It’s not quite peak season on Sanibel, but it’s close.
Periwinkle is getting busier. The bike lanes are filling with sun-burnt tourists in flip-flops and shorts (In 65-degree weather?! Burrr).
The restaurants are filling, too.
One of the many beauties of Sanibel is the wealth of great places to eat on this narrow strip of an island. From classic lobster rolls to sushi, vegan and even scratch-made doughnuts, once you’re on Sanibel there’s no reason to leave.
These 11 restaurants, however, aren’t the everyday kinds (at least not for most). These are the Sanibel elite, the restaurants that nail every aspect of the dining experience with stellar service, stunning ambiance and, most importantly, amazing food.
These are the places that get it all right. They’re the ones that keep me coming back over the causeway, and keep me recommending them to everyone else who spends time on this idyllic island.
I’ve listed the first seven restaurants alphabetically, with my four favorites noted in order at the bottom.
Sanibel, of course, is just the tip of the local dining scene. Stay tuned in the weeks to come for my best-of lists from Fort Myers, Cape Coral, Naples and throughout Southwest Florida.
Bleu Rendez-Vous Bistro
Owners Mari and Christian Vivet have hit their stride with this place. Formerly tucked into a south Fort Myers strip-mall, Bleu moved to Sanibel in 2015. Out here the Vivets have room to work, to charm, and to serve the classic French cuisine Chef Christian grew up eating in his native Paris. Pate de campagne, boudin noir, coq-au-vin, vol-au-vent — Christian has mastered it all. And somehow, here on Sanibel, it tastes even better.
It’s the little things at Cip’s. The wings marinated in buttermilk so they stay juicy. The pear-vinaigrette atop the beet salad. The hunks of sausage and bacon in a slow-simmered Bolognese blushed by a touch of cream. Cip’s fries its own chips, blends its own farro-based veggie burgers, and bakes its own pies (The whiskey-pecan is life!). It does all this with fair prices in a comfortable, family-friendly atmosphere. Cip’s is a Sanibel rarity, one I love a little more each visit.
It’s been two and a half years since this iconic island restaurant moved to its new location off Tarpon Bay Road. The transition felt seamless. And 29-some months later the 15-year-old Doc’s is as good as ever. It’s the mojitos, the snapper steamed in banana leaves, the roasted half chicken drizzled in Cuban-inspired chimichurri. And of course it’s the Yucatan shrimp, massive curls of Gulf shrimp soused in butter, garlic and chilies with a bright kick of Key lime juice. They’re best eaten with a local beer and a heap of napkins. They make anyone’s trip to Sanibel feel like a vacation.
When chef-owner AJ Black is in the kitchen, this cozy-yet-high-end Italian restaurant is hard to beat. Black, who’s cooked at the James Beard House in Manhattan, is the real deal. At Il Tesoro he’s crafted a menu that can be as classic (spaghetti Carbonara, chicken saltimbocca) or modern (scallops with a balsamic and blood-orange reduction) as you like. The wines are unique, the setting is warm and Chef Black is fantastic. What more could one need?
Malia Island Fusion
At just 2 months old, this newcomer shows a delicious amount of promise. Malia might have the most interesting menu on the island: Morrocan-spiced fried chicken thighs over clove-cardamom couscous; black-garlic shrimp with charred sweet corn, cumin-butter polenta and cilantro crema. Yasssss. The best part: Those dishes taste even better than they sound. The kitchen’s flawless execution had me in awe one night. A lunch visit didn’t quite measure up. But Malia is young, and I look forward to watching it grow.
Rumors swirled in late fall that this local favorite may not reopen. It was a rough summer on the island, as red tide and blue-green algae ravaged it from all sides. But I’m happy to say The Sandbar remains. I only recently became acquainted with this 6-year-old restaurant, but it’s made a tasty and lasting impression. From USDA Prime steaks seared to perfection to uber-fresh Gulf seafood, The Sandbar is a neighborhood favorite for so many great reasons.
The stunning Gulf-front views earn this charming restaurant some huge bonus points. Tucked into an historic cottage with Old Florida grace to spare, Thistle Lodge at Casa Ybel Resort features a classic menu that leans heavily toward seafood, steaks and classic French techniques (including exceptional beurre-blancs). The food is solid — and pricey. But with crashing waves serving as the evening’s background music, price becomes relative.
4. Il Cielo
Every dish this kitchen turns out is excellent. Hand-made ravioli stuffed with sweet lobster or local vegetables; Gulf grouper seared till the skin crisps and then set atop a polenta cake that’s comforting and faintly sweet. The servers are equally excellent, well-versed on wine pairings and the ins and outs of this stellar, ever-changing menu. The dining room is dark, quiet and classy, with all the trimmings (white table cloths, linen napkins, a live pianist) you’d expect in fine dining. This all adds up, but man is it worth it.
3. The Jac
New owners took over this Sanibel classic last summer. They brightened and modernized the dining areas and brought craft cocktails to the bar. But they’re biggest accomplishment: hiring Chef Phillipe Schroeder. Schroeder bakes his own breads and creates delicious desserts. He nails everything in between, too. A trendy but perfect cauliflower steak brightened by golden raisins and a soy-mustard vinaigrette. Tender puffs of gnocchi made with rice flour and potato that hide under a dish of pan-seared mahi and shaved Brussels sprouts like little treasures. When I was at The Jac over the summer, the place was quiet. I imagine that’s different now, and that’s good. This chef’s work deserves a wide audience.
2. Sweet Melissa’s Cafe
If I were to only take food into consideration, Sweet Melissa’s would be my No. 1. Chef Melissa Talmage is a flavor genius. While everyone else has shrimp and grits, Talmage pairs her grits (her wonderfully buttery, coarsely ground grits) with a properly blackened redfish fillet, sauerkraut-style collard greens and a brown-butter sauce teeming with tender pecans. And that’s just the beginning. Talmage rubs ahi with espresso and chilies that bring a dank, funky spice to each bite. She pairs seared scallops with chewy pork belly in a fig-bourbon jus. This place loves food. It cares about food. It thrives because of its food. And, for me, all those feelings are so very mutual.
1. Mad Hatter
A fairly recent trip through this wonderful rabbit hole reminded me just how magical the Mad Hatter can be. It starts with the waves rolling hypnotically out back, just beyond rows of sea grass that sway with the Gulf breezes. A server brings a menu printed with the words “Drink Me” followed by another filled with simply seared fish, steaks and fat shrimp wrapped in frilly, fanciful phyllo dough. Be sure to save room for the stunning desserts. And make note of the “We’re all mad here. You’ll fit right in.” sign dangling from the host’s stand. This place is mad in all the best ways. And I’ve once again fallen madly in love.
Jean Le Boeuf is the pseudonym used by a local food lover who dines at restaurants anonymously and without warning, with meals paid for by The News-Press. Follow the critic at facebook.com/jeanleboeufswfl or @JeanLeBoeuf on Twitter and Instagram.
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