Acres of citrus groves and miles of coastline offering access to the freshest seafood may have put the Sunshine State on the culinary map, but Florida also brings a host of other flavours to the table.
Florida is a paradise for foodies who crave locally sourced, farm-to-table and fishing-boat-to-table fare. The state’s fusion cuisine blends homegrown tastes with Latin and Caribbean influences. Innovative new dishes like lobster strudel and homemade lemon ricotta pancakes tempt discerning diners, and tried-and-true classics like key lime pie and fried Gulf shrimp keep ‘em coming back for more.
Whatever your budget may be, you can savor Florida’s gourmet flavors. Here’s a look at some of the places you can pull up a chair and dig in to the Sunshine State’s culinary sensations.
Warning: Don’t read this on an empty stomach!
FINE DINING EXPERIENCE at Jackson’s Steakhouse Jackson’s is considered one of Florida’s top 25 restaurants, and was even placed by Distinguished Restaurants of North America in the top 2 percent of all fine dining restaurants in the country. It overlooks Plaza Ferdinand, where, in July 1821, Gen. Andrew Jackson accepted the transfer of Florida to the U.S. and raised the American flag in Pensacola for the first time. The atmosphere in the restaurant reflects this historic moment, from the symbolic handcrafted tree-branch light fixtures to the mural behind the bar. Founding Executive Chef Irv Miller’s Southern-influenced cuisine features the emblematic foods of “real Florida,” such as Apalachicola Bay oysters and Alligator Point wild-harvested clams, Pensacola and Destin red snapper, North Florida shrimp and numerous other seafood delicacies caught responsibly off the Florida Gulf Coast.
HIDDEN LOCAL GEM at Red Fish Blue Fish This fun and funky restaurant serves up simple, good food from local ingredients with a breathtaking waterfront view from the backyard on the beach. With white sand for diners to dig their toes into, there are also covered and grassy dining areas, a stylish cocktail bar and fire pits positioned perfectly to watch the sunset. Along with a wide variety of inspired Southern-style dishes, Red Fish Blue Fish offers unique tastes to please every palate. Popular for its seafood, the restaurant’s Tropical Fish Tacos with tropical fruit slaw and mango jalapeno sauce are not to be missed.
FINE DINING EXPERIENCE at Cuvee Bistro Destin’s Cuvee Bistro offers classic French-, Asian- and Italian-influenced delicacies along with award-winning signature dishes by proprietor and Executive Chef Tim Creehan, making it a must-dine stop for foodies and tourists alike. A Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner from 2011 to 2013, Cuvee’s stunning wine list and other fine libations enhance the epicurean experience. The “Best in Destin”-voted Happy Hour starts at 5 p.m., with a tempting variety of specials, including martinis so popular they have their own menu.
HIDDEN LOCAL GEM at Clemenza’s Born from a love of cooking, deep Italian roots and a desire to delight patrons, Clemenza’s in Fort Walton Beach encompasses all that is good about Italian cuisine. The restaurant offers delicious dishes that are a combination of authentic Italian food, fresh-caught coastal cuisine and a little bit of Southern Creole spice. Be sure to celebrate the weekend with Mama Clemenza’s European Breakfast – from the Italian Breakfast Panini, served with prosciutto, eggs and gruyere cheese, to the exquisite Lemon Curd Ricotta Pancakes, everything is cooked with homemade attention.
FINE DINING EXPERIENCE at Matthew’s Famed local chef Matthew Medure is the man behind one of Jacksonville’s best restaurants. The beautiful menu and perfectly crafted wine list is constantly evolving and improving, depending on the season. Each year since 1999, Matthew’s has been granted the Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator magazine, and has also been bestowed the prestigious AAA Four Diamond award. Everything on the menu is worth sampling at this intimate Jacksonville eatery. If you’re having a hard time choosing between all the delicate and impressive dishes on the menu, try the Chef’s Adventure Tasting Menu.
HIDDEN LOCAL GEM at TacoLu Good food, good drinks, great vibes – that’s what is served at TacoLu in Jacksonville Beach. This locally owned and operated restaurant is a favorite among Jacksonville residents because of its low-key atmosphere and delicious Mexican food made with only the freshest ingredients. You can’t come to TacoLu without trying one of the famous namesake tacos – a good bet is the “10 dollar taco,” a secret menu item complete with fresh strips of filet mignon, lettuce and pepper jack cheese. Wash it down with a refreshing Pinarita – a pineapple margarita with cilantro – or a Sangriarita.
FINE DINING EXPERIENCE at Vernon’s Vernon’s is the award-winning signature restaurant at the Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa in Ponte Vedra Beach. The namesake restaurant of Vernon Kelly, the real estate developer who helped craft the renowned TPC Sawgrass course, it’s a destination for foodies as well as families. Vernon’s features fresh Florida seafood, masterfully cut chops, locally sourced vegetables and an enviable wine list. Enjoy breakfast or dinner and a floor-to-ceiling window view of the resort’s signature waterfall and lagoon, or watch the sun go down on TPC Sawgrass.
HIDDEN LOCAL GEM at Aunt Kate’s Aunt Kate’s sits on the bank of the Tolomato River, with outside decks set up perfectly to provide views of the ever-changing sunsets. Continuing a tradition of more than 100 years spent serving the best in local seafood, the Usina family has been operating the restaurant since railroad tycoon Henry Flagler stepped through the doors in 1900. The restaurant serves local favorites like steamed oysters and crab, fried green tomatoes, chicken or shrimp pilau (a Minorcan rice dish), corn bread and pumpkin bread, and fresh fish and shrimp. Head out to the deck and enjoy one of the fan favourites such as Minorcan Clam Chowder or St. Augustine-Style Shrimp.
FINE DINING EXPERIENCE at Fusion 43 Fusion 43, a rustic, Victorian-style restaurant in the heart of Ormond Beach’s historic district, takes diners on a culinary journey that knows no boundaries. At the soon-to-be-open speakeasy-themed upstairs bar, patrons will be able to enjoy a Fusion 43 Signature Drink or other craft cocktails. In the kitchen, Chef Mark creates an abundance of rare, hard-to-find fare that changes with the seasons. He recently debuted the new “Calribbean” menu, which features one of his most popular dishes – Ducks in a Row. With its combination of duck and dried blueberry-herb sausage, the flavorful dish is served with friend plantains and French green beans in a port wine reduction, making it a favourite among regular diners.
HIDDEN LOCAL GEM at the Dancing Avocado Kitchen Carnivores, herbivores and avocado lovers delight in The Dancing Avocado Kitchen, home to a variety of dishes created using fresh-from-Florida fruits and vegetables. The restaurant has an atmosphere that’s bright, happy and buzzing with energy and vibrant color. To compliment any dish on the menu, make sure to ask for the mysterious and famed Dancer Dust, a blend of 11 herbs and spices known only to the chef who created it. Indulge in the Dancing Avocado Melt, the most popular sandwich on the menu!
FINE DINING EXPERIENCE at the Island Hotel and Neptune Bar Although the Island Hotel and Neptune Bar offers fine dining, it does so in a casual, relaxing atmosphere in keeping with the Cedar Key attitude. Dating back to 1946, the Island Hotel and Neptune Bar continues to pride itself on local seafood and produce, coming off the boats on the Big Dock and from area farmer’s markets. Join Chef Kim Cash for some of the freshest seafood dishes on Cedar Key, such as the Artichokes Artsena Otie, featuring sautéed artichoke hearts, scallops, shrimp and mushrooms splashed with sherry in a rich cream cheese parley sauce.
HIDDEN LOCAL GEM at Kona Joe’s Island Café Experience the fresh gourmet coffee, scrumptious sandwiches and real fruit smoothies of Kona Joe’s Island Café. Relax into the friendly atmosphere on the private deck, where you can enjoy your meal while watching pelicans play on the Back Bayou. Stop by and try a slice of the famous Blue Crab quiche, baked fresh every morning. Don’t leave without a hand-dipped ice cream cone, or a slice of Edie’s famous Cedar Key Lime Pie!
FINE DINING EXPERIENCE at Luma on Park This upscale Winter Park restaurant showcases inspiring American cuisine and daily menu updates with one of the most extensive wine lists in Central Florida. With an open view of Park Avenue, the restaurant’s contemporary décor presents the perfect backdrop for an elegant evening out. The menu offers two distinct dining experiences – small-plate light bites and indulgent multi-course prix fixe feasts. From the Snake River Farms Flank Steak to the Madeira Beach American Red Snapper, Executive Chef Brandon McGlamery serves the freshest seasonal ingredients, pairing each of his entrees with a selection from the wine list.
HIDDEN LOCAL GEM at Graffiti Junktion Voted “Orlando’s Best Burger,” this casual eatery is a simple yet favorite spot among local diners. Graffiti Junktion serves a wide variety of specialty burgers, and is admired as a restaurant where traditional hamburgers meet a full bar for lots of personality and fun. With a variety of locations around Orlando, stop in and try The Big Apple, an 8-ounce Angus beef burger topped with brie, bacon and Granny Smith apples!
CHARLOTTE HARBOR & GULF ISLANDS
FINE DINING EXPERIENCE at Trabue A high-end culinary delight located in downtown Punta Gorda, Trabue’s name derives from the original name given to Punta Gorda in 1885, which was named after Col. Isaac Trabue, who had purchased the land from British investors. With a contemporary vibe and modern décor, Trabue features a rich color palette and a modern atmosphere. The ambiance is enhanced with garden seating. Chef Keith Meyer prides himself on his approachable rustic Southern dishes, ranging from escargot to a bone-in braised pork chop. The menu is always brimming with from-the-Gulf seafood, such as mahi-mahi, snapper and shrimp. To complete the meal, the Meyer Lemon Cheesecake New York Style is a must.
HIDDEN LOCAL GEM at Peace River Seafood The essence of a quintessential Florida Cracker crab shack, Peace River Seafood is where the fishermen, crabbers and shrimpers land their catch. A must-visit time of year is stone crab season, which runs mid-October to mid-May. During that time, the succulent crab claws are the top draw on the locally sourced, seafood-centric menu. Year-round, blue crabs arrive by the crate and are prepared out back almost as fast as they come in. Spilling out of tin buckets – all you can eat from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday – the crabs are accompanied by the requisite wooden mallet, corn-on-the-cob, red potatoes and lemon wedges. The restaurant also has its own parrot, petting zoo and live music, drawing in fun for everyone.
FORT MYERS & SANIBEL BEACHES
FINE DINING EXPERIENCE at Sweet Melissa’s Café Experience the award-winning Sweet Melissa’s Café on Sanibel Island, where Chef Melissa Talmage challenges your taste buds with a creative menu featuring a wide array of different tastes, textures and eclectic ingredients. The restaurant exudes warmth, compliments of its sedate atmosphere and impeccable service. Fine linens and a cozy bar add to the experience, while soothing live acoustic jazz sets the mood on select evenings. Named “Best Dining in Lee County” by Gulf Shore Life, the dinner menu offers entrees in full portions or small plates, giving diners the ability to enjoy multiple dishes in one visit. Don’t miss the Fish Stew, featuring mahi-mahi or redfish combined with scallops, shrimp, clams, mussels, chorizo and fennel, complete with a lemony saffron cream.
HIDDEN LOCAL GEM at Mucky Duck The Mucky Duck on Captiva Island has been named one of the best “hidden beach bars in America” by Men’s Journal. With picnic tables and chairs strategically placed in the sand only yards from the water, this jewel with a Gulf view is where you will find locals and visitors gathering nightly to experience breathtaking sunsets. With a historic past as an inn and a private home, the Mucky Duck opened as a beach bar in 1976 and serves fresh seafood, cold beer and magical sunsets in a party-type atmosphere every night.
FINE DINING EXPERIENCE at 50 Ocean Delray Beach’s foremost oceanfront restaurant has established itself as the ideal destination for fresh seafood and dishes featuring locally sourced, sustainable fruits and vegetables, combined in a creative and inspired menu that changes with the seasons. The chic, contemporary restaurant has a vibrant week day Happy Hour, with complimentary ocean views.
HIDDEN LOCAL GEM at Dada Located right in the heart of downtown Delray Beach, Dada serves an eclectic variety of award-winning new-American cuisine. Positioned inside a historic two-story home, the restaurant has an artistic style, with each room having a different theme and a showcase of works by local artists on the walls. Sit outside in the intimate dining area and garden, where you can enjoy different live entertainment every night. Enjoy a wide variety of American classics with an edge, such as the Short Rib Flatbread. With scallions, water chestnut, guava and sweet soy drizzle, this appetizer is a must-have. Make sure to top off your meal with one of their many flavors of mojitos or classic cocktails!
FINE DINING EXPERIENCE at Villa Azur Villa Azur brings a new experience to the South Beach dining scene, combining excellent cuisine with a vibrant atmosphere. This elegant gourmet restaurant offers tantalizing French Mediterranean dishes prepared with an Italian twist. The romantic decor features an interesting contrast of vintage and modern motifs by mixing antique woods and chandeliers with contemporary furniture. The chic elegance of the décor matches that of the menu, which features an extensive raw bar lineup and a variety of tartars and carpaccios. The food can be paired with fine wines from the restaurant’s in-house wine cellar, La Cave d’Azur, or with a signature cocktail from the extensive drink menu.
HIDDEN LOCAL GEM at the Federal Food Drink and Provisions Sitting on Biscayne Boulevard, this local favorite serves food in the style of a modern American tavern. The Federal is hidden away in a strip mall, which does not appear to house a restaurant that reinterprets original American cuisine. This creative restaurant serves unusual dishes, such as the Jar-O-Duck and Buffalo Style Pig Wings, new takes on American classics. Enjoy these interesting concoctions for dinner or come on the weekend for brunch with a twist under the mason jar lights or outside on the porch.
FINE DINING EXPERIENCE at Atlantic’s Edge at Cheeca Lodge and Spa Enjoy an exquisite meal with a spectacular view at Atlantic’s Edge. Offering indoor and outdoor dining with panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean, this Islamorada restaurant is a culinary destination in and of itself. One of the best luxury restaurants in the Florida Keys, Atlantic’s Edge features a seasonal fine dining menu with fresh local seafood, including hogfish, grouper and seared triple tail. If you happen to catch a fish yourself while staying at the resort, the restaurant will cook it for you in the style of your choice. In addition to seafood, the restaurant serves prime steaks, fresh pasta and locally-grown produce. Round out your meal with a selection from the Wine Spectator award-winning wine list, and a tempting dessert such as the Tahitian Vanilla Bean Crème Brulee.
HIDDEN LOCAL GEM at Hogfish Bar & Grill Hogfish Bar & Grill serves up fresh local seafood right off the docks, including the Keys delicacy hogfish, a diver-caught fish with a light, flavorful taste. Owner Bobby Mongelli has turned the bar and restaurant, located on a canal and marina that’s home to working vessels and colorful tenants, into a locals’ favorite emporium. The restaurant is famed for its “killer” hogfish sandwich, smothered with Swiss cheese, onions and mushrooms, all on fresh Cuban bread.