Yup, it's true. We're biased. We've been fans of the Gourmet Diner since it was located in a wooden shack in North Miami so close to the railroad tracks that it shook every time a train roared by. We followed it across the street to a shinier outfit, then stayed with it when the original owner sold it to Sia and Nicole Hemmati, and we started frequenting the Gourmet sibling when it opened in Weston. And still we dine. That's because they took the Gallic diner concept and kept it alive and so far haven't renamed anything to include the word freedom. Which means we can still get classic Dijon vinaigrette for the vine-ripe tomatoes and shallots; onion soup gratinée, snapper française, and steak au poivre, among other items, just the way we like them -- à la française.

The Little Mermaid Bar & Restaurant
It doesn't advertise. It doesn't have an outside phone number. Its entrance is literally hidden at the back of the gifts department on the second floor of the Neiman Marcus store in the Galleria Mall. And yet, every day at lunchtime, every seat at the twin curved counters of the Little Mermaid is occupied, and more eager patrons are queuing up in front of the cash register, waiting to pounce on any vacancy in this cramped, wood-paneled nook. How to describe these patrons? Well, to overgeneralize, they are mostly women of a certain age (50s and up -- sometimes way up), a certain income level (likely big, big fans of eliminating dividend and estate taxes), and a certain social station (their day planners are full of words like foundation, fundraiser, and gala). Their fashion sense can best be described as expensive casual: Yes, many are wearing slacks or even jeans, but the crisp blouses, tailored jackets, gleaming purses, and the glint of a brooch make it clear that these ladies like to shop at... well, Neiman Marcus. And what could be better to fuel yourself for an intense afternoon of shopping than a smoked turkey Reuben with homemade Thousand Island dressing? Or a ham-and-hogwash sandwich (hogwash being a tangy-sweet, horseradishy sauce) on grilled egg bread? Or perhaps one of the Mermaid's salads: Niçoise, cobb, or caesar -- the latter available with grilled chicken or shrimp? The homemade soups are always excellent, so one can't go wrong with the Mermaid Sampler: a cup of soup, half a sandwich, and fresh fruit. Ladies who really know their lunch always order a side of the orange soufflé; it may look like a Jell-O mold, but trust us, it's much, much more. And if a lady just wants tea -- including a warm scone with crème fraîche and those little sandwiches with the crusts cut off -- does she have to wait until 4 p.m.? Hell, no! Says right there on the menu: "Tea Time Anytime." The cakes certainly look tempting, but a full slice is huge. That's why these ladies almost always travel in pairs: the better to split a slice of deliciously moist carrot cake, my dear! Now, let's have a look at those new hats that just came in.
Although Ferdos bills itself as "the home of the kabob," the restaurant could crow about nearly anything else on the menu, plus a few side items that aren't. Everything from the hummus to those aforementioned kabobs is cooked up just like Mom used to make -- assuming your mom hails from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. Plus, Ferdos is one of the only places north of Tantra in South Beach where you can get a hookah delivered to your table. Nothing beats a nice, long drag off a hookah after a hearty Middle Eastern meal. Choose from a variety of fruity flavors -- rather like smoking a pack of Skittles.
Il Mulino
Il Mulino has great food, good prices, and terrific service, but it's not well-known outside of the Victoria Park/Middle River Terrace/Coral Ridge area, so you can get a table in less than 30 minutes during season. Our bottom line for an Italian restaurant is garlic rolls that would kill a vampire, and Il Mulino is definitely unsafe for any of Anne Rice's creations. With pasta dishes all in the $9 to $11 range, pizzas under $10, and only three specialties that will cost you more than $15, you can still afford a movie at the neighboring Gateway Cinema after the meal. Some of our favorite dishes are a Caprese salad with more fresh mozzarella cheese than most pizzas, an appetizer called fagottino we like just because the name makes us laugh, and six versions of anelli, a concoction of anything from artichoke hearts, asparagus, and sun-dried cranberries to chunks of filet mignon with mushrooms, roasted peppers, and mozzarella inside a crusty baked dough. Traditionalists can get eggplant parmigiana, veal marsala, or linguine with clams, but don't expect the fish-flavored broth they serve in lesser establishments. Here, your linguine will be prepared with Little Neck clams, basil, wine, and, of course, the garlic.

Black Orchid Cafe
Game for game? Serious about service? And awash in alliteration? Clearly, Black Orchid Café fulfills all implied requirements. This elegant restaurant has produced consistently for the past six years, thanks to chef-proprietor George Telles' know-how and experience. Classic technique dominates the preparations -- the au poivre sauce deserves an award of its own -- and allows the conservative culinarian to remember those days when an exacting Hollandaise sauce wasn't all that unusual. And the back page of the menu, which lists exotic sustenance ranging from wild African pheasant to buffalo carpaccio to lobster tails from crustaceans raised in rice paddies, offers adventurous gastronomes the chance to expand their collective subconscious. Sure, you'll pay for such pleasures, and both your scale and your wallet may require some penitential time via diet and budget. But dinner here is still a worthy lark of crime.
Sugar Reef
Call it Florida French if you'd like. It bears only a passing resemblance to fares you'd find on Paris' Left Bank. Likewise, the Caribbean-inspired décor at Sugar Reef does not evoke scenes from snooty bistros and pretentious cafés. But the food... ah, the food. Oui, it is decidedly French -- French-Caribbean, that is. Open for nearly ten years and run by husband-and-wife team Patrick Farnault and Robin Seger, Sugar Reef takes the best of France, dusts it with island and Asian accents, and serves it all in a tropical dining room where nearly every table has an unobstructed view of Hollywood's beautiful beach. The beachfront casual atmosphere is perfectly offset by the elegant and inventive menu, and Parisian native Farnault has no reservations about reconstructing Continental classics with New World spices. The food selections are accompanied by Sugar Reef's substantial wine list, which features a number of selections from Farnault's homeland, offering ample ways to wet a dry palate.
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If you think all Thai food tastes alike, then you obviously haven't been to the Beach. In this second-story walkup restaurant that features an unexpectedly bright view of the Atlantic, authenticity and originality reign, resulting in locale-suited dishes such as "Thai on the Beach Seafood Stir-Fry," the region's freshest scallops, mussels, calamari, and crab encased in a garlicky pepper-ginger sauce. Or Thai shrimp scampi, jumbo crustaceans sautéed scampi-style with mild curry sauce and ground peanuts. And rock lobster pad Thai, one of chef-owner Wannapa Eapros' most popular specials. Then, of course, there's the spice factor -- the heat in these chili-laden dishes can challenge the South Florida sun. A fact to which we respond the same as any dedicated sun-worshiper: Burn, baby, burn.
If you're an epicure, you probably yen for that yuppie Cuban cuisine, maduro soufflés and the like. We hate that stuff. What we like is Black Beans. What we like is Felix Pereira, who arrived from the island in 1956 and has run restaurants virtually since the first day. What we like is lamb stew with savory raisins, succulent pork roast, and enormous, whole, fried snapper that comes with the head on. What we really like is the prices at this nondescript but scrupulously clean joint of 14 tables that opened the day after Christmas in 1993. At lunch, there's almost nothing that costs more than six dollars. Breakfast is similarly cheap. Two eggs, toast, and potatoes go for $1.55. Dinner's cheap too. Pereira, you see, followed the path of others in Broward County's community of exiles from el exilio. He and his wife, Herenia, spent almost three decades running a small restaurant in Miami, bought a bigger one in North Miami, then moved even further north to Hollywood "because Miami was getting really bad, and Hollywood is a nice, small town." This guy is dedicated. He raised his three kids in his restaurants and still works at Black Beans seven days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. He's 72 years old, so he needs a little more sleep than he used to -- and there's an air-conditioned room in the back. But he expects to be serving up moros, batidos, and tres leches for a very long time. So, hey, stop in, sip a cortadito, and tell him how you like real food cooked by a real macho!
If your idea of kosher consists of that deli down the street or food made by Hebrew National, it's time to try the upscale cuisine at Eilat Cafe, which calls itself the best kosher restaurant in the country. The Boca Raton eatery has an eclectic menu spiced with Middle Eastern dishes including baba ghanouj and Turkish salad but also features a range from Oriental stir-fry to Cajun linguine. Best of all, the rabbi's blessing won't cost you 10 percent of your salary. Most lunch items are under $10. At dinner, pasta dishes are less than $15, and the seafood dishes, all below $20, include medallions of salmon and dolphin in a spicy banana rum sauce.
If you don't live near Ambrosia, it might be time to move, because this Italian pizza joint doesn't deliver outside of about a mile radius. It's not that the 26-year-old restaurant is snobby. Its spot south of downtown West Palm Beach used to be in a pretty ratty neighborhood before yuppies started rehabbing houses in Flamingo Park and El Cid. It's just that Ambrosia's business is good enough to make customers come to it. The novel-length menu has all the Italian standards, plus some signature items like the spicy chicken fra diavolo in a tomato basil sauce. With dim lights and old wood tables, the décor is somewhat GoodFellas-esque, which goes with the restaurant's slogan, "Where you're only a stranger once." And the pizza is anchored by a stuffed 14-incher with a buttery crust across the top. It puts the pie back into pizza.

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