With sautéed gator, housemade crab cakes, and coconut french toast, Sanibel Cafe doesn’t let guests forget that they’re dining on a tropical island. This selection continues the tradition of homestyle cooking that the café established when it first opened in 1978 as the Pancake and Omelette House. This stage of its life ended in 1984, and, like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, the eatery reopened as Sanibel Cafe. For more than two decades now, Sanibel’s kitchen has been keeping diners coming back with savory island-inspired cuisine for both breakfast and lunch.
In addition to signature items such as sautéed gator, morning diners fork into more traditional eats such as strip steak escorted by hash browns and stacks of pancakes that diners can scarf down or transform into smiley faces to convey the exact level of their happiness. At midday, the kitchen begins piling burgers and sandwiches with country-fried steak, charbroiled beef patties, fried shrimp, and grilled fish. Just like its seafood-laden kaiser rolls, the café’s decor pays tribute to its tropical location: joining hanging plants and cerulean pendant lamps, one-of-a-kind tabletops feature intricate patterns of fossilized seashells handpicked and patterned by artist Sue Stephens.
Captiva Cruises’ Cabbage Key lunch cruise ferries midday mariners to one of Florida’s oldest and most secluded cays. During the approximately one-hour voyage, the ship’s omniscient narrator entertains easily distracted ears with tales of the island’s supposed inspiration of Jimmy Buffet’s hit song Cheeseburger in Paradise, as well as the less popular Hot Dogs in the High Seas. After arriving at Cabbage Key or Useppa, guests get two hours to explore, during which they can navigate the short nature trail or climb atop a water tower to snap panoramic pictures of the seascape. The island’s inn and restaurant, built in the 1930s by the family of playwright and novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart, lets diners refuel and tempts tourists short on tip money with autographed dollar bills taped to the walls and ceiling. Due to its lack of beached berths, swimming and shelling are not permitted on Cabbage Key.
Sanibel Deli & Coffee Factory delights bellies with a profusion of time-tested victuals, including pizza lauded by Taste of the Islands. Spend quality face time with one of the specialty pies, such as the Nor'easter ($17.95 for a large), which is bedecked in buffalo chicken and blue cheese as regally as Emeril's prom tux. Overstimulated taste buds cool off on one of more than 25 flavors of soft-serve ($1.95+), which act as cool building blocks for sundaes, milkshakes, and malts. Rev eating engines with a double-shot cappuccino ($3) before searching the crusty confines of the variety of bagels ($1.25), burgers, and sandwiches ($5.75+) like a forgetful baker.
The Dunes Golf & Tennis Club transports players to a tropical 75 acres of water-hemmed fairways and greens, enticing club hefters of all skill levels to confront its par 70 PGA-rated course. Redesigned by 10-time PGA Tour winner Mark McCumber in 1995, the verdant range challenges swingers to mediate between focused ball launching and equally competitive sightseeing. The back nine holes roost within a wildlife preserve, recognized by the Audubon Cooperative Society, where keen gazes can conduct reconnaissance on colorful birds and other fauna while riding through on the provided cart. Classic hazards, such as ever-present aquatic traps and conniving packs of terrestrial barracuda, challenge golfers, who can look to the staff of PGA professionals for help at any time. After venturing through the green, guests can quell insistent stomach gurgles at The Dunes Steakhouse & Seafood, the only Sanibel Island restaurant serving certified Angus beef, or satiate their appetites for golf equipment at the full-service pro shop.
The Caribbean Pearl's staff deftly crafts island-influenced dishes and libations with fresh MSG- and preservative-free ingredients. Enticing smells fill the thatched-roof patio and envelop the welcoming tiki bar, increasing appetites. The extensive menu showcases tapas, sandwiches, and signature entrees. Guests can demonstrate a belief that sharing is caring by opting for small plates ($7–$15) such as the Bahamian conch fritters with raspberry-chipotle sauce, which sound like the ocean when held to the ear and taste like delicious seafood when fed to the ocean ($10). Banana and panko encrust the signature grouper Caribe, which braves its crème-de-banana flambé to repose on a bed of island rice, nestled beneath a frizzled sweet-potato garnish. The jerk-marinated free-range chicken, accompanied by a coconut-curry aioli, delights taste buds in either half portions ($13) or full portions ($18). A gorgonzola cream sauce shines atop the grilled 6-ounce Black Angus filet mignon, enhancing the steak's flavor and attractiveness to mates ($25).
Executive chef and restaurateur AJ Black got his first job in the restaurant industry at age 6. That's when he began washing dishes at the restaurant his family ran in their small seaside town in Sicily. Black also joined his grandparents as they fished for the eatery's catch of the day, reeling in tuna, anchovies, and other fresh seafood.
These experiences sparked a passion for cooking that eventually led Chef Black to the Italian Culinary Institute. He opened his first restaurant at the tender age of 19 before heading to Le Cordon Bleu to study classical French cooking under Paul Bocuse.
From Beaches to Borders
Fresh, seasonal ingredients inspire daily specials that let loose Chef Black's creativity in the kitchen. For the regular menu, however, he draws on tried-and-true traditions from across Italy, from the sunny beaches of the south to the French-Italian border. A dish of whole, lightly fried sardines with a dusting of chili flakes takes its inspiration from the Sicilian seaside, and a hearty order of duck leg confit with freshly made gnocchi hails from the mountainous North.
Il Tesoro's faux-stucco walls and striped awnings capture the casual spirit of an Old World bistro. Oil paintings burst with images from bucolic countryside scenes to vases of blooming flowers. The simple wooden chairs surrounding each white linen-draped table exude a homespun charm, as do the solitary brass lamps that adorn the tables.