Monday, December 29, 2008

Best and Worst of 2008 for Restaurants in Lee (Fort Myers) & Collier (Naples) Counties

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the Age of Greed and Foolishness as the Housing Market Bubble burst across the nation, sucker punching the stock market to plummet by ~40%, and bringing foreclosure to hundreds of thousands of families' homes. The real estate "Professionals"- the realtors, builders, mortgage brokers gleefully pumped the market up, and made out like bandits. Buyers speculated too, buying to flip homes onto the next speculator. Bankers happily sold "liar loan"mortgages to people who clearly couldn't afford the payments down the line. Realtors now line up buyers for foreclosed homes, taking them on "bus tours" of thousands of now empty homes. GM and Chrysler are bankrupt in all but name. 2008's "smart money" invests with with Bernie Madoff, who gives a 12% yearly return despite the market tanking. Sure thing, guys.

2009 is coming. Things shall worsen for a while, and this too shall pass.
The restaurant business is down perhaps 8-20% so far- not as bad as the devastated housing market. People now eat out less often, or order less when they do eat out. More new restaurants open, than old ones shut doors, shrinking the "pieces of the pie". Cuts are made that are not too noticeable. Menus are scrutinized to keep pricepoints in line with competitors.


Sea Salt just opened with a wonderful Mediterranean splash on 3rd Avenue South.
M Waterfront Grille is the wonderful reincarnation of Maxwell’s on the Bay with top chef Brian Roland at the helm, and a beautiful water view.

There’s an elegant triad at the Mercato- McCormick & Schmick’s terrific seafood and incredible happy hour offerings, Capital Grille is at the top of their game with fine steaks, and Whole Foods is a foodie heaven with a huge variety. Nestled between is Sur La Table, my “toystore” for cooking supplies.

IM Tapas opened with top Spanish cuisine near Naples Community Hospital (NCH); Chef Isabel Pozo Polo is a whirling dervish in the kitchen. Alas, nearby Habanero's Mexican threw in its serape.
Jaegerhaus's owners bought back their German spot, the cuisines' better than ever. I’ve been there quite a few times-it’s fun! Saffron Indian Restaurant is very good, family owned, and I and my Indian friends (and cooks) have become regulars there, too.
Naples Bonefish Grill, on the water east of popular 5th Ave South, serves great seafood and steaks at a great price point. Olio’s Italian cuisine opened at the other end of the Naples Bay Resort.

Eurasia, on the East Trail, well worth the trip, is my favorite for serving both delicious Vietnamese and Italian cuisines, with two separate, top chefs for each cuisine. Yukihana Japanese is in the Kings Lake PlazaChef Annie Prizzi holds court at Dish, in the elegant Escalante Hotel, at the end of 5th Avenue South. Check out their Valentine's day special.

Kona Grill in the Coastland Center mall, lasted less than 2 years. Once fine Nektar faded on the vine, a business partnership turned rotten. Wine Knows, a favorite wine store, was suddenly stoppered. Panera Bread popped up in the Gateway Shopping Plaza, at the site of Silver Spoon.

At Bayfront, Catch 22 went belly up, then Scenes on the Bay sunk, and teh site has now become Tavern on the Bay. Brazilian-style top restaurant Grill Club Churrascaria hung up its chaps; Bianchi's Italian replaced it. On the other side of successful Roy’s, Chrissy’s opened where Petit Syrah soured and then Lisbon Nights waned. There’s still some empty Bayfront slots to be filled.

Marie-Michelle’s gently closed, and Miramare Italian may sing in its place by 2009's season’s end. Bryan Sutton's Tropical Reef foundered, and Naples Cheese Cake collapsed.Chinese Shing Long's Park Shore cookie crumbled after 21 years; Golden Leaf just took over. It's a Grind Coffeehouse stirred its last cup, and Encore at Vanderbilt and Airport, sang its swan song. Macaroni Grill on 41 by Immokalee noodled out of town, and Tastebuds of Naples, the restaurant arm of the still highly popular caterer, Greg Shapiro, was purchased back by Chrissy’s-taking it full circle. Wahoo's Bar and Grille drifted to Davey Jones' locker, and sister Amador's failed after 3 months. Tough times.
Naples Tomato (Italian food) is going strong, and opened Sideline Joe’s a few doors down, selling wings, burgers and things. Tiny upstart Café Italia, next door to Naples Tomato, started with lunch, and soon started serving Italian dinners. Along with Sam-Bucco’s, there’s now 3 Italian spots in the tiny plaza! Harvest Moon opened with Asian delights, just to be a different cookie.


Ft Myers had major finer dining spot losses, with the loss of 4.5 year old Cru, the once favorite watering hole of high flying realtors, lawyers and mortgage brokers. Founded with Chef Shannon Yates, the food was creative and very good quality. Shannon was suddenly forced out. Things faltered. Brian Roland took the helm of the sinking ship, and soon left to head M Waterfront in Naples, Richie Wilim took over. Te owners seemed to cut food costs and quality, to survive the economy. REgulars stopped coming, and owners Dr. John and Liz Kagan’s CPR couldn’t revive it. Harold’s, a reasonably priced successful favorite by the riverfront for 6 years, was beaten senseless by the City of Fort Myers' bungled, ill planned longstanding access- blocking construction. Owner Harold Balink is still at H2’s, a perennial favorite with great tapas and live entertainment. Patio 33, another Fort Myer’s city bungling victim, was a vintage favorite with beautiful historic brick walls and a rooftop bar. Chef Dennis Meurgue offered great food and a lovely setting, in return, the city tore up sidewalks and nearby streets for two years. Way to help local businesses, and kill your tax base, Fort Myers officials-now dine on TV dinners and Alpo. Dwyer’s closed, despite bringing in a top spa chef , Bill Wavrin, and asking him to serve astronomically priced steaks! Icabods has opened in its place.

Lovely Jaynes’ Victorian Garden withered, and Blue Pepper Gourmet Market went down after losing two top chefs. Mildreds’ Country failed, and Country Harvest took over. Cape Coral’s 850 Lafayette offered ok food and higher prices, and was 86’d. Sanibel’s Gasparilla’s walked the plank; Biddle’s Bucket is doing well in its place. Fort Myers Beach’s The Bridge sank after 25 years. Thistle Lodge’s former Exec Chef Mark Davidson suddenly left them chef-less before the 2008 season started-not a problem, Chef John Wolff rescued Thistle in 2008, and Thistle’s cuisine is tops.

Newcomers in Lee County include Artistic Deli; Shannon Yates’ Mad Takeout is poised to start with Ruth Cohen.. Cape Coral got its touch of class with Bonefish Grill’s delicious fish-the place is packed! Tastings Wine Experience opened at the Gulf Coast Town Center, and is a wonderful friendly bistro with 80 wines by the glass and reasonably priced, tasty food. 55 Degrees has great cheeses and an ok wine selection; their walk in business seems to be less after Blu Sushi opened. Stir Crazy brings a fresh approach to Estero’s numerous spots at Coconut Point. Ruths’ Chris Steaks is just holding on there, as the priciest spot in the Center.

Bonita Springs Angelina’s brings top quality Italian to town. A Table Apart is a highly rated gem, whose chef’s Hawaiian and French culinary background offers top quality cuisine at reasonable prices. David Wong’s Pan Asian offers very good Asian food and great service (where Cilantro Tamales franchise twice failed). Dos Jalapenos opened at a Ruby Tuesday’s. Mister Chile, a Mexican restaurant started in the Shoppes at Hawthorne, on Old 41, along with Hot Pastrami & More.

Bonita’s closings include: Spectator’s, Applebee’s, The Old World Café, Neon Bar & Grill and Duval St. Seafood, which briefly reopens, gasps, and closes, seemingly every few months. Vacarilla’s Argentinian "went south" over the summer, and Minarcaa’s Mexican had a butterfly’s brief existence.

I see a very challenging year ahead for Lee County, with Cape Coral having the most foreclosures in the county, and a gentle exodus of people, suddenly without homes or jobs. Visit restaurants-their wait staff, cooks and others, need your support more than ever.

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