How famous is Art Smith? Well, former first lady Michelle Obama calls him when she needs a personal chef for an extended weekend. That’s how famous.
If Smith makes a move of any substance, the culinary world tends to take notice. So, when the two-time James Beard Award winner opened 1500 South in Naples, Florida, in March 2016, the dining industry turned its collective head in the Gulf of Mexico’s direction.
A gorgeous area, for sure, but Naples isn’t exactly the first (or fifth) city you think about when it comes to food in the Sunshine State. But Smith saw something in the scene, so he deemed his global takes on Southern cuisine a good fit for the market.
But Obama’s top toque isn’t the only person betting big on Naples these days. Other restaurants are buzzing while local hotels are spending exorbitant amounts on enhancements. Knowing all of this, Forbes Travel Guide ventured down to Florida’s west coast just to see (and sample) what all the fuss was about.
Naples’ beaches are some of Florida’s — dare we say America’s? — finest. That likely explains why waterfront properties such as Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star The Ritz-Carlton, Naples and LaPlaya Beach and Golf Resort have cult-like followings. But a fun fact about the city: Good times can be had a bit more inland, too.
Four-Star Inn on Fifth and Club Level Suites, aptly named for its position on bustling Fifth Avenue, sits seven blocks from the nearest waves, but it more than makes up for any sandy shortcomings by going overboard with luxuriousness. The inn itself is an 87-room showstopper that, in 2012, was enhanced with new chairs, custom art, fresh drapes and more.
Across the street are the Club Suites, a set of impressive units that was also introduced during the 2012 makeover. Not only do these comfortable, cream-colored spaces (550 to 1,160 square feet) have separate living areas and contemporary touches, but they also come with furnished balconies that look out onto the buzzy, boutique-filled street.
As a Club Suite guest, you have access to the rooftop sundeck, whirlpool spa and lounge. At some hotels, the latter would be a yawn-inducing amenity only good for pastries or a complimentary New York Times, but here, club entry affords you a continental breakfast, afternoon snacks, evening hors d’oeuvres and a concierge who’s hungry to take care of any other needs you might have during your stay.
Not 20 miles from the Inn you’ll find JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort, the esteemed brand’s first beachfront address in the continental United States. The property has long captured travelers’ hearts with its stunning location (it was formerly the Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort), but after a $320 million re-envisioning is completed later this year, the buildings will look as lovely as the shores.
If all goes accordingly with the remaining construction schedule — and from what we saw during a recent tour of revamped rooms and public areas, the massive undertaking is moving along quite well — you will see the spring unveiling of a portion of the Lanai Tower, a section that will provide more than 100,000 square feet of multi-use event fun.
And then in the fall, the remainder of Lanai Tower will debut and with that will come with new guest rooms, restaurants and a futuristic entertainment center.
Inn on Fifth and Club Level Suites knows cuisine almost as well as it knows modern décor. Truluck’s Seafood, Steak and Crabhouse still packs crowds in on a nightly basis — especially for Monday’s all-you-can-eat stone crabs
Ocean Prime certainly knows its way around shellfish, snapper and steak, too. The new establishment is the chain’s third location in Florida, but it’s the first one where you can tuck into truffle mac and cheese while, at the same time, devouring a view of Fifth Avenue.
Chef Smith’s 1500 South rests less than a five-minute drive away in a cute little corner of Naples Bay Resort. Inside you’ll find pearl-white walls, a red chandelier and a delightful menu of vibrant dishes that has captured the heart of the Obamas, Oprah Winfrey (Smith used to be the television icon’s private chef) and almost everyone else who’s ever bitten into one of the man’s fried chicken legs.
Outside of the famed chicken, Smith’s team does some marvelous things with bourbon-glazed veal chops and pan-roasted black grouper. A symphony of sides (grilled asparagus, bitter greens and sweet potato gnocchi, just to name a tasty few) helps make the dining experience such a welcomed one to the area.
Not to be outdone by any newcomers, Sea Salt has been a staple on the Naples restaurant scene since 2008. Helmed by Fabrizio Aielli and his wife/partner, Ingrid, this is the sort of place where out-of-towners come on recommendation, locals come because it’s Tuesday and everyone comes dressed in his or her finest resort-chic wear.
All parties can appreciate the fact that the kitchen has a scholarly understanding of salt. You can see this from the trio of elaborate salts that arrives with bread service to the 100-plus varieties used in Aielli’s coastal Italy-inspired menu.
Still, we’re not sure if anybody will ever comprehend the skill it takes for sommelier Liset Zelaya to pair her ever-evolving wine list with the various dishes every evening.
If you’ve guessed that we feel Naples’ culinary scene is underrated, you would not be off base. And for the next few months, you can get a taste of exactly what we’re so excited about.
The Naples Craft Beer Fest (March 4) will present more than 20 specialty pours from around the country, including Tampa-based Florida Avenue Brewing Co. Things will turn downright delicious at the Bayfront once area eateries like 7th Avenue Social and Felipe’s Mexican Taqueria match some of their finest dishes with the beers. And on top of all of that, 100 percent of proceeds from the event will go to charity.
Suds will definitely be on the menu at Marco Island Seafood and Music Festival (March 24 to 26). But so too will shrimp, crab cakes and all the crawfish you could possibly handle. Adults can also expect a host of live country and rockabilly acts (The Ben Allen Band, Rick Howard and The Speed Bumps) while the kiddos will find a bounce house, rock-climbing wall and more.
If you’re in the Naples-Marco Island area some other time, you can still enjoy the outdoors by tagging along on one of Everglades Area Tours’ adventures. We took a kayaking voyage deep into the brush with Don McCumber, a patient guide with a vast knowledge of area wildlife.
Should you connect with him (or any of the company’s other capable escorts), you’ll see a side of the city that’s as far removed from the upscale hotels and chef Smith’s kitchen as you could possibly imagine. Still, somehow, the few quiet hours with nature prove just as filling.