Loosen your belts and rev up the car—we’re taking you to the state’s don’t-miss dining destinations
WHERE IT IS: Disney’s Grand Floridian Hotel, 4401 Floridian Way, Orlando, 407/939-3862
WHY YOU HAVE TO GO: Because in your life, this is the closest you’re going to get to being treated like Cinderella. This AAA Five-Diamond Award-winning restaurant has 14 tables and only one seating per evening. The 10-course degustation menu offers creative American fare, but there’s no locavore pretense. Ingredients like Iberian ham, Texas wild boar, Italian truffles and a United Nations of caviar could be part of your prix fixe.
VIBE: Formal but friendly, with a discreet harpist in the background.
SIGNATURE DISH/EXPERIENCE: Dinner at Victoria & Albert’s is a three-hour tour de force in a classic Victorian setting. The menu of edible art changes daily. Still, the multiple desserts, bonbons and vacuum-brewed coffee at the end of the evening feel like a rousing celebration.
WHERE IT IS: 3224 N.E. Maple Ave., Jensen Beach, 772/334-7714
WHY YOU HAVE TO GO: This longtime culinary icon, improbably located in tiny Jensen Beach, follows its own beat when it comes to cuisine. You can forgo all the what’s-in-vogue offerings in favor of these rare and interesting menu ideas—like pan-fried Caicos conch or sautéed Maine spotted skate. Maple’s reputation hasn’t wavered in 20 years as a steady gourmet beacon in the fickle world of South Florida restaurants.
VIBE: In a cozy historic house, 11 Maple Street eschews flash for comfort, and exudes European charm mixed with plain, Old Florida simplicity. The kind of place where you can sit back and savor some of the best food in South Florida.
SIGNATURE DISH/EXPERIENCE: You cannot go wrong, as they say, but the char-grilled duck breast and New Zealand elk tenderloin have spawned sonnets among diners.
The Gulf Coast
WHERE IT IS: 15001 Captiva Drive, Captiva Island, 239/472-5558
WHY YOU HAVE TO GO: Opened in 1979, this Willy Wonka meets Disney meets Santa meets Old Hollywood is a brightly painted ramble of a restaurant that was once a private home—filled with vintage toys, a Christmas-saturated “Elf Room,” walls covered with crookedly hanging celebrity photos, you name it.
VIBE: This is a sheer novelty experience, with so much sensory overload you may not notice that the food is surprisingly good.
SIGNATURE DISH/EXPERIENCE: The cheesy broiled Italian Bubble Bread from the onsite bakery has a cult following, with civilians online mounting valiant attempts to duplicate the recipe; the prime rib is also noteworthy. But save room for a gargantuan and extravagantly decadent dessert like the Orange Crunch Cake or the French chocolate torte.
WHERE IT IS: 200 Central Ave., No. 100, St. Petersburg, 727/317-3930
WHY YOU HAVE TO GO: A “rustic Americana with a southern touch/ Creole spin” menu by Chef Ted Dorsey focuses on innovative but sound dishes that are creative, but not too precious. This is farm-to-table at its best, in a distinctively local setting.
VIBE: This place has it all—except the attitude. With an elaborate steampunk-but-rustic design by local artist Istram Torok of Torok Studios, this award-winning spot in the middle of Central Avenue is a casual culinary wonder—but with none of the smugness often found with these locavore restaurants. It’s real. It’s good. It’s easy.
SIGNATURE DISH/EXPERIENCE: People rave about the cider-braised mussels. The roast duck with cauliflower fried rice and citrus-grilled baby bok choy is great, and the porter-glazed quail is another winner. I mean, who has quail on hand?
WHERE IT IS: 1177 Third St. S., Naples, 239/435-1166
WHY YOU HAVE TO GO: The rustic, nuova-Tuscan cucina is tucked into the historic Mercantile Building, which conjures an Italian villa, with a lushly landscaped and umbrella-shaded dining patio. Splurge on one of the “limited opportunity” wines from the extensive collection, sample a carbonara wood-fired pizza or a burrata caprese salad, and watch the bustle of the Third Street South shopping district.
VIBE: Modern continental chic, a place to see and be seen in your Lilly while attentive, sophisticated servers seamlessly guide you through an ultra dining experience.
SIGNATURE DISH/EXPERIENCE: Order the snapper piccata or the balsamic- glazed short ribs, and save room for the cannoli cheesecake.
WHERE IT IS: 239 Links Ave., Sarasota, 941/706-4740
WHY YOU HAVE TO GO: This is your politically correct choice for a 2019 top restaurant, but one cannot live on moral fiber alone; this place also boasts a two-time James Beard Award finalist chef who knows what he’s doing. Chef Steve Phelps is a nationally connected food activist with a passion for sustainable seafood. (He also does things like forage locally for seasonal native foods). And then he whips all this into unforgettable dishes. The world has noticed—and is beating a path to his door.
VIBE: It feels easy and natural here—but chic—in this renovated downtown historic building, with lots of wicker and wood, a convivial porch, understated tropical ambience.
SIGNATURE DISH/EXPERIENCE: Seafood should be your first choice at Indigenous, but don’t kick those Parmesan beignets out of bed.
(110 Riberia St., St. Augustine, 904/829-6553) is showing up on everyone’s go-to lists because of its impossible craft cocktails (it even “harvests” its own ice, for God’s sake) and a farm-to-table menu with things like duck confit, roasted peaches, and braised beef short rib eggs benedict with collard greens kimchi. And it’s way cool—steampunk and Old Town rolled into one.
(3630 Park St.,Jacksonville, 904/381- 0909) is classic French in a Southern neighborhood—with native chef Michael McKinney and his Slow Food First Coast Snail of Approval award. Don’t mess around: Get the raw bar grand plateau with assorted oysters, poached shrimp and lobster, P.E.I. mussels and all the saucy trimmings.
(2107 Hendricks Ave., Jacksonville, 904/396-9922) is the granddaddy of Jacksonville’s fine-dining evolution. Restaurant owner Matt Medure is a legend in town for romantic haute cuisine. Order the sixcourse Chef’s Adventure Tasting Menu, with expertly paired wines.
(4378 Ocean St., No. 3, Mayport, 904/246-4911) This is seafood right off the boats (home plate for Mayport shrimp), on the water, a plastic-baskets-and-cold-beer kind of place. This is why we love North Florida.
(205 Anastasia Blvd., St. Augustine, 904/829-6974) This legendary place has been dishing out succulent fried shrimp on St. Augustine’s main drag for more than 50 years. Is it good? Don’t take our word—just look at the line that always stretches out the door and down the street.
(72 Spanish St., St. Augustine, 904/829-0655) This is the next generation of what really good restaurants in college towns used to be like in the ‘70s—earnest post-grad cooks, local artisan food, down home and hip at the same time. Order the pickled pepper shrimp the second you are seated. Followed by the fried green tomatoes.
WHERE IT IS: 2236 E. County Road, 30-A, Seaside, 850/231-5900
WHY YOU HAVE TO GO: The oldest restaurant in idyllic Seaside—named after the town founder’s dachshund (Bud) and the restaurant founder’s cat (Alley)—pioneered farm-to-table and boat-to-table dining in the lower Panhandle. Regulars rave about the delicate crab cakes, the snappy pimento cheese and other small plates.
VIBE: On the dune side of 30-A, this place is Havaianas-chic, with a beach bar-meets-supper club oeuvre. During the season (which is summer here) the place is packed with locals, wannabe locals and tourists.
SIGNATURE DISH/EXPERIENCE: Go for the daily sunset celebration at the Roof Deck Bar. Listen to the bartender ring the circa-1888 cast iron bell, order the sublime smoked tuna dip and sip a blood orange margarita.
WHERE IT IS: 100 First. Ave. S., Steinhatchee, 352/498-5000
WHY YOU HAVE TO GO: This is Old Florida at its best, a rambling wood fish house built over the Steinhatchee River, with breathtaking sunset views over the salt marsh and out to the Gulf of Mexico. Order yourself a mess o’ seafood (or bring your own catch in for the kitchen to cook) and kick back.
VIBE: Flip-flops and shorts are the common denominator among locals and visitors alike.
SIGNATURE DISH/EXPERIENCE: Sweet, succulent fried bay scallops are the popcorn of the gods. Start with a cup of slightly spicy crab and corn chowder, and do not miss the feathery hush puppies with guava jelly for dipping.
WHERE IT IS: 5551 N. Lagoon Drive, Panama City Beach, 850/234-2225
WHY YOU HAVE TO GO: Fat, crabmeat-stuffed broiled shrimp, char-grilled fresh fish, rich she-crab soup and Parmesan baked oysters. Never mind the “Anderson” moniker: This place was founded 50-plus years ago by a couple of Greek brothers named Petronis, and it’s still a family business. Open March-Oct.
VIBE: Mid-century modern Sunday dinner—a little kitschy, with great views of the bay. Just you and 700 of your closest friends.
SIGNATURE DISH/EXPERIENCE: Get there late afternoon to watch the fishing boats haul in their catch while you tuck into Johnny’s Special Greek Salad layered with shrimp and crabmeat. Also, get there early to avoid the crowds. No reservations.
WHERE IT IS: 3534 MacLay Blvd. S., Tallahassee, 850/270-9396
WHY YOU HAVE TO GO: This seamless marriage between classic French cooking (think escargot, onion soup) and locally sourced Southern delicacies (Gulf blue crab cake, pimento cheese tea sandwiches) is a consistent winner in Tally, from Sunday brunch to nightly dinners.
VIBE: Upscale French bistro, white linen, Edison bulbs. Trendy date night style with a solid gold menu.
SIGNATURE DISH/EXPERIENCE: Sage is consistent all the way down the menu, but the quiche is famous, as is the steak and pommes frites—and the libations are stellar. Try a shot of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon for a cool $40.
WHERE IT IS: 350 S. County Road, Palm Beach, 561/833-3450
WHY YOU HAVE TO GO: Its owner, Chef Clay Conley, is easily one of the top chefs in the Southeast, and has been nominated for a Best Chef James Beard Award five times now. His Palm Beach restaurant has been the hot ticket in town since it opened in 2011, and has the best food this side of Miami, hands down. The American menu, largely small plates, is inventive but eminently grounded in sound compositions, big flavors, the best ingredients.
VIBE: Understated upscale chic. If Gwyneth Paltrow were a restaurant, she would be this one.
SIGNATURE DISH/EXPERIENCE: The menu is divided into categories like “chilled”, “handheld”, “flour and water” or “simple,” but there are dinner plates, too, elegant in their simplicity—rock shrimp, snapper, scallops, chicken with mashed potatoes. But do not miss the hot dog panini.
WHERE IT IS: 130 N.E. 40th St., Miami, 305/573-5550
WHY YOU HAVE TO GO: It’s only fitting to pay homage to the James Beard award-winning chef who helped launch the renaissance of Miami’s Design District in 2007 and elevated food in the Magic City to whole new levels. Michael’s has an innovative farm-to-table Florida menu and flavor-packed plates that range from small to extra-large.
VIBE: Michael’s is easy, hospitable and warm, with a raw bar, a wood-fired oven and a daily-changing menu that begs to be sampled.
SIGNATURE DISH/EXPERIENCE: The sides are always fun here (wood-roasted okra with Meyer lemon vinaigrette, anyone?), but the house-made bucatini with wild boar sugo or the duck confit sound pretty enticing. Just throw a dart.
The Big Five: Florida Icons
JOE’S STONE CRAB (11 Washington Ave., Miami Beach, 305/673-0365) is world-famous for stone crabs, which they essentially invented 100 years ago. This vestige of Old Miami, with its Mexican and Cuban tiles and pressed tin ceiling, may run you a fat check, but it’s worth it. Order Jumbo stone crabs with mustard sauce, Lyonnaise potatoes and coleslaw.
VERSAILLES (3555 S.W. Eighth St., Miami, 305/444-0240) This crazy place with its unlikely faux-French décor (it used to be a French restaurant) is the unofficial “town square” for Miami’s Cuban exiles since 1971, and the place people danced in the street when Castro died. Don’t miss the walkup window (La Ventanita) that is a shrine to the Café Cubano.
LOUIE’S BACKYARD (700 Waddell Ave., Key West, 305/294-106) This is the end of the world, or at least the road, and it’s been the great last best stop in the Keys for decades—oceanfront dining on the back porch of a storied Victorian house in Key West, watching the waves at twilight while channeling your inner Jimmy Buffett.
BERN’S STEAK HOUSE (1208 S. Howard Ave., Tampa, 813/251-2421) Bern’s is a bucket list of redmeat double-dare that carries you back to mid-century American glamour and self-indulgence. With a 200-page wine list and 20 different caviars, it’s Florida’s ultimate steakhouse.
COLUMBIA RESTAURANT (2117 E. Seventh Ave., Tampa, 813/248-4961) The self-proclaimed oldest restaurant in Florida was founded in 1905 by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez, Sr., and is today run by his progeny. Great Cuban food, flamenco dancers, a legacy destination.
- BEACH ROAD FISH HOUSE & CHICKEN DINNERS, 4132 Atlantic Blvd., Jacksonville. For 80 years, the perfectly fried chicken and creamed peas have made Jacksonville happy.
- B.O.’S FISH WAGON, 801 Caroline St., Key West. Still the best fried grouper sandwich in the Keys.
- DIXIE CROSSROADS, 1475 Garden St., Titusville. This cavernous seafood den attracts anyone heading to or from South Florida with deep-sea rock shrimp, and sugar-spangled corn fritters on the side.
- CAP’S PLACE, dock at 2765 N.E. 28th Court, Lighthouse Point. Take a little launch over to this 85-year-old seafood icon; do not miss the hearts of palm salad.
- INDIAN PASS RAW BAR, 8391 C-30A, Port St. Joe. Oysters, cold beer and music in a revered bend in the road.
- KEYS FISHERIES, 3502 Gulfview Ave., Marathon. Your halfway stop to Key West for a cold beer and a lobster Reuben.
- PEPE’S CAFÉ, 806 Caroline St., Key West. Key West’s oldest restaurant is a must-do for breakfast.
- PHILLIPPI CREEK OYSTER BAR, 5353 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Your old-timey best pick for fresh oysters and fish in fancyland.
- TED PETERS FAMOUS SMOKED FISH, 1350 Pasadena Ave., St. Petersburg. Its open-air fish smokers and cold beer have been around since 1951.
- SEMINOLE INN, 15885 S.W. Warfield Blvd., Indiantown. Go for an old-fashioned Sunday brunch—fried chicken and sweet tea.
- THE YEARLING, 14531 E. County Road 325, Hawthorne. On Cross Creek, the homey inn channels Old Florida with victuals that can be hunted, fished or gathered in the area.