“Cheeseburger in paradise.
Heaven on earth with an onion slice.
Not too particular, not too precise.
I'm just a cheeseburger in paradise.”
The lyrics may be Jimmy Buffett’s but it’s a sentiment felt by many who find their way to the Cabbage Key Restaurant Bar & Inn on – where else? – Cabbage Key, 100 acres of unspoiled tropical island splendor just 20 miles northwest of Fort Myers in Pine Island Sound.
The island is legendary for being the inspiration for Buffett’s popular hit, “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” and the ultra-casual restaurant does serve up a tasty burger, along with peel-and-eat shrimp, mahi sandwiches and stone crab claws (in season, mid-October to mid-May).
If you don’t have your own boat, never fear: There are water taxies from Pineland, Boca Grande and a Captiva Cruises excursion that will take you there. The trip is half the fun as you are likely to see dolphins frolicking in the water and birds like herons, osprey and eagles flying overhead or diving for lunch.
The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel offer a wealth of island dining options, some of which require a boat to reach, others that are easily accessible by car or, if you happen to be walking along the beach, by foot.
What they have in common is a laissez-faire attitude, a take-your-time-and-enjoy-yourself ambience. After all, you’re on island time.
Whether you seek ambitious cuisine and cocktails or a top-notch fried grouper sandwich and a beer, there’s an establishment – or two or three – ready and able to satisfy your craving. Here are some of the interesting dining spots that qualify as island dining throughout the region.
Other boat-only spots include the Collier Inn on Useppa Island, the upscale cousin to down-home Cabbage Key and just a few minutes away. While the restaurants are usually open only to members of the private island, Captiva Cruises offers a trip to the island during which you can eat lunch at the Collier Inn.
On North (Upper) Captiva Island, two hospitable options welcome boaters: Barnacle Restaurant, where the specialties are black beans and rice, shrimp and beer, and Over the Waterfront, where seafood reigns supreme. It’s always a good idea to call ahead to make sure they are open and that they have room.
Back on the mainland, let’s start in the south and work our way north.
For a water view and authentic Florida fare, consider The Fish House a weather-worn establishment on Bonita Beach Road but one with a great view of the channel that leads out to Estero Bay. Eat indoors or on the shaded porch. There’s a lot on the menu but grouper is the star here. Just diagonally across the street is Coconut Jack’s, with an extensive primarily seafood menu and a chickee hut that overlooks Estero’s Back Bay.
A bit further north, tucked into the Big Hickory Marina is Big Hickory Seafood Grille where you can get a shrimp, scallop or clam basket but you might want to consider the Florida lobster stew or the signature mahi mahi coco loco, mahi crusted in coconut and panko crumbs, with pineapple and a coconut-pineapple beurre blanc.
For an upscale, open-air meal – breakfast, lunch or dinner – consider Flippers on the Bay at Lovers Key Resort on Fort Myers Beach, with its spectacular water view and acclaimed menu offering lobster Benedict and serious bloody Marys for breakfast and dishes like Bohemian black grouper and paella for dinner.
Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grill has three choices of location but the Fort Myers Beach outpost is by far the most scenic (others are on Sanibel and Captiva), overlooking Matanzas Pass at Fisherman’s Wharf. The theme comes from the books of local bestselling author Randy Wayne White, who owns a piece of the restaurants and can sometimes be spotted wandering about greeting guests and sampling the adult beverages. Some good bets here include the banana leaf snapper, Yucatan shrimp tacos and the Panamaniac’s pulled pork.
Sanibel and Captiva islands offer a wealth of island dining. The Mucky Duck is smack on the beach in downtown Captiva and ideal for cocktails and sunset watching along with a pub dinner. For something more upscale, consider the Gulf-front Captiva House at Tween Waters Inn on Captiva, which offers both a sushi and fine dining menu.
The Green Flash has a load of seafood and a few dishes for carnivores plus a great view of the gulf so that diners can watch for the legendary – and fleeting – green flash just before sunset.
Thistle Lodge is a waterfront romantic oasis on Sanibel offering brunch, lunch and dinner with a sophisticated menu and service to match.
Just over the causeway on the mainland, Summerlin Jake’s boasts a sparkling view of Punta Rassa, the Sanibel Causeway and the islands beyond along with a menu specializing in Southern comfort.
Further north in sleepy Pine Island, Tarpon Lodge is an historic building dating to 1926 with period furnishings. The dining room has a prime view of Pine Island Sound and the kitchen knows how to handle proteins from both the land and sea. Enjoy a first-class meal while watching an equally prime sunset.
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