These places get as fancy as the Ritz-Carlton, but also as kicked-back as diners and Mexican holes-in-the-wall. Once declared among the “Top 20 U.S. Small Towns for Dining” by Travel & Leisure, Naples, Florida, has a reputation for fresh seafood, a preponderance of fine Italian-food restaurants (no surprise, given its name), and the diversity that defines the Naples experience. Cradled between alabaster beaches and raw Everglades wilderness, the town offers the best of two worlds, and its restaurants reflect that sense of place. As a restaurant reviewer for Naples since the 1980s, I have a hard time narrowing down my favorites, but after much soul-searching and stomach-stuffing, I’ve settled on these nine, in no particular order. Then I tacked on seven more I just could not let go unmentioned.
Note: Some of the restaurants I’ve included have hosted me for tastings or meals at one time or another. All opinions are my own.
1. Sails Restaurant
First lesson on Naples dining: Fifth Avenue South is the epicenter and has been since its 1990s renaissance, which created a sidewalk café society in a dying downtown. Third Street South comes in second, and Sails Restaurant, which opened in 2018 at the crossroads of the two, quickly ascended as the splurge-to-dine favorite. It’s a class act in every way, every detail. Husband-wife team Veljko Pavicevic and Corinne Ryan bring their respective experience running Ritz-Carlton restaurants and brokering fine steaks to create a refined, stepped-up concept of what everyone else is doing.
Like most, it focuses on seafood, but this is not your local fish joint’s seafood. Rare, exotic species come in from all over the world, displayed for your selection next to the open kitchen, around the corner from the sail-shaped white marble bar. Service is pure perfection — anticipatory but not fawning, exact but warm.
What To Order At Sails Restaurant
Its weekend brunches have become hot commodities that require reservations weeks in advance; don’t miss the Grand Marnier custard French toast. For dinner, options include three- and eight-course prix fixe menus at the inside tables or an a la carte menu at the bar and some of the outdoor seating tables. Order from the fresh catch of the day, or a masterpiece called peppered tuna Rossini, or the lean but tender Little Joe tenderloin. Don’t be foolish enough to pass on dessert (or two). The decision between sticky toffee pudding and Grand Marnier souffle is near impossible.
2. Chops City Grill
Skip Quillen owns three Fifth Ave. darlings, and singling out one is just short of painful. But with its recent remake, rich new ambiance, and top-shelf steaks, Chops definitely proves its chops. Velvet banquettes, silver-threaded drapes, deep wood tones, a long exhibition kitchen, and an imposing bar create a retro atmosphere of elegance and affluence.
What To Order At Chops City Grill
The quality of the steaks continues the sense of extravagance. Wagyu from Japan, Australia (try the grade-nine filet), Idaho, and Ohio take center stage. For a fine steak primer, order the strip steak sampler. Sure, it’s a steakhouse, but when you read “‘Best Ever’ Clam Chowder,” believe it. Old Fashioned aficionados will love the bacon and maple infused OH … THAT’S [email protected]#$*& GOOD!
3. Nosh On Naples Bay
The newest on Naples’ high-end fine dining scene, Nosh sways slightly more casual and novel than the nearby downtown scene. A flagship restaurant for Naples Bay Resort & Marina, its intimate but lively 150-seat space spreads around the convivial craft cocktail bar with a view of the kitchen and an alfresco spill out onto the resort’s scenic yacht harbor. In season, the restaurant opens for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday.
What To Order At Nosh On Naples Cay
Veteran Naples chef and resident since age 10, Todd Johnson and wife Dana created a menu based on how they like to eat when they opened earlier this year. Most of it consists of small plates, which is what I stick to, though tempted by the duck cooked two ways feast. You can’t go wrong with the seared Hokkaido scallop atop sweet corn bisque, miso caramel pork belly steamed buns, or foie gras pate slicked with apple gelee.
Pro Tip: The labor-intensive noshes are designed for tasting, so order several to share, at about three bites each.
4. Sea Salt
On Third Street South, Fabrizio Aielli began his dynasty of now four esteemed Naples restaurants. Sea Salt remains his flagship, defining the high-end seafood restaurant style with sustainable catches, local produce, organic foods, and a massive wine selection. Its centerpiece bar circles from the open, beach-toned dining room to the popular, pet-friendly patio with outdoor seating — all very chichi, but equally comfortable and welcoming.
Hundreds of small jars of salts from around the world and flavor-infused salts line one wall. Dinner guests receive a flight with their bread course to use throughout the meal, which usually includes surprises such as cotton candy or popcorn. The touches add whimsy to dishes designed for artistic and gustatory effect.
What To Order At Sea Salt
Try anything from the fresh seafood display (the branzino, European sea bass, is always a good choice) to the house-made pasta, such as braised veal ravioli with creamy black truffle sauce, or the wagyu short ribs.
Pro Tip: For a celebratory splurge, invite friends to share the multi-course, custom-designed Chef’s Table experience.
5. 21 Spices By Chef Asif
Downtown Naples is chock full of fine dining experiences, but venture away when you’re looking for affordable, global good eats. Celebrity chef Asif Syed helms 21 Spices — when not making the occasional appearance on Food Network, where he once bested Bobby Flay. In Naples, he has caused something of an Indian food revival, dressing traditional fare in exquisitely approachable guise. The setting, too, is a hybrid of Indian embellished tradition and good taste with a display kitchen and an interplay of clean lines and plush nuances.
What To Order At 21 Spices By Chef Asif
I recommend the tandoori Kashmiri chicken, his Bobby Flay throwdown dish in 2018; the inimitable 21 Spices Lamb Chops, lean and fraught with his trademark layers of flavor; tender chicken tikka masala; garlic naan (don’t miss it); and a superb appetizer called Palakwala Chaat — crisp-fried baby spinach with yogurt, tamarind, and dates. The signature cocktail brings texture and complexity to cucumber-infused gin with grated cukes and a touch of chile heat.
6. Celebration Park
The Celebration food truck park consists of more than a half-dozen vendors selling everything from barbecue to Greek. They line up waterside around a covered, open-air bar with live music daily from 6–9 p.m. It’s one of the liveliest, most casual dining experiences Naples has to offer.
What To Order At Celebration Park
The Islands Seafood truck serves local catches like the snapper sandwich (fried, grilled, blackened, or jerk) and a seafood bowl featuring Florida pink shrimp and fish.
Pro Tip: Across the canal, the brains behind Celebration Park, Rebecca Maddox, also owns Three60 Market. If you’re craving tomato pie that rivals Charleston’s, that’s the place to go.
Just down the street from Celebration, this genuine Mexican place is everyone’s favorite. Molcajetes is a little more atmospheric than other local taquerias and boasts an expansive, interesting menu inspired by restaurants in Mexico City. Molcajetes also has a second restaurant in North Naples.
What To Order At Molcajetes
Named for the three-legged bowl chefs there use for mashing up avocados for guacamole, its signature Molcajete Supreme crams shrimp, chorizo, steak, chicken, grilled cactus, and more into the volcanic stone vessel. Wash it down with a Michelada — a Bloody Mary with a bottle of Corona beer inverted into its stemware.
8. Bar Tulia
Speaking of North Naples, that’s the newest big off-Fifth scene, especially for young residents. Mercato, a shopping and dining mecca on Tamiami Trail, is a hotbed for restaurants, many of them high-end chains. Bar Tulia, however, spins off of a local invention by Chef Vincenzo Betulia, who started with rustic Italian cuisine favorite Osteria Tulia, then Bar Tulia on 5th Avenue. Some are saying the Mercato incarnation trumps them both with its oversized pizza oven presence, an Italian pub vibe with steampunk accents, and noshes that mirror tried-and-true Tulia favorites and new south Mediterranean inventions.
What To Order At Bar Tulia
It’s all so well crafted and flavorful, I’m having a hard time narrowing down a recommendation, but the Neapolitan-style pizzas, such as the Sweet Baby Cheesus with black truffles, all deserve applause. My favorite craft cocktail, especially on a warm Southwest Florida day? The oh-so refreshing Fiore Revisited with notes of passionfruit, ginger, and raspberry.
9. Joe’s Diner
I’m a sucker for diner comfort food, and Joe’s defines the genre and has since long before North Naples became a dining destination. It’s been around for more than 20 years with a properly retro setting of memorabilia and checkerboard floors.
What To Order At Joe’s Diner
Don’t get me started about Joe’s breakfast. The pot roast bennie is the ultimate in comfort food, but if you are looking for a gourmand challenge, order one of the famous biscuit and gravy dishes heaped with everything breakfast-able. Every sandwich you’ve ever craved fills the lunch menu, plus soulful platters and baskets.
I told you I have way too many favorite eateries to fit into nine bullet points, so please indulge seven quickies. On the topic of breakfast and diners, tiny Rooster Food + Drink draws the crowds away from downtown with Southern style. Near downtown, Lake Park Diner does a modern spin on diners with healthy options and killer milkshakes. Midtown, don’t miss these two back-to-back spots for seafood: USS Nemo and Swan River Seafood & Fish Market. Back downtown, Veranda E romances and charms; Bha! Bha! Persian Bistro takes your taste buds on a magic carpet ride with its traditional and innovative Persian cuisine; and Bleu Provence wins top awards for its wine list and raves for its French cuisine and all-blue cottage setting.
For more on Florida, check out the following articles: