Last year, we bestowed our Best Restaurant for Outdoor Dining award on Cecconi's Miami Beach for its lovely garden patio with retractable roof. And, of course, we also like the food, a factor too often overlooked in "Best Outdoor Dining" compilations. Sure, there are gorgeous waterfront properties and groovy garden venues that are great for grabbing a beer and cocktail -- maybe catch a romantic sunset while you're at it. But if the cuisine isn't special, well, let's just say that at some point the sun goes down and you don't want to be left sitting in the dark with a mediocre meal.
The food at our five favorites (six including Cecconi's) is as fab as the setting -- or at least in four of the five (we'll let you know the one we're not sure about). We've tried to give it some range as well. Our list encompasses a bayfront, riverfront, lily-pond-front, mansion, and art gallery.
And really, there is no sweeter season for dining outdoors in Miami than right now.
5. The Villa by Barton G.
Credit Gianni Versace for the elegant and thoroughly distinctive décor of the Villa; let's face it, the man had taste. The stroll through the lobby and past the dining room to get to the outdoor tables is an eye-opening museum-walk in itself (there are plaques of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud in the courtyard, and a bust of Benito Mussolini somewhere in the house). But the cozy patio overlooking the fountain/pool area has to be one of the most romantic spots to dine in town (because of historical significance, the courtyard had to be kept as it originally was, which is to say a copy of Christopher Columbus's place in Santo Domingo circa 1509). Cuisine by chef Jeff O'Neill is equally beautiful and sophisticated, even if you have to be as wealthy as an Italian aristocrat to pay for it. Start saving now, so when the time calls for a special swoon-worthy outdoor dining spot (like, say, Valentine's Day), you'll be ready.
4. The Restaurant at the Setai
If the Villa takes you on a historical tour with a mix of all manner of architectural styles, the Zen-like outdoor courtyard at the Setai is all clean lines and architectural harmony. Guests are seated around the perimeter of a lily-padded pond, with moonlight streaking through palm trees and trellises of wood overhead. It is an oasis of tranquility and beauty -- which sounds like a purple-prosed exaggeration, but it isn't. Nor is it a stretch to say that chef David Werly's cuisine of Far East-influenced plates is just as pretty and balanced. Just as romantic and unique as the Villa, which means just as ideal a spot for Valentine's Day. Also, it's just as expensive.
3. The Rusty Pelican
The once-rusty Rusty Pelican has seen a multimillion-dollar remodeling and redesign. The new look includes padded booths, muted colors, dark-blond woods, glass enclosures, and a waterfall at the entrance. From the photos, it looks like a Marriott that, um, needs a remodeling. But what you don't see in the photos is the water view, always Rusty's main asset. And sitting outdoors on the deck while eating fine seafood can't be beat -- especially now that the seafood is actually fine. The food is what really needed a refocus even more than the décor, and chef Michael Gilligan has come in to do the job. Big improvement, and why we now love dining outdoors here.
2. Wynwood Kitchen & Bar
The cuisine here under former chef Marco Ferraro ranged from mediocre to worse. Since Miguel Aguilar took over as chef, the food has ranged from mediocre to better. But this is a totally unique outdoor dining option; (as is the indoor bar with red-and-black graphics by Shepard Fairey): The courtyard is home to Wynwood Walls, a series of concrete slabs painted by world renowned graffiti artists. The whole place is urban artsy in a blue-sky/green-grass Miami setting. There is simply no hipper place to hang, so order a salad or some sliders (can't go wrong with the simple stuff), along with some of the 40-plus beers or dozen signature cocktails and kick back.
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1. Red Light Little River
We love eating Kris Wessel's food at Red Light any old time, indoors or out. But when the weather is nice, we prefer out. Not every city has a lazy stretch of river running through it, but Miami does, and Red Light has 60 seats running along it. No other city has a lazy stretch of river with manatees making appearances, but you can see 'em (if you're lucky) while dining here. And when you come right down to it, no other city has Kris Wessel, who remains Miami's master of spinning locally sourced and seasonal ingredients into inspiring and affordable American cuisine. Plus this is the only restaurant on our list that operates without any pretension.