The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel have long been considered a great vacation getaway because of their beautiful beaches, lush golf courses and sunny weather.
Food was not one of the attributes most people mentioned even though there have been exceptional restaurants throughout the region for decades. We just didn’t get any respect, as was evidenced by the dearth of accolades when awards were doled out by magazines like Florida Trend and Wine Spectator.
But things have changed, seemingly overnight, although the restaurant scene has been on the rise for a long time. Somehow it took a while for everyone to notice but notice they have. And our local chefs and their restaurants have the honors to prove it.
Perhaps the biggest splash happened in February 2019, when Melissa Donahue, executive chef of Sweet Melissa’s was nominated for the prestigious James Beard award for Best Chef: South. She was among 20 nominees from the Southern United States to be nominated and the first ever from Lee County.
“The James Beard nomination was definitely a game changer,” Donahue says. “When that happened, the phone would not stop ringing. We had the busiest, most successful season ever and I have to say it was because of the James Beard nomination. We definitely saw traffic from Naples. We didn’t get a lot of that before.”
In December, Florida Trend’s annual Golden Spoon Awards named the top 100 restaurants in the state. This year’s list included five from The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel.
Not surprisingly, Sweet Melissa’s made the list. Donahue isn’t sure what finally attracted the magazine’s attention but, she suspects, “we’ve been around here long enough. We’ve gotten past that 10-year mark.” Perhaps it’s that it’s “a totally scratch kitchen. I’m making all my own stocks, ice cream, sauces. I butcher my own meats. I pay attention to what restaurants are doing in big cities and do some trendy stuff but stay true to what I’ve always done.”
That includes her signature fish stew, a staple that customers refuse to let her take off the menu. Having spent time working in the famed Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, her menu often includes dishes such as blackened redfish and chicken and andouille sausage gumbo. Then there are dishes she conjures up like buckwheat crepes with melted brie, apples, mustard and cognac cream as well as duck confit with pickled beets, baby kale and lentils. She also makes her own desserts, which include goat cheese cheesecake, beignets, Key lime white chocolate bread pudding and the aforementioned house-made ice creams.
Harold Balink, whose eponymous Harold’s Restaurant also made the Golden Spoon list, has another theory about why the region is finally getting some credit for what’s been here for a long time. “In the early 2000s (and even in the ‘80s and ‘90s), there were a few of us with little joints with pretty good food and service, but there was no crazy internet access, no Twitter, no Instagram,” he says. “You’d drive down U.S. 41 and all you’d see were chain restaurants. There’s more exposure for the independents now. The little places get more recognition.”
And while he can’t say that the award has changed his business drastically, he thinks “it has taken the building blocks of what we’ve done the last five years and all the great promotion we’ve gotten and solidified it. Florida Trend isn’t locally based so it adds a little more juice (to our reputation).” Balink’s farm- and sea-to-table menu, which changes weekly according to what’s seasonally available, has built a loyal following so those who want to try it are well advised to book at least two weeks ahead. Signature dishes here include roasted cauliflower Buffalo style with house-made blue cheese, seared scallops, truffle fries, Harold’s World-Famous Key lime pie and the decadent Chocolate McLovin, which he accurately describes as “Bill Gates rich.”
Balink thinks that the Golden Spoon award has done something similar for Azure, which bills itself as a French-European restaurant with Southern flair with chef Joe Pittman heading up the kitchen. “Joe is amazing,” Balink says. “His food is superb and consistent and creative and has depth. I think that’s why Azure made the list.” Azure’s elegant menu covers a fair amount of territory, ranging from dishes such as Southern fried quail with sweet pickles and hot honey to vegetarian curry to Magret duck breast, Moroccan lamb ragout and snapper en papillote.
Also small but mighty is the eclectic Blanc, run by French-born chef/owner Jean Claude Roge, who is as much of an attraction as the imaginative small plates he serves. “Blanc is fun and unique,” says Balink. “The room is vibrant and always lively and you want to see Jean Claude, you want to have him flirt with you. It’s all part of the attraction.” The menu offers “Best French onion soup” and it’s not a lie. There’s Siberian sturgeon caviar served with all the condiments, lamp lollipops and octopus S&S (with sweet habanero sauce). The fried red beets and Brussels sprouts miso will make even confirmed carnivores want to eat their veggies. And the three dozen seats are situated so that conversation among tables is common and encouraged so that most nights it can seem like a big party instead of individual groups dining out.
Last, but hardly least, among these stellar spots is Angelina’s, a sprawling, upscale Italian restaurant with a two-story wine tower and a menu that offers a mix of the familiar and authentic, but less frequently seen, items. Butternut squash ravioli is a signature dish here, as are the ricotta pillows with toasted walnuts sage and brown butter. Figs and burrata, sea salt baked snapper for two, scallops and pork belly and zeppolis with dark chocolate and berry sauces are among the dishes that have made this such an acclaimed dining destination.
All of these restaurants have long been popular among locals. The fact that they have made it onto a statewide list means they are likely to be even more popular. So anyone planning to visit The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel who wants to taste what these award winners have to offer should book their meals long before they get into town.