In recent years, Florida has developed one of the most interesting and distinctive restaurant scenes in the United States. Fine local seafood — oysters from the Panhandle, shrimp from the Gulf and fish like grouper, snapper and cobia — is a constant on menus everywhere. But contemporary Floridian cooking is also a reflection of the state’s Southern heritage, as well as its ethnic diversity. The large Latin American and Caribbean communities have contributed dishes and foods to the culinary repertoire. And in addition to such local luminaries as star chef Michelle Bernstein (who recently opened a wonderful casual dining table called Cafe La Trova in Miami’s Little Havana), Florida has been attracting culinary talent from all over the United States. A good example is chef Steve Phelps, from Shaker Heights, Ohio, who, in 2001, moved to Sarasota and opened Indigenous, a sustainable seafood restaurant that specializes in inventive contemporary American dishes, a decade later. Phelps was a semifinalist for a James Beard Best Chef in America award in both 2014 and 2015.
Occupying a handsomely renovated house on a residential side street, Eric and Deb Fanelli’s restaurant has a small-town charm that makes the big-city caliber of chef Chad Livingston’s cooking even more surprising. Livingston is a native of Fernandina Beach and has intimate knowledge of the best local produce. At this restaurant, Livingston tweaks his menu regularly, but starters like smoked-fish dip with homemade pickles, and tagliatelle with lamb Bolognese are representative previews of his rustic yet strangely sophisticated style. Among the main courses, the snapper with whipped potatoes, sautéed parsnips, carrots and fennel with dill oil, and the braised beef short ribs with cauliflower-and-watercress purée and white-bean cassoulet are standouts. Finish up with the pecan pie with brown-butter ice cream, or the lemon pie with blueberry compote. Closed Sunday.
20 South Fifth Street, Fernandina Beach. Tel. (904) 432-7671
This likable update on a traditional American roadhouse restaurant is an illustration of just how much American food has evolved over the past couple decades. Chef-owners James and Julie Petrakis, natives of Winter Park, both studied at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and worked in New York City and Atlanta before coming home to open their own restaurant. Their passion is modern American comfort food made with a nod to traditional Southern cooking. Start off with a cocktail like the Ravenous Pig Old Fashioned, which is made with bacon-infused bourbon, vanilla maple and orange bitters, or the Gin & Jam, with gin, orange-and-cardamom jam and lemon. Then, as an hors d’oeuvre, maybe try some smoked grouper with cucumber relish, bacon hush puppies, or grilled dates. Appealing starters include cannelloni filled with lamb and a goat-cheese béchamel, tacos packed with crispy rock shrimp, and pork rillettes. Mains run to grilled redfish with a tomato glaze, duck breast with grits and cured plums, and short ribs with barbecued mushrooms. The excellent service and a terrific wine list make this a notable address for modern Floridian casual dining.
The Ravenous Pig
565 West Fairbanks Avenue, Winter Park. Tel. (407) 628-2333
Located on Sarasota’s pretty 1920s vintage main street, this shop-front eatery is a solid favorite with both locals and vacationers. What everyone likes here are the expertly mixed cocktails — served at the bar or your table — the friendly service and a menu of fresh, mostly local seafood. Start off with some shrimp and grits or the Caribbean crab-and-shrimp cakes, and then order the Ocean Cobb, a regular’s favorite of greens garnished with cherry tomatoes, red onions, blue cheese, bacon, hard-boiled eggs, a lobster tail and lots of shrimp and crabmeat. The blackened grouper with pico de gallo, and the seafood bouillabaisse are excellent, too. (For those staying in downtown Sarasota, the restaurant operates a free shuttle service so that you don’t have to drive or worry about parking.)
Duval’s Fresh Local Seafood
1435 Main Street, Sarasota. Tel. (941) 312-4001
Located in a charming bungalow with a spacious veranda lit by garlands of lights, chef Steve Phelps’ restaurant has become a go-to address in Sarasota, and reservations need to be made far in advance. Phelps is passionate about serving sustainable seafood, and his catch of the day varies according to what local fishermen in Cortez and other Gulf Coast ports have landed. Begin with a house favorite, like the wild-mushroom bisque or the Parmesan beignets with Florida honey, pear and thyme. Then go for the catch of the day, wild shrimp with fried basmati rice or baked scallops with braised potatoes and Everglades-inspired spiced butter. (Phelps forages local herbs and berries to make this condiment.) Desserts are excellent, too, with the olive oil-lemon cake with blueberry compote being a highlight. Closed Sunday and Monday.
239 South Links Avenue, Sarasota. Tel. (941) 706-4740
Located just off St. Armands Circle on Lido Key, this restaurant has become a hit thanks to a menu that specializes in clams (both locally grown and from Ipswich, Massachusetts). Start with the baked clams oreganata, or some steamers, and then try mains like a Connecticut-style lobster roll, pesto-grilled Gulf shrimp or Parmesan-crusted grouper.
Speaks Clam Bar
29 North Boulevard of Presidents, Sarasota. Tel. (941) 232-7633
This stylish steakhouse on Siesta Key serves an upscale traditional American menu that includes oysters Rockefeller, shrimp cocktail and crabcakes to start and steaks by pedigreed producers like Snake River Farms and Revier Cattle Company. The cocktails are excellent, and the wine list is impressive.
149 Avenida Messina, Siesta Key. Tel. (941) 260-2675
After cooking in Paris at Joël Robuchon’s Jamin and then at Maison Blanche on the Avenue Montaigne, chef José Martinez moved to Sarasota and opened this hushed, stark-white restaurant with parquet floors and black-leather tub chairs at the Four Winds Beach Resort. His goal is to serve classical French cooking made with the very best local produce. The suave formal service is overseen by Martinez’s wife, Victoria. Elegantly dressed regulars begin with dishes such as roasted octopus with red peppers and shallot vinaigrette or warm seasonal vegetables tossed in a passion fruit dressing, before tucking into main courses like roasted sea bass with baby spinach and a Grenobloise sauce or prime rib with béarnaise or black pepper sauce. The two best desserts are the chocolate soufflé and the roasted pineapple with banana mousse and coconut ice cream. The wine list has a notably good selection of white Burgundies. Closed Monday.
Four Winds Beach Resort, 2605 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key. Tel. (941) 383-8088
Since chef Jeremy Ford opened his low-lit modern American bistro in 2017, it has become the most exciting place to eat in Miami Beach. Ford, a native of Jacksonville, was the winner of “Top Chef” (season 13) and previously cooked with Jean-Georges Vongerichten. He’s now in the kitchen at this hip and hugely popular place, with its matte-black tables and burlap napkins. A meal here starts when a server arrives with an irresistible complimentary snack of small warm potato rolls topped with bee pollen and served with a green garbanzo-bean-and-chile dip, a spicy little preview of the stunningly creative food to come. The menu changes regularly, but outstanding dishes at a recent dinner included tea-smoked cobia in a pool of bright green celery broth, braised short ribs slicked with miso and mustard with a side of baby carrots, and an exquisite butter-poached lobster in ginger- and lemongrass-infused green curry foam. On the downside, many of the desserts are too sweet and too complicated to conclude a meal of Ford’s delicate and distinguished cooking. And the service could use a bit more polish. Closed Monday.
101 Washington Avenue, Miami Beach. Tel. (786) 322-5211
This glamorous restaurant at the Faena Hotel Miami Beach, by the acclaimed Argentine grill chef Francis Mallmann, has become a hit for dishes like wood oven-baked empanadas; Mediterranean branzino with charred Brussels sprouts, eggplant and quinoa salad; and flame-grilled skirt steak with charred kale and smashed potatoes.
Los Fuegos by Francis Mallmann
Faena Hotel, 3201 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach. Tel. (786) 655-5600
Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurant at The Miami Beach Edition hotel has a retro 1950s glamour and serves a cosmopolitan menu of sophisticated comfort food, including sweet pea guacamole, raw shaved Florida red snapper with green chile dressing, and charred octopus and black grouper tacos with aioli and cabbage-chile pickle.
The Miami Beach Edition, 2901 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach. Tel. (786) 257-4600
Ever since it first opened in 1918, this South Pointe eatery has been a Miami Beach favorite for seafood lovers. Touristy and chaotic, it is still a lot of fun, and the locally caught stone crab claws are a Florida treat and well worth waiting for. (Many locals patronize the takeout space for a night off in the kitchen or a beach picnic.) Tables can be reserved, but a great way to do Joe’s is to snag a seat at the bar and have some stone crab claws as an hors d’oeuvre with a glass of wine or a cocktail, before heading to dinner elsewhere, maybe to the excellent modern American bistro Stubborn Seed, which is half a block away. Although Joe’s is open all year, the season for stone crabs is mid-October to mid-May.
Joe’s Stone Crab
11 Washington Avenue, Miami Beach. Tel. (305) 673-0365
Designed by Paris interior architect Pierre-Yves Rochon and located in the booming Design District, this branch of the late French chef’s global chain serves French dishes such as caramelized quail with foie gras and potato purée and American favorites like grilled wagyu beef ribcap and a summer vegetable tian (a sort of open casserole). Closed Sunday and Monday.
L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon
151 NE 41st Street, Suite 235, Miami. Tel. (305) 402-9070
The first Florida restaurant of Michelin three-star chef Thomas Keller has quickly become the chicest in Miami. This has made it a prime spot for people-watching in an atmosphere of crackling glamour. Keller’s tongue-in-cheek menu takes on “Continental” cuisine, which, here, might be described as American country club food from the ’50s and ’60s. Food once derided as unsophisticated and old-school can be surprisingly delicious when prepared with first-rate ingredients and French haute cuisine techniques. Start with some oysters Rockefeller or the jumbo lump crab cakes, and then try the lobster thermidor or the prime beef short rib Wellington with a sauce Périgourdine (foie gras and pan juices). The grilled tournedos of Ora King salmon with bearnaise is excellent, too, especially when accompanied by Madeira-glazed mushrooms and green beans amandine. (Don’t bother with the curious Hobbs’ applewood-smoked candied bacon.) Not to be missed are the desserts, especially the coconut chiffon cake, the seven-layer dark-chocolate cake and the lemon tart on a bed of raspberry jam. One of the best wine lists in Florida is also among the most expensive.
The Surf Club Restaurant
Four Seasons Hotel at The Surf Club, 9011 Collins Avenue, Surfside. Tel. (305) 768-9440
Located on arty Central Avenue, chef Jason Ruhe’s casual dining restaurant, with an Italian-inspired menu of contemporary comfort-food dishes, has become a local favorite. The menu changes often, but a recent lunch began with beef carpaccio with leek-and-goat-cheese mousse and ravioli filled with egg yolks, and white beans with Gulf shrimp, grilled lemon and baguette wands. Main courses were excellent, too, including veal meatballs with Parmesan polenta and homemade pasta with goat cheese, fresh peas, mint, lemon and toasted pine nuts. The service is friendly, and there is a good selection of wines by the glass. Closed Sunday and Monday.
539 Central Avenue, St. Petersburg. Tel. (727) 822-6540
Chef David Lazer Benstock serves some of the best Italian food in Florida at this stylish white-painted restaurant with a loftlike décor. Start with the charred octopus puttanesca, steamed mussels with lamb ’nduja, or smoked meatballs, and then choose one of the homemade pastas as a main course, maybe the black capellini with Cedar Key clams and calamari, or the pasta al tonno, which is garnished with sushi-grade tuna, olives, capers, toasted garlic and salsa verde. The pancetta-spiced tuna with cannellini beans and charred Broccolini is a good choice for those who’d rather a dish other than pasta, as is the apple-butter-glazed pork chop with faro risotto. There is a good selection of Italian wines, including a velvety 2013 Prunotto Barolo DOCG for $120.
449 Central Avenue, St. Petersburg. Tel. (727) 897-5900
Perfect for lunch, this modern take on a laid-back, old-fashioned Florida fish shack draws crowds with dishes like conch fritters, grouper cheeks with sweet Thai chile, shrimp po’boys, and the regulars’ favorite, a grouper sandwich, with the fish grilled, blackened or fried and served with lettuce, tomato, onion and tartar sauce. Big Ray’s also serves a fried-shrimp basket and a succulent grouper Reuben on rye bread with coleslaw, Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing. The Key lime pie is delicious. Closed Monday.
Big Ray’s Fish Camp
6116 Interbay Boulevard, Tampa. Tel. (813) 605-3615
Chef Jeannie Pierola’s casual-eats bistro, a short distance from downtown Tampa, has an easygoing roadhouse atmosphere, plus an alluring menu of inventive comfort-food dishes. Start with some sesame tempura cauliflower with Sriracha-yuzu mayonnaise and radish salad, a Florida lobster taco or a Meyer lemon-crab salad tartine, and then try the chicken and waffles or the hamburger, which won a best burger award from the Tampa Bay Times food critic. The dessert not to miss is the sugar-crusted butter cake with brown-butter ice cream, pineapple, macadamia nuts, passion fruit and toffee sauce.
Edison: Food + Drink Lab
912 West Kennedy Boulevard, Tampa. Tel. (813) 254-7111
Run by the owners of Bern’s Steak House, Haven is a fashionable modern American bistro, with an outstanding wine list and an innovative menu organized according to slightly confusing and pretentious subheads: “Roots & Leaves” means salads, pasta and vegetables, while “Curds and Whey” features cheese dishes. Ignore these categories and start with some Gouda fritters with fenugreek ranch dip, roasted cauliflower with yuzu-and-plum brown butter, and charred scallops with Singaporean chile-crab sauce, and then try the lobster-and-avocado causa, grilled salmon with chermoula vinaigrette, duck confit tacos, and piri-piri quail with coconut-peanut sauce. The atmosphere here is relaxed, and the service is charming.
2208 West Morrison Avenue, Tampa. Tel. (813) 258-2233
Located in Tampa’s trendy Seminole Heights neighborhood, restaurateurs Ferrell Alvarez and Ty Rodriguez’s modern American table has repeatedly ranked as the best restaurant in the city by local critics and food bloggers. Chef Brian Lampe’s small-plates menu runs to dishes like sea bass belly with glass noodle-crab salad, fried quail with hot-pepper aioli, chicken-fried grouper cheeks with corn pone and braised-collard mayonnaise, and gnocchi with short ribs, smoked ricotta and stewed tomatoes. Don’t miss the ricotta-strawberry cake with roasted-strawberry juice and strawberry-shiso sorbet for dessert.
Rooster & the Till
6500 North Florida Avenue, Tampa. Tel. (813) 374-8940
Since it first opened, in 1956, this set of low-lit, red-carpeted dining rooms with red velvet-upholstered chairs has won a reputation as one of the best steakhouses in the United States. Leaving the vintage “Mad Men” décor to one side, the menu is an ode to traditional American dining, with a serious caviar selection and one of the best wine lists in the country. Start off with a Maine lobster cocktail, oysters on the half shell or tuna tartare, and then choose your steak. (Chicken, fish and other mains are also available.)
Bern’s Steak House
1208 South Howard Avenue, Tampa. Tel. (813) 251-2421