Photo by Kristin Bjornsen
Stainless steel and neon outside; deep-cushioned booths, a thick menu, and friendly waitresses inside. Lester's is one of those old-fashioned diners that beckons with its authentic look and its home-style comfort food. And at the restaurant's original location in Fort Lauderdale (250 E. State Rd. 84), the 24-7 schedule beckons even those with munchies in the weest of hours. Whatever has kept them up, nocturnal eaters will find something to satisfy their hankerin' in the pages and pages of menu items. Eggs always hit the spot, and they're here in every form imaginable, from tangy eggs Benedict and fluffy omelets to eggs served with corned-beef hash and grits to eggs and gyros. Breakfast offerings also include thick Belgian waffles topped with ice cream or whipped cream, as well as French toast and buttermilk pancakes. That covers maybe a quarter of the voluminous menu, which also boasts Italian and Greek specialties, steak and seafood specials, stir-fry, barbecue, and mainstay diner fare such as burgers and deli sandwiches. The lengthy list of dessert items baked fresh on site features such favorites as brownies, key lime pie, and Black Forest cake. Of course, no retro diner worth the chrome on its napkin holders is complete without a soda fountain, and the one at Lester's offers an assortment of sundaes, splits, ice cream sodas, and thick, creamy shakes.
The key to a good margarita is real tequila, about which plenty of amateurs don't know the first thing. Hint: If you think tequila looks like warm piss after a tennis match, just give up now. You're probably one of those folks who believe the best pizza is made by Domino's, in which case you shouldn't be drinking anyway. But if you understand that real tequila has to be made from only 100 percent blue agave cactus, then you know what it's supposed to taste like. Not only does Canyon use blue agave, but Canyon's patented recipe calls for a second variety of cactus, the prickly pear, in lieu of lime juice. Used to being questioned about their regionally recognized margarita, the waitress is quick to point out the purple-liquid-filled vat on the bar where Sauza Hornitos tequila infuses the peeled prickly pear fruit for 48 hours. The finished product, to which sour mix and triple sec have been added, is served frozen or on the rocks (the house's recommendation) in sleek martini glasses. We prefer it frozen, so that every icy, biting sip burns a trail down our throats. If you're looking for the typical margarita experience of washing down chips and salsa with gulps from quart-size glasses, this place is not for you. But if you're looking for a memorable margarita and don't mind spending around six bucks for one, saddle up and head down to Canyon.
We should note right off the bat that this eatery isn't really one of the most expensive; in fact it just barely makes it into this category. That's fine by us -- we can just order more courses. And a four-course meal is truly impossible to resist in this 50-seater where everyone is treated like "family" even if you've never stepped foot in here before. Start with antipasto, laden with roasted peppers and fresh provolone, before moving on to thick, rich pasta e fagiole. Main courses, whether they're enormous portions of linguine with white clam sauce or plates of chicken scarpariello so overburdened you can almost hear them groan -- no, wait, that's your stomach -- will bring endless (read: endless) pleasure. But that's no excuse to wave away the espresso with anisette and a dish of crème brûlée topped with stewed strawberries. Just be sure to give as good as you get -- the staff likes to tease if you don't clean your plate.
When a restaurant resembles a trailer from the trailer park that sits behind it, you can bet it's reasonably priced. In fact the motto at Little Italian Tavern (LIT) is that it's cheaper to dine here than it is to dine at home. Cheap doesn't always mean good, but fortunately LIT lights a fire under typical Italian fare -- fried mozzarella, for example -- and gives it a welcome boost. Choose from a zillion pastas priced under ten bucks, sophisticated blackboard specials such as beef braised with leeks and endive, and a decent selection of South American and Italian wines, and you can still get out for less than $25 per person. Despite the parity, do make sure to stock your wallet with cash: LIT doesn't take a shine to credit cards.
This "doctor's" chicken soup will cure whatever ails you. So will his lobster bisque or any of his other six hot soup selections daily ($3.75 to $4.50 for the 12-ounce serving; $4.50 to $5.50 for the 16-ounce) or the dozen or so refrigerated soups sold in pints ($4.25 to $5.50) or quarts ($7.25 to $9.75). Raymond Schamis, age 28, learned his trade in French restaurants, a fact most obvious in, say, his rich sweet potato soup made with puréed sweet potatoes, nutmeg, cinnamon, a little brown sugar, and some cloves. And while we're not about to knock your grandmother's chicken soup, Schamis' version is, well, different. It contains so much garlic, there ought to be a warning label: Do not attempt to go out on a date after eating this soup. Sorry, this doc doesn't accept health insurance; he doesn't even accept credit cards.
Frankly you can't get more proper (read: stuffy) than Churchill's. This elaborate English pub, designed like a country manor, is crammed with antique furniture. Decorative and architectural pieces from eight different centuries, plus two enormous fireplaces, further enhance the dining rooms, which are named the "Medieval" and "Churchill" rooms. Indeed, gentlemen are required to wear ties and jackets in order to dine here, a formality almost unheard-of in this subtropical region and this contemporary era of casual supping. Yet this upscale restaurant doesn't age-discriminate. As long as your babies are properly dressed (read: shoes), they can dine here, too, in luxurious highchair comfort. That's the English influence for you -- youngsters, as long as they're well behaved (read: confined), are welcome to be with the folks, even in a bastion of culinary civility. After all, how else are they supposed to learn good table manners? Better from Churchill's than from, say, Barney.
Sure, country-and-western music gets short shrift among the R&B, jazz, and karaoke easy-listening that often accompanies our meals these days. But if you have a hankering to be a country boy (or girl) while you down an enormous porterhouse steak, take the country road home to Boonie's. With few decorative frills and lots of Marlboro men populating the bar, this budget steak house can seem a little intimidating at first. We say brave it and head straight for the lounge, where some reasonably good live musicians and bands play classics ranging from country-and-western to Southern rock. No sense in not crooning along, either, or in keeping yourself from that dance floor. It's all good clean American fun in a county that's often too ritzy for its own good. Slap some boots on that thar Kennedy, folks, and let's remember what Palm Beach used to be like, when you could still tie a hoss to a hitchin' post.

If your definition of a family restaurant is one where you can take relatives ranging from grandparents to grandkids, fill their bellies with wholesome food like meat loaf and roast chicken, and come out with a bill so reasonable you wonder whether the server included everything, then you're obviously thinking of Penn Dutch. As are we. Not to be mistaken for the Penn Dutch retail center on the other side of I-95, this eatery, where mashed potatoes are served with gravy rather than Gorgonzola, epitomizes the family restaurant. The restaurant opens early (6:30 a.m.) and closes early (8 p.m.), even then serving dinner only four evenings a week, Wednesday through Saturday. That's OK with us and with most of the other patrons, since folks like to cook at home early in the week and eat out later in the week, when everyone's energy has ebbed. At times like these, Penn Dutch provides an infusion of home cooking just like Mom (or Dad) would -- if the restaurant didn't prove that it's actually cheaper, faster, and tastier to dine here than to do so at home.
No doubt we could use some more Southwestern cuisine in this part of the country -- or county, for that matter. But Canyon doesn't take its solitary status for granted. Instead executive chef Chris Wilber continues to reinvent his regional cuisine, providing diners with the likes of smoked-duck nachos, chicken quesadillas with mango-black bean salsa, and filet mignon with poblano-pesto goat cheese. Even more of a draw, Canyon offers a menu of rare, smoky tequilas, either to wash down the peppery fare or to start a fire all their own. In any event diners can be assured of a hot time in the Canyon tonight.
Browsing Batten's gives the fruit-and-veggie savvy a place to meditate. Watch how shoppers glide quietly along while contemplating such seasonal goodies as honey tangerines, acorn squash, and vine-ripened tomatoes. There's a definite reverence toward the bins spilling with gleaming eggplants, plump limes, black radishes, and cactus pears. This open-air market sports the kind of bounty that looks almost too beautiful to eat. Almost. During the months of November and December, Batten's grows its own strawberries, peppers, Kirby cucumbers, sweet onions, and various tomatoes. Step out behind the store and you can see nature in action: Batten's Farm fans out behind the market. If you get hungry while shopping, there's a walk-up window where you can order fresh juices or fruit milk shakes -- "fresh" as in they cut and mix the stuff right in front of you. The market also sells fresh-cut flowers and prepackaged gourmet goodies like pepper vinaigrettes, all-natural spices, coffees, and homemade jellies and jams. And best of all, Batten's is open year-round.

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