|What We Loved to Eat in 2015|
As we welcome 2016, here’s a blast from the recent past of great local dining developments.
By Dorothea Hunter Sönne
January rolls in with high expectations: Record crowds will flock to our eateries, so it’s time to recap the best of what has been cooking over the past year.
Natural (menu) selection: Fewer restaurants are posting $40-plus entrees (thank goodness!). But the biggest news is that smaller dishes have evolved to be a force to reckon with. From Cork and Barrel in Fort Myers, where the entire menu is shareable plates, to TAG: The American Gastropub in Estero and Mereday’s Brasserie Bayfront in Naples, which have adopted a primarily small-plate approach, it’s a winning formula for affordable and delicious dining.
The late show: Before if you were out past 9 p.m., you’d be lucky if you could find a drive-thru that was still kicking. Now, kitchens are not only staying open but also developing menus that go beyond burgers and wings for discerning clients. Bar Tulia, 7th Avenue Social and Cork Soakers are soaring in this department.
Crafty cocktailing: We’re reaching new levels of sophistication when it comes to bespoke drinking. Skilled mixologists are making thoughtful pairings of spirits on menus, and they’re often willing to get creative on the fly based on your drink of choice. The Standard in Fort Myers and Bar Tulia in Naples are leading the charge in their respective cities.
Casual in anything but cuisine: We have officially said bye to the days where you need a jacket to have access to the best tables in town. In fact, spots where there’s not a white tablecloth to be found are serving some of the most intriguing and inspired dishes. (See our January issue out now for more.)
Fast but not typical fast food: Gourmet food trucks are canvassing the area, hitting big breweries and office complexes alike. The Butcher’s Son, the brainchild of the family behind Johnsonville sausage, got its permit at the beginning of December, and the popular Organically Twisted announced around the same time it will be opening a cafe in the new year. Two fast-casual joints, one in Naples (Felipe’s Taqueria) and one in Bonita Springs (Ahana’s Bombay Grille), are taking a Chipotle-style mix-and-match approach to counter service but with better-quality products and, for Ahana’s, a home-spun, personal approach.
Caped crusades: Lee County, we salute you. Cape Coral? You deserve our utmost respect. The profusion of niche eateries offering incredible food at lower prices has not gone unnoticed. An area that had often been seen as no man’s land by non-residents has come into its own and taken on an underground (admittedly a bit gritty) and exciting vibe that oozes creative culinary energy. This past year alone saw the reveal of these unique spots, all with their own merits: Time to Eat, Seven Oaks, The Office, Melograno and Water City Grill.
Restrictions? No problem: No matter what diet you’re following, sticking to your plan without sacrifice has never been easier. Veranda E (one of our picks in the December 2015 feature story “Decisions, Decisions”) now has gluten-free, paleo and Whole 30 options. Patric’s, a cozy retro diner, has an unexpectedly great midday paleo menu. Eateries are also earning Blue Zones credits; caterers and home delivery services like Fresh Fit Foods, Sage Catering and Here’s How Catering have jumped on board, too; and Waterside Shops announced a True Food Kitchen is being built. Healthy and savory are not divergent goals.
Since no analysis is complete without constructive criticism (restaurateurs, listen up!), here’s what’s on our wish list for 2016.
DON’T hold the bread. It’s true we’re all guilty of wasting food—and now more than ever we don’t want Greenhouse-emitters crowding landfills (thank you, Paris accords, for refocusing our attention). But as devout diners-out, we’re on the fence about the recent trend of not having anything to start the meal. It doesn’t need to be brought automatically, but something—anything (be it nuts, crudités, olives, what have you)—that can be furnished on request would be a huge relief for when we rush into a restaurant famished.
No reservations, potentially big problem. More and more places are shunning traditional booking systems in favor of a first-come-first-serve model. While we know for smaller restaurants it makes sense because no-shows can be crippling, most diners count on being able to arrive somewhere knowing they’ll be seated promptly. The non-system system can work more effectively at spots with large bars or communal tables (or a youthful crowd that doesn’t rely on reservations). But might we suggest an alternative? Take reservations in season (let summer be fair game), and have a clearly defined 10-minute “no show, no table” policy—or do credit card guarantees with a $50 cancelation policy.