AOL PICK from our Editors
The restaurant scene here evolved away from the national limelight and it’s heavy on locally owned and operated venues, with a strong sense of place and taste. With the Keys a little over an hour south and Bimini just 60 miles offshore, the seafood is diverse and fresh. Have a steak or burger if you have to, but the local currency is shrimp, stone crab claws and fresh fish. The only way real blackened grouper can taste any better is if you’re eating it on an open deck overlooking the water, and you’ll get plenty of chances to do just that.
Neighborhood: Lauderdale-By-The-Sea Price: Expensive
The rare marriage of a fabulous waterfront location and really great food is consummated at Blue Moon Fish Co. Too many waterfront restaurants rely on the view, hoping you’ll overlook the tired scallops and frozen fish on your plate. Not Blue Moon. Book early for a sundown-ish dinner time and ask for a table outside (unless it’s August or September, even pitch black it’ll be oppressively hot) and tuck into some fresh seafood. The appetizers are all a la mer (except the truly outstanding blackened pork tenderloin and sweet potato fritter with mango barbecue sauce, and a prosciutto-wrapped brie). If you do opt for the turf as a starter, make sure to order seafood for the main course. Do not miss the lobster shellfish panroast in spicy brandy-tarragon cream, or the black and white sesame-crusted yellowfin tuna with Dijon soy glaze. We usually order one of each and share. It’s that good. Sunday brunch here is also a treat, so do it if you get the chance.
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Neighborhood: Downtown Las Olas Price: Expensive
Putting a new concept into a famous space is a challenge many chefs shy away from. SoLita occupies the storefront that was the famous Mark’s Las Olas and the new eatery is doing the former one proud. The name is short for “South of Little Italy.” While that may be geographically accurate, the cuisine says otherwise. The decor is a mix of crystal tear drop chandeliers and mid-century modern furnishings, and the food is likewise a mash up of old and new. Shrimp SoLita, crispy shellfish tossed with roasted peppers, extra virgin olive oil and a drizzle of pesto, is a throwback to generations of Italian-American cooking, but the “Italian Poppers” (sweet peppers stuffed with ricotta, herbs and lemon essence) are a new invention. We like to share a Pizza di Parma redolent with prosciutto, mascarpone, tomato sauce and arugula before moving on to a whole roasted branzino (a Mediterranean sea bass) or whatever’s fresh off the local fish dock, presented puttanesca style with shrimp, tomato, capers, black olives, garlic and chili flake. You may need to head straight to a dance club afterward to undo the caloric damage, but what’s so bad about that?
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Neighborhood: Fort Lauderdale Price: Expensive
It’s a bit of a circus inside—music blaring, disco ball spinning, flat-screen TVs with movies looping, and enough hungry posers to fill a stadium jostling for a table—but we can’t deny that the food is spectacularly good. Owner Steve Martorano takes immense pride in his product, and his menu is a mix of items that he could never remove without provoking customers to riot, and new recipes he invents himself. A big guy with big tattoos, Martorano has a take-no-prisoners attitude when it comes to promoting and packing his house. Recent visitors include Jamie Foxx, reality TV star Kelly Bensimon and Ludacris. Martorano promotes his giant meatballs on billboards all over Broward County, and they are billboard-worthy. We found some new things on the menu recently: fried calamari, fresh mozzarella with imported Lademio olive oil, and pig’s feet. If you can forget that you’re eating pig’s feet, the taste is unforgettable. If porcine extremities aren’t your thing, you can pig out on pizzas, veal, chicken and seafood specialties. This is dinner and a show, and the show is all around you as you happily stuff your face until you can hardly move.
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Neighborhood: Downtown Las Olas Price: Moderate
The name is an acronym—You Only Live Once—and this is a place you want to spend some of that precious time. The most unique feature is the “outdoor living room,” a fire pit and courtyard that starts filling up at happy hour and never really winds down until closing. The interior is contemporary all the way, with brown-and-gold earth tone decor and sculptural accents. The menu is mostly seafood and meat (though you can get a veggie burger or salad) and the emphasis is on world fusion. There’s prime rib, but also Szechuan calamari (with garlic chili sauce and chopped peanuts) and truffled homemade potato chips with blue cheese and crumbled bacon. Order the Yucatan dolphin taco (the fish, not one of Flipper’s cousins) for lunch and be amazed by the citrus marinade and avocado sauce. They even have barbecue slow-smoked on their own oak-fired grill. You can eat light here if you need to, but who wants that? After all, you only live once.
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Neighborhood: Hollywood Price: Moderate
This is the perfect antidote to the chain restaurants back home. The beachfront location on the Hollywood Boardwalk is stellar; we prefer the outside deck if the weather’s amenable, sitting under an umbrella while the beach-goers amble by. Sugar Reef is owned by a French chef and his American designer wife. Together they’ve created a little St. Tropez in the tropics, mixing Caribbean favorites like Jamaican pork loin with Vietnamese pho and fresh local fish, all cooked with Provençal panache. Not everyone likes duck, but we happen to love it and here it’s served roasted with mango salsa. Sit out front and enjoy your repast with the ocean breeze wafting by and the sound of the waves rolling in, or indoors amid the lovely mosaics and tropical touches; either way, the experience is delicious.
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Neighborhood: Fort Lauderdale Price: Moderate
This was one of the pioneers in Himmarshee Village, moving in long before the area went hip. That was 13 years ago and it’s still going strong, so clearly it suits a lot of patrons. The Bar & Grille made a reputation for lunch, but it’s also a laid-back place for fine dining after 5, too. The wine list is extensive, with some high-end bottles not found in most neighborhood restaurants: Caymus, Jordan, Opus One. There’s a nice selection by the glass, as well. The menu is limited, and runs heavily to meats and fish, though many entrees are imports—Scottish salmon, Pacific halibut, diver scallops. If you want to save your fish dinners for places that use local catch, we love the porcini braised short fibs. They’re served with smoked gouda mac ’n’ cheese with crisp Parma ham and spinach, an upscale twist on a school-day favorite. The dining room is nicely laid out and decorated, but it’s not the reason to come; the motivation is the location and the food, and Himmarshee connects on both counts.
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Neighborhood: Fort Lauderdale Price: Budget
Monroe Udell moved from Connecticut to Fort Lauderdale with his restaurateur parents in 1946 and decided to open his own place—using the family recipe for ice cream—in 1956. A half-century later, he’s been featured by Food Network, Good Morning America and dozens of magazines. That’s because the ice cream is so good. He calls his decor “early American disaster” and its predominantly washtubs, license plates and other antiquarian bric a brac. We usually go just for the ice cream—why waste valuable waistline on dinner?—but you can get salads topped with meats, overstuffed deli sandwiches and even an $8 custom blended hot dog that’s actually worth $8.
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Neighborhood: Downtown Las Olas Price: Budget
The location on otherwise uber-trendy Las Olas and the people-watching make The Floridian a required stop for breakfast. The place is open 24 hours, so it’s also a good choice (maybe your only choice) if you’ve been out clubbing until 4AM. Rachel Ray put it on the national map, but locals pack this place to wolf down the beach ball-sized omelettes. The menu includes the usual varieties of diner food—club sandwiches, Monte Cristos, pancakes. There’s an outside seating area and it’s OK to bring your dog if you decide to eat there; just watch that Fido doesn’t steal your french toast. Service can be slow, especially on weekends when it’s packed, and they don’t take credit cards, so bring some patience and some cash.
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Betty’s Soul Food & Barbecue
Neighborhood: Fort Lauderdale Price: Budget
Don’t bother getting dolled up for Betty. She runs this place for taste, not style. Fort Lauderdale isn’t a Southern city by any account, but you can get a pretty good sampling of down-home cuisine here. We’re talking oxtail stew, collards, pig's feet, smothered pork chops with gravy, mashed potatoes and cornbread. The whole arsenal of rural Southern cooking is brought to bear on your palate. It ain’t authentic unless it’s got pork fat in it, so order the barbecue, load up on sweet tea and tack on a slab of red velvet cake to top it all off. Yeah, you just bought yourself a couple of hours in the gym, but well worth the calories.
Neighborhood: Hollywood Price: Budget
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If you love Florida kitsch, you abhor pretense and you absolutely must have a juicy, delicious hamburger immediately, get over to Le Tub. This 1959 vintage Sunoco gas station closed during the energy shortage of the '70s and today the Le Tub Saloon specializes in burgers—so much so that GQ magazine rated theirs the no. 1 burger in the country a few years ago—but also offers up salads, crab legs, shrimp, catch of the day, seafood gumbo and Key Lime pie. Shrouded in tropical greenery and decorated with throw-aways that the owner has picked up during his jogs along the beach, this unequivocally qualifies as a unique vacation experience.
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