Il Bellagio

Longevity isn't always a test of quality, but in a locale where so many restaurants have tried and failed to cash in on the mysterious allure of CityPlace, Il Bellagio has hunkered down, guarding its fountain view in the central plaza and sucking up customers who stroll over to watch jazz singers, acrobats, and boy bands on the main stage. What those customers find, as they drift inevitably toward the breezy outdoor tables, the other 250 or so happy diners, and the phalanxes of servers calling for wine, water, and bread, is that not only can you get an excellent plate of homemade pasta for around 15 bucks (agnolotti, tortellini stuffed with veal, spaghetti Bolognese), but a full dinner can be had for under $40 — say, a bowl of fantastic lentil soup, a fine, tart salad of mixed greens with pear and honey dressing, and a bone-in double pork chop cooked perfectly pink in the center. Owner Tom Billante has pulled off an economy of scale (plus a level of culinary talent) that any Milanese mama cooking Sunday supper for an extended family would appreciate.

Takeyama Japanese Cuisine

The unassuming Takeyama, hidden behind a plain door in a Plantation strip mall like one of those exclusive New York clubs that deliberately fly under the radar, has retained its sense of mystery and drama for almost 30 years. This is the semi-private purview of a regular group of sushi fanatics willing to put themselves in chef Kenny's hands and pay the price. You'll find them arrayed on stools at the sushi bar, moaning gently as Kenny passes them plate after plate. With its sallow lighting, ancient carpet, and worn woods, the place has the underground feel of a seedy spot for fetishists. Indeed, this isn't sushi for lightweights: You've got to take a few risks with your palate, to be willing to consume things that squish, ooze, and crackle in ways not at all familiar, to allow tastes and textures you've never experienced settle into your mind and find a niche. Try the syrupy-dry, high-octane sake imported from Kenny's hometown, or the braised black cod just arrived by plane that day with all the pomp of a celebrity. Oily mackerel, fluke, three varieties of toro, kingfish, halibut, sea eel, stone crab — you're never sure exactly what you'll find on the slightly dingy specials board at the entrance, depending on the season and Kenny's resources. Keep going back and you'll develop a dangerous hankering for giant orange clam, live sea scallop, sweet jellylike shrimp, raw quail egg, strange pudding-like uni, and other bizarre delicacies the chef and his enthusiastic waitress will inevitably foist on you.

We Take the Cake

It's Oprah-endorsed. For many, no more information is needed. But there are folks that work while Oprah airs, which is why, even though they've been churning out the best cakes in the area for over a decade, We Take the Cake has been a secret kept from most South Floridians. This Fort Lauderdale-based boutique bakery specializes in nothing but baking cakes, all made from scratch using fresh ingredients. They wanted their cornerstone to be a bundt cake that had the tropical flavor of Key lime and succeeded when it was chosen as one of Oprah's favorite things in 2004. While it cools, the cake's showered with key lime juice and finished with a cheese glaze. It's the perfect departure from the classic key lime pie, and they'll ship it to you wherever you live in the states. The bundt cakes retail for $28 and come packaged in a beautiful gold cake tin. Presents for snow-trapped family members, anyone?

New Seoul Korean Restaurant

What's better than tasty grub cooked by expert chefs? Tasty grub cooked by expert chefs in front of you. The same philosophy that makes sitting around the campfire watching the flames lick the end of a pokin' stick so appealing is the one at work at New Seoul Korean Restaurant. At the cute Lake Avenue bistro, you can watch in wonder as chefs cook your galbi (sweetly marinated, bone-in short ribs) on a smokeless grill in the middle of your table. Other gui (that's grilled meat to you Westerners): spicy thin pork slathered in fermented chili paste, shreds of juicy chicken breast, and paperized brisket that melts on the tongue. What happens next is also like a distant cousin to the s'mores concept: Take a piece of snappy lettuce, dot it with a smear of miso paste, some grilled onions and mushrooms, roasted garlic cloves, and a slodge of that tasty meat. New Seoul also sports a deep menu full of instant classics like pan-fried goon mandu (pork dumplings), fresh pajun (vege and seafood pancakes), boiling cauldrons of jjigae (soups made with miso or meat stocks and filled with fresh ingredients), and cast-iron pots of bibimbap (a sort of table-made fried rice).

Peter Pan Diner

If Tinkerbell hovered above Gay Lauderdale and sprinkled you with pixie dust in the wee hours of the morning, you'd probably be transported to Peter Pan Diner. It's a Neverland like no other, with leather men, drag queens, butch biker babes, and — if you're lucky — folks dressed like honest-to-God pirates. The huge portions of classic diner fare are merely a side dish to the amazing people-watching that this 24/7 greasy spoon offers. Late-night dining, for some, is all about lowering intoxication levels so that your liver hates you less after the sun comes up. But if Peter Pan is just a pit stop on a long evening of debauchery, lushes will be happy to see that alcohol is served until 1:30 a.m.

Treasure Trove

Anyone who tells you that the days of cheap fare in Fort Lauderdale are as much a thing of the past as affordable beach rentals hasn't tried Taco Tuesdays at the Treasure Trove. One lousy greenback buys you a mouth-watering, savory, soft-shelled taco in your choice of beef or chicken (we usually eat three or four before rolling ourselves home.) The shredded chicken and ground beef are both seasoned impeccably, then topped with lettuce, tomato, shredded cheese, and a side of sour cream. But no taco is complete without a little personalized bastardization. That's where the giant spice rack of hot sauces comes into play. The varieties fluctuate weekly, but you'll always find a flavor to fit your fancy. From damn-that's-so-hot-I-need-another-margarita to sweet and fruity, they stare at you like little saucy soldiers just waiting to be thrown into battle. If you're feeling flush, have a drink. Margaritas and Coronas are only $3.25. Just save a few bucks for tipping. After all, you're going to want to come back next week.

Kababi Cafe
Photo courtesy of Kababi Cafe

Kuluck does something well that most ethnic restaurants in Broward or Palm Beach don't: it's cool. The upscale Persian supper club, located in a strip mall in Tamarac, actually oozes style. With soft lighting, colorful walls with velvet drapes, white tablecloths, and a 20-foot dance floor, the joint is all sleek edges and sass. It's a wild departure from the typical regional-history-while-you-eat décor that clogs other ethnic restaurants, but who wants to eat in a museum? The secret behind Kuluck's styling is that the owners wanted to create a place where they would not only serve great Iranian food in a classy atmosphere, but also a place where their band Dima could play. They do that on Saturday nights while folks nosh on tender, marinated kebabs of Cornish hen and koobideh (juicy, onion-flavored ground beef). The menu is simple, but what's there is flavorful and cooked perfectly. (Chicken that's not dried to the bone? No way! Yes, way!) The kashke bademjam — a textured dip of roasted eggplant, garlic, onion, and whey — is particularly dreamy. The result is a restaurant that's both sexy and sophisticated.

Kilwins Chocolates Fudge and Ice Cream

Few things are as controversial as the chocolate milkshake, and few beverages have such outspoken partisans. Approximately half of all devotees believe the shake should be made with vanilla ice cream and some kind of chocolate sauce, which makes for a creamy drink with chocolatey overtones. This is incorrect. The fact is, more chocolate is better chocolate, and the double chocolate milkshake at Kilwin's is perhaps the greatest proof of this truism the world has ever seen. Kilwin's super-rich chocolate ice cream plus whatever syrup they're using equals a milkshake so powerful it's almost invasive: the salivary glands start freaking out when the stuff is only halfway up the straw, there's a feeling of heat at the back of your head, and every nerve in your body begins twitching as though in expectation of some explosive sexual climax. And then the flavor hits. And the world melts away, leaving you adrift in a sea of cocoa goodness.

Entre Nous

Small is beautiful when it comes to your hangout — who wants the masses plunking their butts on your corner seat and scarfing up all the lobster bisque before you even walk through the door on a Friday night? A neighborhood restaurant has to meet strict criteria: It has to serve food you're willing to eat six times a week — nothing too outré (no lambs' brains), nothing too lame (hold the penne marinara!). The place can't be corporate. It requires a unique flavor that clicks with who you are, or at least who you want to be. Entre Nous fits the bill. Run by an ex-bartender who never took a cooking class (Jason Laudenslager, your new BFF), who actually lives in Lake Park, Entre Nous turns out a juicier pork chop, a crispier potato skin, and a livelier Caesar salad than you really want the world to know about. With its menu of lamb chops, steaks, and crab cakes served in a candlelit room just cozy and dark enough to make things interesting, this is a secret we should keep.

Christine's Restaurant

When the great restaurants in any city are increasingly operated by celebrity chefs in partnership with luxury resorts or millionaire backers, you've gotta love these two young locals (Steve Shockey and Gregory Rhatagan), a couple of guys brave or insane enough to do it on their own. Christine's, which opened just a couple of months ago, is a lovingly executed example of opposing forces: it's fine dining in an elegantly minimalist space, but still seductive, comfortable, and utterly unpretentious. Your waiter intelligently answers any question you throw at him, he knows how to remove a plate or refill a glass almost invisibly, but he's relaxed and charming. The live jazz on the mezzanine is the ideal accompaniment to Chef Shockey's contemporary world menu, which, while small and focused, has a kind of slinky urban sophistication in the details: a bit of corn essence here, a huckleberry compote there, a drizzle of tomato truffle emulsion. He produces dishes both familiar and strange — crab cakes, yes, but with bacon and tasso gravy; kampachi, yes, but served as sashimi with wilted spinach, sautéed shiitakes, and kimchee sauce. The place already has a loyal local fan club. We've never met anybody who didn't fall in love there at first night.

UPDATE: This location is now closed.

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