The year 2018 was an interesting one.
In May I joined the food writers at Naples Daily News, adding Collier stops to my usual Fort Myers-Cape Coral-beaches dining routine. That same month my rating system changed — not that it had much impact on Collier reviews. Still, I put more value in the stars, forcing restaurants to earn each and every one.
I’ve eaten more in the last 12 months than I have in a long time — maybe ever. And, being a food critic, that’s saying something.
In Naples, my year in reviews doesn’t just include my reviews. Because I joined later in the year, I missed a couple pretty spectacular restaurants, so I’ve added them here.
In a town that exudes luxury and wealth, the five best Naples Daily News reviews of 2018 doesn’t just include the high-end and the upscale. Sure, there’s Sails — arguably the most luxurious place to eat in Naples right now — but there’s also a laid-back food truck park and a pizza joint, one that actually pokes a little fun at this town’s high-brow lifestyle.
If you’re wondering why your favorite restaurant isn’t here, please remember I compiled this list solely based on the 50-some restaurants that were reviewed by the Naples Daily News in 2018.
Like I said, it was an interesting year. And these five places have kept my interest by doing so much so well.
5. Celebration Park
Celebration Park’s only downfall is that it’s just too dang good.
Since the food truck park opened in November off Bayshore Drive in East Naples, the place has been absolutely and ridiculously packed most days, especially on weekend nights.
Seating is limited. Lines get long. The wait for a drink at the bar can seem endless.
And I’m absolutely in love with it all.
I’ve been eating my way around the place, taste-testing as many meals as I can possibly stomach (and afford). Everything from curry to pizza, seafood to beignets. Eight food trucks line the park’s sidewalk, each one carefully hand-picked by Celebration Park’s owner, Rebecca Maddox, the same woman who has operated Three60 Market right across the canal for six years.
She has excellent handiwork.
(Reviewed Dec. 26; 2880 Becca Ave., East Naples; 239-316-7253; facebook.com/celebrationparknaples)
4. LowBrow Pizza & Beer
I’ve never felt more carnivorous or barbaric than tearing through the chicken wings at LowBrow Pizza & Beer.
It was as if I hadn’t eaten in weeks.
Crisp, charred skin echoed with smoky heat; the fiery-orange coating of dehydrated Buffalo sauce; that ranch-blue cheese fusion for dipping.
“People stop talking when they try the wings,” my server had warned.
He also explained the labor-intensive prep work it takes to make them so good — smoked long and slow, then baked in the oven and tossed in that powdered Buffalo dust as a dry rub before going back in the oven for another browning.
So yeah, I definitely shut up.
At LowBrow, snark and wit are a way of life. As is a respect for simple but crafty food, like the wings and their extensive preparation, the breadstick-like “pizza bones” and the creative pizzas with even more creative names.
(Reviewed May 24; 3148 U.S. 41 E., East Naples; 239-529-6919; lowbrowpizzaandbeer.com)
3. Namba Ramen & Sushi
Reviewed by Shelby Reynolds:
These are the things I loved most about Namba Ramen & Sushi:
Its simplicity. There are only 30 seats inside the tiny restaurant that opened three months ago. It has the same minimalist vibes of a hip ramen and sushi bar in a major metropolitan city, with its bamboo accents and clean wooden decor, yet Namba is tucked into the Publix-anchored Marketplace at Pelican Bay on the southwest corner of Vanderbilt Beach Road and U.S. 41 North.
And those pork belly buns. Braised for eight hours and sandwiched between squishy-soft steamed bao buns, the pork is made all the more flavorful with the help of a hoisin sauce — a little spicy, a little sweet.
Lastly, that 17-hour signature broth and those handmade noodles imported straight from Japan make Chef Koko a ramen-making legend in my books.
These are the things I didn’t love about Namba Ramen & Sushi:
When I had to leave, and my pants felt like bursting under the weight of all that broth and all those noodles.
Full review: What we love about Namba Ramen & Sushi
(Reviewed April 19; 8847 U.S. 41 N., North Naples; 239-592-4992; nambanaples.com)
Reviewed by Shelby Reynolds:
It’s easy to be dazzled by Dorona.
Those reclaimed wood walls. The splashy wall hangings. The darling chandeliers that looked like they’re made from colorful glass antiques.
And on the menu, that charred octopus prepared with smoky black truffle, and that delicate ricotta cheesecake with a swirl of saffron sauce — saffron!
Whether I was seated indoors for a late afternoon lunch, or on a rather busy evening on a rather noisy outdoor patio, I found myself marveling at the extensive menus (there’s a menu devoted to steak alone, with 17 or so different offerings). And, it turned out, the hustle and bustle of a packed patio canceled out as soon as I split open a soft-boiled egg, spilling its ooey yolk all over a carbonara-style spaghettini.
Full review: Dorona is spectacularly inventive, modern
(Reviewed April 12; 2110 U.S. 41 N., Naples; 239-529-2819; doronanaples.com)
1. Sails Restaurant
I’ve never walked onto a yacht. But I imagine it feels like walking into Sails.
This 3-month-old Fifth Avenue South restaurant exudes luxury.
It’s in the place settings of French Laguiole flatware, the soft cotton of the table cloths, the menus bound by supple leather that smell like a Louis Vuitton store when you pull them open.
The servers, dressed as well-appointed ship’s hands, sometimes outnumber the guests, especially when the evening is young. They pace the narrow passages of the dining areas, whisking away plates the moment they’re emptied, and offering leather-topped stools to women with purses (heaven forbid they sit on the French oak floors underfoot).
In a city of wealth and decadence, Sails is both, taken to the extreme.
Full review: Sails glides into rarefied waters
(Reviewed May 10; 301 Fifth Ave. S., Naples; 239-360-2000; sailsrestaurant.com)
Jean Le Boeuf is the pseudonym used by a local food lover who dines at restaurants anonymously and without warning, with meals paid for by The News-Press or Naples Daily News. Follow the critic at facebook.com/jeanleboeufswfl or @JeanLeBoeuf on Twitter and Instagram.