In South Florida, few things are taken seriously. Even most hurricane rations are turned into sensible dinners after enough uneventful months slip by. But true Sunshine Staters will go toe-to-toe with any Yankee scoundrel who's trying to pass off store-bought key lime pie as homemade. In fact, they freak the hell out. And after being scorned enough times in the past, key lime gourmands know the warning signs: perfectly triangular solid wedges of (shudder)... gelatinous green stuff. That's just another reason why locals brave the Darwinian seating order at Le Tub: Its key lime pie is the delectably whipped yardstick that all others must measure up to. The globby hunk of goo expands as it sits in its Styrofoam dish, while its condensed milk glue keeps the surface tension cohesive, making every spoonful a creamy victory. The heavy slab of pie is about the size of a wedge of brie and twice as rich, and the staff is never timid about slathering it with Reddi-Wip. Have it served alongside a margarita on the rocks and you'll understand why you waited so long for a table — after all, everyone around you is experiencing the same thing: a short-term love affair with a piece of pie. Savor it.
The Restaurant at the Four Seasons Resort
Anybody who's survived eight decades deserves to be treated like the heirloom he is: still in decent condition, if a little scuffed at the edges. A dinner at the opulent Four Seasons Resort will act on this antique like a good coat of Minwax. By the time Grandpa has meandered through five or seven courses courtesy of Chef Hubert Des Marais, with their accompanying wine pairings, he'll be polished to a lustrous sheen. The restaurant known as "The Restaurant" — with all the hushed reverence the title implies, as one might utter the term "The Queen" — is a place calculated to smooth wrinkles and quell creeping senescence: At dusk, the light falling through those high windows is graciously mellow, and waiters in dark suits seem to divine one's needs by sniffing the lily-scented air. The noise level rarely rises above a faint murmur and rustle. Chef Des Marais sends out plate after plate of exquisite tastings derived from local flora and fauna and from the fruit and herb garden he's cultivated at the hotel for years. They say from night to night, he almost never repeats a dish. As for the old man, a final glass of 40-year-old port will make him feel like he could live another half-century.
Charcuterie Too!
Cookies are like magic. A mom was the first one to discover that; she realized that any child could easily be turned into an indentured servant so long as she kept enough of the crumbly, homemade bargaining chips on hand. Now fast-forward into adulthood — that feeling of reward has been hard-wired into you. Work turmoil, pet urination angst, and neurotic fears about bird flu: They can each be alleviated by the ultimate rainy-day remedy — the Perfect Cookie. But where will you find this evasive cure-all? Who holds the secret to the Holy Grail of snacks? The unlikely source of abundant happiness is right here, every weekday in Fort Lauderdale. And (with tax) it sells for a meager $1.01. Charcuterie Too is a charming little mom-and-pop café on the second floor of the Broward County Library's Main Downtown Branch, and inside is a tiny cafeteria line loaded up with mouthwatering daily specials (but for our purposes today, just jump to the end and snag an oatmeal raisin cookie from the basket.) How Charcuterie's staff bakes these cookies so magically, we'll never know. Maybe it's the golden raisins they use in place of banal auburn ones. Or perhaps it's the gooey, brown-sugar adhesive that spins the cookie's delectable web of inner scaffolding. For all we know, the secret ingredient is a combination of freshly plucked fairy wings, dragon eyelashes, and ground-up unicorn horns — and we don't care. Because after consuming one, all of your day's stresses dissipate and you're left feeling like a little kid again. Mom would be so proud of you.
Trina- (Now East End Brasserie)
"The harsh, useful things of the world, from pulling teeth to digging potatoes, are best done by men who are... starkly sober... But the lovely and useless things, the charming and exhilarating things, are best done by men with, as the phrase is, a few sheets in the wind." Thus spake the great American philosopher H.L. Mencken in 1924, four years into Prohibition. Seventy years later, we're finally experiencing a cocktail renaissance that would have gladdened Mencken's heart and ravaged his liver. The 2000s appear to be better years for heavy tipplers than even the martini-quaffing '50s. These days, our cocktails are made with fresh-fruit infusions, muddled herbs, and exotic spices. They're as heady and complicated as a witch's love potion, usually to similar effect. The best restaurants hire their own drink wizards, who are charged with putting together not only excellent wine and beer lists but also with inventing dazzling menus of cocktails perfectly calibrated to soften us up for whatever follows. Such is Trina's beverage manager, Nick Mautone, who offers Florida-inflected elixirs like the Ruby Red, composed of pink grapefruit muddled with sugar cane syrup, Patrón tequila and citrónge, then rimmed with red sea salt. Or the retro-Mediterranean Rosey Ramos Fizz, a slurry of Bombay gin, rose water, raspberry syrup, cream, and lemon — the sort of drink you can imagine sipping from a chilled thermos while wandering in a Moroccan souk. That Mautone's martinis amply prepare you to tuck in to Chef Don Pintabona's Sicilian-by-way-of-Africa menu is just one of their varied pleasures.
Stork's Cafe and Bakery
Opened by former Wilton Manors Mayor Jim Stork, the elder of these two independently owned coffee shops is a place of simple but deep charm: A bright and clean interior, a spacious outdoor seating area insulated from the traffic on Wilton Drive by high hedges, a crowd of familiar Manors folk who assemble and reassemble weekly and even daily to discuss weighty issues and community goss and, oh yeah, some of the freshest coffee you'll find anywhere. Stork's staple coffees include the bright Brazilian Blend, the rich Colombian Supremo (available in decaf) and Peruvian Fair Trade (just as yummy and friendly to farmers), and the ever-shifting Flavor of the Month. One recent week brought Sumatra and Chocolate-Swiss Almond, and occasionally Stork's gets goofy enough to offer concoctions with names like "Snickerdoodle Decaf." They also reliably offer seasonal brews: "Pumpkin Pie" in November, "Eggnog" in December, and so on. They ain't at all shabby on the cold drinks either. The incomparable blend of richness and refreshment in a Stork's Iced Mocha Latte has made many a sweltering summer's day melt into a long, happy shiver.
Restaurants get up to all kinds of shenanigans to entertain their customers, the better to keep us knocking back after-dinner grappas. What'll it be: Brazilian capoeira? Strolling mandolinists? Interactive mystery plays? Lap dances? But a snapping G-string interferes with the proper appreciation of one's snapper Livornese; cover tunes are a better digestif. Particularly when they're performed by a sleek Italian fox — er, vocalist — with a grasp of phrasing to rival Sinatra's. Giovanni turns up the heat on a plate of clams oreganata or a bowl of orecchiette con cimidirape — not that the food at Frankie's Pier 5 needs a single grace note of help. The man's sibilant presence nourishes the heart while the extended Perrone family concentrates on filling the belly. Whether this chiseled godlet is practicing variations on themes of Elton John, Coldplay, or Cole Porter, never has eye-candy tasted so sweet. UPDATE: This location is now closed.
It's small and nestled in a strip mall just off Stirling Road, yet you can't help but feel like the Empire State Building might just be a few blocks away when you're inside Sara's. Maybe that's because, like so much that's good in South Florida, Sara's began in one of the five boroughs in 1966. It's not uncommon to see yarmulke-topped, black-suited and bearded Yiddish-speaking men sitting at an eight-top talking about diamonds and insurance. But back to the actual bagel: crunchy on the outside and chewy inside, this delightful orb is made in Sara's kosher kitchen in Miami and trucked up to Broward County. Only plain and sesame are on the menu, and both are outstanding toasted or just warmed up. No matter if you like butter, jelly, cream cheese, or all of the above, these bagels will have you wondering why you ever wasted your precious few carb calories at some national chain with too many flavors. Not to mention the lox is the best we've eaten since our last flight into LGA.
There's no good reason to get on the road these days if you can avoid it, and guzzling gallons of gas for something as self-indulgent as a restaurant meal is likely to get one tarred and feathered. But special occasions — an anniversary, a proposal, a book deal — demand celebratory concessions. A sunset drive north to 11 Maple Street in Jensen Beach (about an hour from Palm Beach, an hour and a half from Lauderdale) is a nostalgic study in what used to be called "the open road." Traffic thins to a trickle on I-95 (the drive up A1A is longer but even more soothing), and by the time you pull up in front of this utterly charming 1905 wood-frame house, draped in string lights and bougainvillaea, you'll be feeling mighty receptive to the meal you're about to be served. Inspired by California chef Alice Waters, self-taught chef Michael Perrin; his wife, Margie; and his mother, Anita, converted the place 20 years ago, using artfully arranged salvage (wood, brick, old windows), exposing the Dade County pine roof; setting sprays of flowers everywhere, lighting everything with candles. The "New American" strengths of this upscale menu lie in seafood and local, organic produce; prices (around $30 average for the entrées) are as rich as the fare. An impossibly sweet crab cake is set over fried green tomatoes; a fillet of grouper of unsurpassed freshness comes with big green capers and fried fennel; Australian barramundi is baked whole. A couple of bites of peanut butter and chocolate pie for dessert will leave you feeling sweet. Bet you hold hands the whole way home.
The Paul bakery chain — which began in Lille, France, in 1889 and has since morphed into a yeasty empire that spans the globe (think Starbucks with Camembert sandwiches) — decided to test U.S. waters by sailing into Miami (2005) and Palm Beach Gardens (2006), with plans to open at Sawgrass Mills any minute now. Apparently, somebody at corporate counted up the number of half-decent bakeries in this vicinity (pick a number between one and four) and remembered the old saying that nature abhors a vacuum. Paul flies in its bread, partially prebaked in France from the original recipes and made from a rare and expensive winter wheat "grown according to principals of sustainable agriculture." Choose from country, whole wheat, rye, six cereal, white, or the fougasse (made with olive oil). It may not meet the standards of your pickiest Parisian boulanger, but for a loaf you can pick up at the mall, this bread promises to do its part in making the low-carb craze obsolete.
"Handsome is as handsome does," our wise old grandma used to say. Granny would also tell us, were she alive to critique the lemon caper pan sauce on her ruby-red trout, that you can't judge a restaurant by the number of millions used to underwrite its decorating budget. Happily, there's no disconnect between form and function at Opus 5. The menu is as playful and smart as the butter, cream, and cognac colors and the visually rhyming geometrics of the place's décor. Like the musical opus the name references, the design of Burt Rapoport's gastronomic production in Boca is composed of themes and variations, complexity within unity. The square white plates on which your wasabi-crusted petit filet mignons are served take their cue from whimsical columns that look like those same plates precariously stacked, courtesy of Miami designer Adolfo Galvez; a ceiling of wooden squares recessed in circles mirrors precisely the tables below, like an inverted reflecting pool. And the Floribbean-by-way-of-Asia comfort food is just as reassuringly unpredictable: enough to keep you interested and alert (like a mango salsa with seaweed salad and mustard-crusted tuna) without insulting your sensibilities. And there you have a working definition of harmony. UPDATE: This location is now closed.

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