For a town its size, Naples' culinary reputation is quite impressive. Given its close proximity to the sea and the fisheries around the Florida Everglades, one would naturally expect seafood to dominate local menus, and it definitely does. You would be hard-pressed to find a restaurant that does not serve the local grouper, shrimp, snapper and other delicacies.
The closer you get to the Everglades, the more likely you will find alligator tail and frog legs on the menu. Everglades City is the home port for stone crab and other fishermen, so it's a small wonder it hosts an annual Seafood Festival every February that draws thousands of avid seafood lover to the tiny, colorful town.
Some restaurants concentrate specifically on local catches and seafood imported from New Zealand to Italy. They range from the finest dining rooms to the most colorful, saltiest fish houses; from masterful new preparations to simple Old Florida style.
In the nouvelle cuisine category dwells new-to-the-scene Mereday's Fine Dining and the Italian-swayed Sea Salt-Naples. For fish-house style, consider the Dock at Crayton Cove or Randy's Fishmarket Restaurant. Freshness is the hallmark for all of the restaurants included in this list. Style of preparation and ambiance also figure prominently.
Randy's Fishmarket Restaurant
Randy's is all about the fish, which the market shows off in gleaming glass cases next to the steel racks of wine. So, it's also about the wine. The wine list offers a carefully selected array, all available by the glass and extremely affordable.
You can order fish market items as a sandwich, atop a salad or as a platter. Given the vast lunch and dinner menu items and the create-your-own options, choices are near-infinite at Randy's.
The steamer platter is a popular choice for the want-it-all-and-can't-decide type. There's a touch of Dixie about: hush puppies, seafood gumbo, and fried seafood sandwiches.
The islands show their influence too in the conch fritters, coconut-fried shrimp salad, and décor -- a blend of pink flamingos, straw baskets, mellow yellow, and warehouse rafters. (239-593-5555)
Joanie's Blue Crab Cafe
It looks like a Hollywood set for a swamp shack, but it's the real thing. Joanie's has been around forever serving Cracker-style Everglades fare to locals who love it and tourists who want to post it on Facebook.
Go for it: Order the Swamp Combo of frog legs, alligator tail nuggets (yep, tastes like chicken), crab cakes and homemade salsa. For more conventional seafood, you can order blackened catfish, a soft-shell blue crab sandwich, peel-and-eat shrimp or a seafood combo plate.
Dessert is a tough choice between key lime or peanut butter pie. Most days (Joanie's is open only until 5 p.m.) you can hear a one-man band doing folk and country songs - just like it ought to be. (239-695-2682)
Who would believe that a restaurant can pull off submarine decor and do it tastefully? But that's not all that's tasteful about this small, strip-mall restaurant that has a faithful following.
USS Nemo's seafood tastes fresh, and there's a freshness to the way it is prepared. The diver scallops come with leek fondue and goat cheese polenta, for instance. Grouper, shrimp and calamari populate the Commodore's Mixed Grill, treated to an orange and tomato puree. Regulars rave about the signature miso sea bass.
And the even better news is price. Away from the posh downtown neighborhoods and upscale shopping centers and resorts, its price point is also easy to swallow. Meat-lovers, don't worry. There's plenty for you to choose from, too. (239-261-6366)
Truluck's Seafood, Steak & Crab House - Naples
Part of a small, Texas-based chain of restaurants, it is anything but cookie-cutter. The dining room seems oversized at first, but its popularity fills the warm, welcoming space at the back of Inn on Fifth most nights.
They come for their fix of various varieties of crab, plus lobster, New Orleans BBQ shrimp, miso-glazed sea bass, Scottish salmon bearnaise, cioppino and Idaho trout amandine, plus fine steaks and chops.
The restaurant professes a commitment to sustainable seafood. The "Chilean sea bass," for example, comes from South Georgia.
The restaurant also features nightly live entertainment. ((239) 530-3131)
Rodes Fresh & Fancy
Rodes began as a rickety roadside stand and has grown into a fish, produce and gourmet market and restaurant complex now in business for more than 25 years. Purists go for the steamed clams and shrimp, mussels, stone crab and other raw bar items.
And they know full well to leave room for the key lime pie.
If you're more interested in the "fancy" part of the equation, order shrimp stuffed tilapia or chargrilled Chilean sea bass basted with key lime butter.
The "fresh" part weighs heavier on the menu, which specializes in Old Florida style fried seafood and fresh fish with your choice of preparation. (239-992-4040)
The Turtle Club at Vanderbilt Beach
Cleverly disguised as a casual beach club at a small resort, the Turtle Club exceeds all expectations to dwell in that vaunted culinary territory known as a local secret.
To start with, there's the location, which deserves to be described in triplicate: location, location, location. Not because it's all about location, but because there are gorgeous gulf views from every table of the small, intimate dining room and sunny patio.
You CAN order meat here, but the seafood rules. Choose from magnificently crafted temptations such as roasted Chilean sea bass with grilled pineapple, lightly blackened scallops with apricot horseradish glaze and roasted grouper with lump crab and citrus beurre blanc. (2395926557)
The Dock at Crayton Cove
The Dock at Crayton Cove has been around since the mid-70s - a slump of a seafood shack marina-side cooled by sea breezes. It is the epitome of Old Naples pre-gentrification.
Not much has changed through the decades. There's still fried seafood specials, raw oysters and a lively bar scene. The menu has progressed through the years to inject exotic Caribbean flavor into the menu. Think blackened grouper on Cuban bread, key lime grouper with citrus butter sauce, Jamaican Red Stripe ribs with guava BBQ sauce and paella.
Rivaling its reputation for food and casual fun, the Dock hosts its annual Great Dock Canoe Race, a wacky parade of decorated paddle craft the second Saturday in May. Started in 1976, it today draws thousands to cheer and jeer. (239-263-9940)
Bay House Restaurant
Overlooking serene Cocohatchee Bay, the Bay House - as it is most commonly known -- is regarded as one of the city's most spectacular seafood restaurants. This charming eatery serves fresh, Southern-inspired and bistro-style seafood dishes, as well as steak and chicken options.
Most tables in the main dining room - decorated coastily with wooden boats hanging from the ceiling - and patio offer views of the surrounding waterway, ensuring patrons a scenic setting on top of a sensational meal.
Tierney's Bar offers an alternative cozy setting of fireplace and dark wood. Live entertainment plays in the bar Wednesday through Saturday evenings, and private banquet rooms are available. Upcoming: a boutique hotel and event space are planned on campus. (239-591-3837)
Chef Fabrizio Aielli comes from a stellar background that covers Italy, the Caribbean and two of his own highly hailed Washington, DC, restaurants.
At Sea Salt, he conceived dining centered around the sea. To carry the concept, he stocks more than 100 different varieties of salt and infused flavored salts. Dinner at Sea Salt begins with a three-flight sampler of salt to season dishes to come.
Convivial and inspired by chef's Venetian birthright, the setting transitions from the outdoor, pet-friendly patio to indoor casual elegance via a bar that circles outdoors to in. Salt candle holders light the indoors, which is decorated in colors from the beach and sea.
The main menu intertwines cultures - charcuterie, sea urchin poached in duck fat, ravioli stuffed with braised veal, salt-encrusted branzino, akaushi beef and whole fresh fish from the showcase. (2394347258)
Mereday's Fine Dining
One of Naples' newest foodie havens, it resides in the Naples Bay Resort waterside. Sleekly designed for fashionista style, its designer dishes fit the look.
Here the menu concept departs from the traditional Southwest Florida format come dinner: You pay according to how many of the five courses you order from, with a minimum of two courses plus dessert. You can also order with wine pairings. The prices may look steep, but the detailed preparation is the pay-off.
Service is spot-on to help impossible decisions from the ever-changing menu: grilled South African prawn with green thai curry and coconut milk,seared scallops with baby carrots and parsnip puree, creole shrimp with artisan bacon and stone ground cheddar grits, butter poached grouper with lobster risotto, for instance. (239-732-0784)
About Chelle Koster Walton
Chelle Koster Walton -- the Local Expert for Naples, Florida and the Caribbean -- has been covering the destination for 30 years. Her top-selling Sarasota, Sanibel Island, and Naples guidebook (Countryman Press) is in its sixth edition. She was contributing editor for Caribbean Travel & Life for 12 years and has written guidebooks on the Bahamas.
A veteran travel writer, Chelle has published thousands of articles for Miami Herald, USA TODAY, Latitudes; has written/contributed to a dozen guidebooks, and produces travel shows for the local PBS station.
Read more about Chelle Koster Walton here.
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