10 Best Places for Waterfront Dining

Pamela G. Knowles

From tasting the flakiest snapper with fresh mango slaw to raising a salt-rimmed margarita kissed by local limes, nothing makes Southwest Florida dining better than a gentle breeze at your back and an eyeful of our blue-green waters. If you know where to look, there is no shortage of Gulf-side bistros, charming watering holes lining canals and stilted bungalows hunkering between mangroves on back bays.

This is our list of can’t-fail spots for memorable food and views. But before acting on that persistent daydream to spend your day devouring coconut-flecked Sanibel shrimp with your boat tethered nearby, double-check the opening hours of your dining destination. Some have closed or shortened their hours during the calm after the frenzied seasonal storm or due to the pandemic and staff shortages.

 

1. Baleen

Baleen at LaPlaya Beach & Golf Resort is hands-down the most romantic, if not the best, beachfront restaurant on the 100 miles of coast from Captiva to Everglades City. It spans the back of the hotel’s prime real estate on Vanderbilt Beach, and the tiered set-up guarantees transfixing views, whether you want to sink your toes into the sand, sit under a fan on the wide patio or be completely sheltered inside a chandelier-lit dining room.

The kitchen consistently makes the right impression, starting with the most important meal of the day (lobster benedict, anyone?). Lunch can be predictable and pricey, but dinner shines. A few of the stars that keep it shining: scallops with street corn succotash and blueberry-bacon gastrique, lobster and wild mushroom risotto with truffles, and blackened grouper with king crab and champagne-citrus beurre blanc. For something really special, call in advance and splurge on a private candlelit table along the surf.

9891 Gulf Shore Drive, Naples; (239)598-5707

 

2. The Bay House

If you haven’t discovered this somewhat hidden back-bay stunner, you are missing out on vibrant, sophisticated, Southern-inspired cuisine. Enveloped by mangroves and set on an inconsequential street in North Naples, The Bay House is where you might spot a manatee or great blue heron in the wild from your perch in the main dining room.

An outdoor deck overlooking the winding water is also ideal for kicking back with BBQ shrimp and grits, house-made pimento cheese in a miniature Mason jar, and a “sea BLT” salad with fried green tomatoes and chilled lobster, crab and shrimp. The adjacent tavern-restaurant, doesn’t have quite the impressive views as the main room, but there’s live music and a raw bar. Note: Bay House recently changed hands, but the new owners promise to keep all the charm and flavor that has kept it a favorite all these years.

799 Walkerbilt Road, Naples; (239)591-3837

 

3. Restaurants at The Village Shops on Venetian Bay

When faced with the idea of picking one, maybe two places to highlight at this development inspired by Venice’s canals, we realized it’s impossible to go wrong—the quaint, colorful swathe jutting into a turquoise bay is home to a host of topnotch restaurants.

The haute cuisine and impeccable service at M Waterfront Grille is hard to best, but, depending on your mood, so too is the outstanding lobster mac and cheese at Fish Restaurant and juicy burger at The Village Pub. Bayside Seafood Grill & Bar, from iconic chef/owner Tony Ridgway, has water-level and raised dining rooms, plus a fun rooftop bar. And if there’s not a cloud in the sky, the wide-open courtyard patio at MiraMare Ristorante is a stunning corner to sample simple Italian dishes like lemon-spritzed calamari fritti.

4200 Gulf Shore Blvd. N., Naples; (239)261-6100

 

4. Osteria Capri

Chef AJ Black, of Sanibel’s former Il Tesoro fame, gutted and rebuilt longstanding The Blue Heron restaurant on Johnson Bay, reshaping it into Isles of Capri’s finest casual dining experience. Opened October 2020, Osteria Capri overlooks bobbing boats on serene backwaters from its intimate windowed dining room with an al fresco patio and full bar, the latter a new addition.

Black also added an Italian pizza oven to the extended kitchen, which issues forth favorites such as seafood pizza and an unforgettable pie topped with burrata, figs and speck. The chef imports his flour from Italy and sources organic greens and other products locally to produce house-made pasta and other Italian classics for lunch and dinner, along with seafood specialties, lamb osso bucco and braised beef short ribs with gnocchi. Don’t pass up the coconut tiramisu for dessert.

387 Capri Blvd., Isles of Capri; (239)970-5721

 

5. The Mad Hatter

This is one rabbit hole that’s worth the drive to Sanibel Island’s far reaches for a whimsical fine-dining experience. Named after the tea-partying storybook character, The Mad Hatter is a tiny, one-room beach cottage adorably adorned with murals starring Alice, the White Rabbit and, of course, its namesake. Thankfully, here Alice (and you) can sit all evening to appreciate the epicurean wonders.

Starting with an amuse-bouche of, perhaps, dainty crab claws with microgreens in a delicately truffled vinaigrette, there is no shortage of playful modern American dishes. We’d drive back again and again just for another taste of the panko-and truffle-dusted scallops with caramelized shallot beurre blanc. Because there sadly are no outdoor seats, if you arrive early, buy a glass of wine and walk the short path to the shore for the ultimate sunset toast. The view blinks off as soon as dark sets in, so take advantage early.

6467 Sanibel-Captiva Road, Sanibel; (239)472-0033

 

6. Restaurants at Tarpon Point Marina

For breezy afternoons and spectacular mangrove-framed sunsets, The Nauti Mermaid Dockside Bar & Grill’s hexagonal promontory bar and patio at the Westin Cape Coral Resort at Marina Village delivers. With the marina to the right, a half-mile of placid water in front of a horizon of lush mangroves and the light bouncing off the clouds, it is a Paul Arsenault painting brought to life.

If you’d rather opt for less of a resort party scene, the newest Tarpon Point Marina offering, Gather feels intimate but worldly, with a homey-intellectual library feel (and a scattering of outdoor tables), plus dishes to impress. There’s smoked salmon egg tartine for breakfast/lunch and scratch pasta and paella on the menu that runs 4 to 10 p.m. Marker 92 Waterfront Bar & Bistro, the resort’s upscale restaurant, touts dishes like macadamia-crusted grouper with papaya slaw and coconut risotto.

5971 Silver King Blvd., Cape Coral; (239)549-4900

 

7. Camellia Street Grill 

This stilted wooden structure in airboat country serves its unique breed of hyper-local food—visitors can often see workers in the gnome-inhabited garden picking herbs and veggies that end up on their plates. Even if gator tracking aboard a fast, noisy Everglades vessel isn’t on your agenda, chances are this is the best-tasting food you’ve never heard of.

Despite its funky, chic-junky outdoor décor, Camellia Street Grill is serious about its food. Strewn along the waterfront, its courtyards and patios provide alternate, comfy seating to the more traditional screened porch, tin-roofed dining room with its counter, where everyone must place their order. Its menu covers a lot of bases, from the expected in Everglades cuisine—fried seafood baskets, sauteed gator, frog legs, oyster po’boy sandwich and seasonal stone crab—to palate pleasers like lima bean soup with pork hocks, pork belly tacos, herb salad with fresh tomato-veggie salsa, and light and crispy calamari. To drink, there’s beer, wine and creamy Key lime shakes—like pie in a glass.

208 Camellia St. W., Everglades City; (239)695-2003

 

8. Fathoms Restaurant & Bar

Our new favorite place at the luxe marina development of Cape Harbour, Fathoms’ kitchen team has become famous for its in-house pizzas and other diverse delights. Set marina-side, its patio and contemporary glassed-in dining room view elegant yachts and passersby in the bustling community.

Fathoms’ all-day menu skips along the scale of dining genres, from finger food such as tuna poke tostada, to an unbeatable banh-mi sandwich, to chimichurri grilled ahi tuna steak and duck leg confit. Every dish gets a flavor boost from unexpected ingredients and extra care with house-made sauces, pickled veggies and other global touches from French to Asian to Italian to Caribbean.

5785 Cape Harbour Drive, Cape Coral, (239)542-0123

 

9. Fresh Catch Bistro

Despite the fact most of the Fort Myers Beach mainstays seem to exist in permanent spring break mode, the sand beach runs in one glorious stretch. Away from the heaviest concentration of the hullabaloo sits Fresh Catch Bistro, one of the area’s nicest establishments, complete with gaze-worthy panoramic views and expertly prepared fish.

You’ll get past the slightly dated decor once you’ve had a bite of the hogfish Oscar with Key lime hollandaise or the lemony Mediterranean shrimp in a creamy risotto. Not one dish we’ve had there hasn’t pleased: The simple look and retro presentation belie the satisfying punch of flavor. If you want one of the outdoor seats on the small elevated deck—trust us, you do—call early. The day’s fresh catch will never taste better than with a clear view of the turquoise ahead.

3040 Estero Blvd., Fort Myers Beach; (239)463-2600

 

10. Sale e Pepe

The Marco Beach Ocean Resort takes its flagship restaurant so seriously, Sale e Pepe has its own separate driveway and valet—and 500-bottle wine list. The Italian chef’s reinventions of classic dishes from his homeland sing, like a fish and seafood stew or sea bass with stewed clams.

Some might call the formal dining room sumptuous, while others might hedge with stuffy or a Disney-esque interpretation of a Roman villa. Whatever your perspective of the ambiance, the view of soothing waves can’t be beat. Sit al fresco on the spacious fan-covered Terrace for the best seats and soundtrack. Then dive into perfectly al dente linguine and a glass of Pinot Grigio.

480 S. Collier Blvd., Marco Island; (239)393-1600

 

Honorable Mention:

Beachside

At a marina or canal-side

By the mangroves or bayside

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