UPDATE: A lot has changed since this article was written. These ten restaurants are all still open (and delicious) but you also might enjoy our most recent list of the ten best new restaurants in Fort Lauderdale after you're done with this.
Fort Lauderdale isn't as flashy as Miami nor as food-driven as Delray. And it's not as wealthy as Palm Beach.
It has no trendy fried chicken joints like South Beach's Yardbird Southern Table & Bar nor recently nominated James Beard semifinalists like Clay Conley, chef/partner of "the island's" Buccan. What it does have, however, are damned good chefs and restaurateurs. Some have been here since the days of the topless donut shop. (Yes, that did exist once.)
Here's a list of the ten best restaurants in Fort Lauderdale.
Warning: You're about to get hungry.
10. Sea Restaurant (235 E. Commercial Blvd., Lauderdale-by-the-Sea; 954-533-2580; lauderdale-by-the-sea.com)
In this nondescript strip-mall spot on East Commercial Boulevard, chef/owner Tony Sindaco pumps out a menu that is anything but commonplace. Delectable dishes, from tuna Bolognese to braised black grouper, served with ever-changing but perfectly cooked accouterments, will satisfy any seafood lover's craving — and might convert a few haters. The mind-blowing effect totally makes sense given Sindaco's résumé; the award-winning chef spent time working in kitchens across the U.S. and Europe, including stints at Michelin 5-Star Palace Hotel in Gstaad, Switzerland, and Chef Poissoniere at the Five Diamond Helmsley Palace in New York City under Andre Rene. At Sea, Sindaco brings his haute approach to casual beach-inspired digs. That's exactly why we nominated the Lilliputian spot New Times winner for Best Seafood 2012.
9. 3030 Ocean (3030 Holiday Drive, Fort Lauderdale; 954-525-4000; 3030ocean.com)
Long hailed as one of the best places for seafood in Fort Lauderdale, 3030 Ocean has racked up numerous accolades. Over the years, New Times alone has awarded it everything from Best Chef 2009 and Best Restaurant in Fort Lauderdale 2006 to Best Restaurant When Someone Else Is Paying 2002 and Best Fine Dining That Offers a Highchair 2001. Known for its clean, modern American approach, the restaurant offers light seafood and meats prepared in a manner that respects and highlights individual ingredients — whether it be a prime cut of meat, locally caught grouper, or farm-fresh veggies. While the restaurant has recently undergone some big changes — founder Dean James Max left, and former chef de cuisine Paula Da Silva is back — it's just as consistent yet as innovative as ever.
8. Hot & Soul (3045 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale; 754-206-2155; hotandsoul.com)
Great food does not have to be served in a formal environment. Yeah, there are times when you want to dress up to the nines, dine on a white tablecloth, and act all fancy and whatnot. This is South Florida, however, and most of us like to wear the most minimal amount of clothing possible. You shouldn't get stuck eating hot dogs and burgers just because you want to rock a T-shirt and a pair of shorts. Hot and Soul offers enticing homemade fare like Gnaughty Gnocchi with oxtail, San Marzano tomatoes, basil, and pecorino, or Vegan Yum Bowl of coconut polenta mushroom gravy, crispy onions, and micro greens in a comfortable, friendly, and casual environment. It's international soul food at its finest.
7. Thasos Greek Taverna (3330 E. Oakland Park Blvd., Fort Lauderdale; 954-200-6006; thasostaverna.com)
It wasn't all that long ago that Greek food could be found only in diners and casual family eateries. Thasos has turned that notion on its head. The chic Greek restaurant offers the type of healthy and light fare that inspired the whole Mediterranean diet craze. Lavraki, Mediterranean sea bass, is grilled whole with just fresh herbs, lemon, and olive oil from the island of Thasos itself. Oak-grilled lamb chops are served with grilled vegetables, quinoa salad, and feta. This place offers the ideal alternative to the overcomplicated and fat-filled menus found at most American restaurants.
6. Wild Sea Oyster Bar & Grille (620 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale; 954-467-2555; riversidehotel.com/dining/wild-sea-oyster-bar-and-grill)
Las Olas is loaded with restaurant after restaurant offering beautiful surroundings with nice food. Narrowing down a destination is not exactly the easiest of tasks. Make sure you check out Wild Sea on your next boulevard outing. Chef de cuisine Jon Sanchez, an alumnus of Thomas Keller, prides himself on sourcing the best ingredients humanly possible. Whole fish are brought in and filleted daily to ensure the original product is as fresh as can be — the remnants are later turned into soups and stocks. These house-prepared ingredients are part of a menu that is constantly evolving, with such offerings as golden tilefish with poached clams, mushrooms, and julienned kohlrabi over a cream sauce made from the tilefish itself. You can't get much more sustainable than that. This is the way cooking was meant to be, and we're glad Wild Sea has brought it back.
5. Casa D'Angelo (1201 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale; 954-564-1234; casa-d-angelo.com)
One of the leaders of the pack in terms of the Broward County dining scene, Casa D'Angelo executive chef/owner Angelo Elia is known for bringing fine Italian to Fort Lauderdale. In his original locale, Elia offers simple yet gratifying dishes ranging from wood-grilled bistecca alla fiorentina, dry-aged New York strip steak marinated in olive oil, rosemary, and garlic, and served with Vidalia onion and wild mushrooms to the gnocchi or risotto of the day. Topping off the impeccable fare, the restaurant arguably has the best wine selection in the area, with selections spanning from Elia's house Jermann Chardonnay from Italy to California cult favorite Screaming Eagle. It's like a wine geek's version of paradise.
4. Market 17 (1850 SE 17th St., Fort Lauderdale; 954-835-5507; market17.net)
"Farm to table" has been a "thing" throughout most of the country for years now. While some local chefs have made efforts to source locally and sustainably as much as possible, Market 17 really brought the ethos to Fort Lauderdale. Here you'll find a menu that continually changes based upon what is humane, environmentally conscious, and seasonally available. Today you might find grilled locally caught grouper with crispy mofongo cakes, farm zucchini, sautéed kale, pickled pearl onions, and chimichurri sauce. Tomorrow it could be pan-roasted pork tenderloin with brown butter corn bread, mustard greens, broccolini, rutabaga, rainbow carrots, and mustard demi. There's no telling what will be here on a given night, but one thing is certain: You can choose what you like with peace of mind.
3. d.b.a./cafe (2364 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale; 954-565-3392; dba2z.com)
What happens when you take a classically trained French chef and put him in a laid-back gastropub-type environment? Haute comfort. Dishes like apricot glazed duck confit with acorn squash crepe and Brussels sprouts, goat cheese and poached pear strudel with walnuts and sweet red wine reduction, and chicken liver crostini with onions braised in sherry offer an unexpected but ambrosial gourmet experience for the intimate and casual habitat. That's exactly what draws you in; after a visit or two, the amicable staff will have you feeling like you're eating in a mate's kitchen — specifically, one who really knows how to cook.
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2. Canyon Southwest Cafe (1818 E. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale; 954-765-1950; canyonfl.com)
Long hailed as the gourmand haven of Fort Lauderdale, this place continues to never disappoint. Executive chef and owner Chris Wilber delivers a flavorful selection of Southwestern — and globally inspired — menu items celebrating bold and spicy flavors. Although the menu changes regularly, expect to see adventurous yet not-unfamiliar options ranging from cornmeal-crusted herb goat cheese poblano and smoked salmon tostada to ancho crusted salmon fillet with green chili black bean ragout and shrimp pico de gallo. Few restaurants truly stand the test of time — this one does so with a vengeance.
1. Valentino Cucina Italiana (620 S. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale; 954-523-5767; valentinoscucinaitaliana.com)
For years, Valentino Cucina Italiana sat in a small strip mall on Federal Highway just south of the tunnel; the food was always great, even if the location wasn't. Then it got an upgrade, moving to a bigger and better space across the street, complete with a huge open kitchen, chef-side seating, artistic pastries, a bar with a mixology program unparalleled in these parts, a private dining room, and an overall boost in ambiance. The kitchen now churns out a dynamic menu of innovative dishes such as homemade pastas, venison with butternut squash, braised red cabbage, and blueberry as well as monkfish accompanied by sunchoke, black trumpet mushroom, and crispy shallots. Posh digs, creative cocktails, and imaginative cuisine earned this spot our pick for Best Broward County Restaurant 2013, and we're yet to change our minds.