Created 15 years ago by gourmands from Peru and Costa Rica, El Gran Inka's only three US locations serve up a menu of fresh Peruvian cuisine featuring influences from Spain, Japan, and Italy. Since its inception, the restaurants have charmed diners across Central America and the United States with an impressive culinary and cultural celebration of Peru. The menu presents a contemporary twist on traditional cuisine, plating tangy ceviches, flavorful seafood stews, and tender cuts of sauce-draped meat on elegant plates. As guests sip cocktails made from exotic South American fruits and spirits or mingle over plates of succulent sea bass, the classy saxophone wails of jazz riffs and the ancient dead language of scat singing serenade audiences on Thursdays, Fridays, or Saturdays.
Donut Gallery started with a handshake. That handshake was the one in 1971 that sealed Benjamin and Acela Zambrano's purchase of a Miami-area restaurant and inspired them to transplant their entire family from New York?where Benjamin had been working in the hospitality industry since emigrating from Cuba in the 1960s?and carve out their own slice of the American Dream.
To this day, locals and visitors alike flock to Donut Gallery, which no longer serves donuts, for its throwback diner vibe. A long counter and a completely open kitchen lets diners watch and even chat with the cooks as they flip and chop. Anything on the menu is available at any time the restaurant is open. In the mornings, the cooks pile up pancakes, squeeze fresh orange juice, and top open-faced English muffins with bacon, ham, and cheese. But their work doesn't end with the morning rush; they continue filling empty bellies into the late afternoon with an extensive lunch menu of burgers, sandwiches, and milkshakes.
From its perch inside Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, Lighthouse Cafe's wooden patio overlooks a mile of Atlantic shoreline. In the distance stands the Cape Florida Lighthouse, Dade County's oldest manmade structure. The landscape and salty sea breezes complement the open-air restaurant's seafood-stocked lunch menu, which is served until sundown. Dishes range from salmon burgers and fish fingers to fried cuts of red snapper or hog snapper, which often leap out of the water to attack passing piglets.
The catch that gets the most attention in the Lighthouse Cafe kitchen is shrimp, which is tossed in asopado, spiced up creole style, served in ceviche, or, for breakfast, stuffed into an omelet. Breakfasts at Lighthouse Cafe include traditional items like ham and cheese omelets and french toast, as well as cups of café con leche and cuban coffee.
For brothers Rino and Luciano Balzano, cooking is in their blood. They grew up near Naples, Italy, in a small town by the sea, and their grandparents and parents cooked professionally. "Between my mother and my father, they used to cook like angels," Luciano says. The love of food the brothers both discovered as children has since blossomed, taking them around the world. After culinary school, they spent a decade cooking on Italian cruise ships, then traveled to Florida where they opened restaurants including the much-lauded Il Porcino. Their cooking earned them the attention of the James Beard Foundation, as well as that of Hollywood stars including Demi Moore and Robert De Niro, who ended up hiring the pair several times. Pictures of their past successes hang in their office—but today, they're looking forward with La Canzone Ristorante & Lounge, a waterfront eatery whose floor-to-ceiling windows let diners drink in stunning views of the bay.
As beautiful as the views are, it's the food people come for. "Our Italian food is actually real, authentic Italian food," Luciano says, noting many places make the same claim but fail to deliver. The seafood dishes, including what he proudly claims is "the best calamari in town," pay tribute to their coastal childhood, and the homemade pastas include ricotta gnocchi and fresh fettuccine with pork veal. Braised short ribs in a chianti-infused sauce, meanwhile, cook for five hours and arrive so tender that they fall apart at the mere mention of a Hank Williams ballad.
The restaurant is serious about its music, and though Luciano says he and his brothers "love to sing to the customers," they also bring in professionals—including live bands, as well as guest DJs who spin tunes in the lounge every Friday and Saturday from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. During weekdays, the tunes veer toward classic Italian, mirroring the vision Rino and Luciano have for La Canzone. "We tried to put together something nice and comfortable and very much Italian," Luciano says.
Before owner François Delfosse and his wife Lucia even set foot in George's in the Grove, they knew their way around the kitchen. Lucia had operated three restaurants in their native France, and upon taking over the Coconut Grove hot spot, they opted to keep the space as they found it on the theory that you shouldn't mess with success. The previous owner had placed Buddha statues all around to counterbalance his excitable personality. Now the statues remain to complement the soothing zen music that plays in the background and only stops when birthday celebrations transform the relaxed lounge into a dark nightclub. In this latter scene, patrons show off dance moves while Top 40 hits play and the birthday diner chows down on a sparkler-accented dessert.
A long glass pane stretches across one side of the dining room, giving patrons a look at chefs hard at work arranging French cuisine. François and Lucia's menu spotlights delicate dishes such as steamed mussels with white wine, garlic, and shallots, and rich morel-mushroom risotto with shaved foie gras and truffle oil. Hearty steak tartare—very rare meat with capers, onions, and spices—or lamb shank braised for three hours delight palates and imbue patrons with the strength to climb the Arc de Triomphe. As diners sip wine, they admire paintings along a café au lait-colored wall or take in sunlight on a sidewalk patio.
For John Offerdahl, the aroma of meat sizzling on the grill stirs memories of his family's barbecues in rural Wisconsin. Even when John grew up and became a linebacker for the Miami Dolphins, he couldn't escape that enticing smell?it would waft into the stadium from fans tailgating outside and the mascots who secretly stuffed their costumes with cheeseburgers. So it was only natural that, after retiring from football, John would once again find himself at the grill when he and his wife Lynn opened Offerdahl's Cafe Grill in 2000. The couple were no strangers to the restaurant business; they had previously owned a chain of bagel shops. This venture, however, would prove more ambitious?they devised menus of classic American cuisine that could be served up fast for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with a focus on fresh-grilled fare.
Today, Offerdahl's Cafe Grill has expanded to seven locations, but its flavorful, no-frills meals remain the same. "Johnny O's Famous Bagels" still take the starring roles during breakfast, waking diners up with flavors like cinnamon crumb, pumpernickel, and fruit-and-nut. But once breakfast turns to lunch and dinner, the grill takes over. Chefs swiftly cook up steak, chicken, and salmon, serving the proteins over rice, pasta, or salad with homemade dressings. They also grill chicken sandwiches and burgers, in a nod to the caf?'s backyard barbecue roots.