews (25 beers on tap), food trucks and occasional live music. For something a little different, drop by Blanc, a small, utterly charming French-run wine bar where you can linger over cheese platters, oysters and sharing plates, while sampling from an impressive wine list.
If you’re still revving to go after the stroke of midnight, join the fray at Celsius (Facebook), a stylish, two-story nightclub where DJs spin a mix of house, dancehall and calypso to a diverse, energetic and dance-loving crowd.