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 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. Its weekend brunches have become hot commodities that require reservations weeks in advance, but dinner remains a stalwart of customized seafood dishes, seafood towers, a masterpiece called peppered tuna Rossini, and lean but tender cuts of meat from Australia (Corinne’s native land).
Pro Tip: 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. The quality of the steaks continues the sense of extravagance. Wagyu from Japan, Australia, Idaho, and Ohio take center stage. For a fine steak primer, try the strip steak sampler.
Pro Tip: Sure, it’s a steakhouse, but when you read “‘Best Ever’ Clam Chowder,” believe it.
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. 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.
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 a spill out onto the resort’s scenic yacht harbor. In season, the restaurant opens for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday.
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 high-end seafood 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 — 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. Try anything from the fresh seafood display, or house-made pasta such as braised veal ravioli with creamy black truffle sauce, or wagyu short ribs.
Pro Tip: For a celebratory splurge, invite friends to share a multi-coursed, 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.
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 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.
Pro Tip: The signature cocktail brings texture and complexity to cucumber-infused gin with grated cukes and a touch of chile heat.
6. Celebration Park
You’ll find Chef Asif’s street food grub, Deccani Bites, at the Celebration food truck park, along with more than a half-dozen other vendors selling everything from barbecue to Greek. They line up waterside around a covered, open-air bar. It’s one of the liveliest, most casual dining experiences Naples has to offer. The Great Foodini’s Mobile Bistro is a popular choice for global specialties like poutine, lobster corn dog, and mini duck quesadillas.
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. 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. Molcajetes also has a second restaurant in North Naples.
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, 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 favorite Osteria Tulia, then Bar Tulia on Fifth Ave. 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.
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.
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 — for more than 20 years, as a matter of fact. Don’t get me started about Joe’s breakfast, served in a properly retro setting of memorabilia and checkerboard floors. 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 favorites 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; and Bleu Provence wins top awards for its wine list and raves for its French cuisine and all-blue cottage setting.
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