There are plenty of things to like about this down-home place aside from the food. The décor is appealing. Lots of old polished wood and other casually classy touches that project warmth, an antidote to the velvet-rope pretensions of South Beach. The weekend live rock music is much more interesting than what's usually found in nightclubs, and so is the clientele. But co-owners Cass and Chris are happy to admit it's the bar food that has kept the clientele coming back since 1989. Formerly chef at a fancy-schmancy French eatery in the Gables, Chris has turned his talents to country comforts like smoked barbecue (both pork and fish), homemade dips from artichokes or smoked mahi-mahi, and tangy vinegar-sauced fried green tomatoes fresh from the nearby farms of the Redland. There's also some far healthier fare than you'll find in most bars -- snazzy salads of mixed greens and hearts of palm with gorgonzola cheese, for instance -- as well as more substantial dishes, including bargain-priced weekly specials like Wednesday's $9.95 roast beef dinner.
So Cuban and Spanish cultures have had a love-hate relationship throughout the centuries, but their culinary traditions at least come together at Las Culebrinas, where an extensive menu features specialties from both sides of the Atlantic. This presents a bit of a dilemma: Do you opt for the Cuban mainstays you've come to love, like ropa vieja (sautéed shredded beef stew), moros (rice and beans), maduros (plantains), and yuca (cassava), or do you nibble tapas while you wait for a steaming pan of paella for two to arrive at the table? If you're the adventurous type looking for something truly exotic, something you can tell stories about later, then perhaps the decision will be much easier. Choose from any one of several eccentric specialties: octopus Galician style, rabbit in garlic sauce, frog's legs, crocodile medallions French style, or deep-fried breaded beef brains. (Oh my!) Even the chicken is interesting here: You can have it breaded with Kellogg's cereal and served with honey-mustard sauce, or grilled and bathed in an orange-peach yogurt sauce. And since kids will vehemently oppose all of the above, thankfully there is a children's menu featuring fish sticks, chicken fingers, and a sirloin steak. The only problem you'll likely encounter at Las Culebrinas, where families gather around large tables to enjoy abundant portions of quality food, is indecision.
You'd think that in South Florida the contenders for this award would be many and formidable. Sorry. You'd also think waterfront dining would be at least as common as overpriced sushi. Sorry again. And while there are a few nice places to eat outdoors on the street or the water (river and ocean), why not go for it all -- ocean views, major people-watching, and seriously good food. For instance, try Smith & Wollensky's outdoor dining area on a Sunday afternoon. Every body shape that can be squeezed into a bathing suit is walking by on the way to the pier or the white sands just beyond your seat. Your direct line of sight is toward Government Cut, so the passing parade of pleasure craft and cargo freighters never ends. Then there is the blue of the sky and the blue of the sea, untainted by tall buildings or parked cars. It makes that American dim sum brunch -- newly introduced and consisting of things like mini-steak Wellingtons instead of pigs' feet rolling to your table -- taste all that more scrumptious.
Okay, so they already have a couple "Best of Miami" plaques hanging around. They'll just have to put up another one because there's nothing else quite like this place. Twenty-four hours a day you can soak up Nicaraguan ambiance and cuisine, and so much more, at Yambo. It's kind of like a Central American bazaar, bustling with such a riot of color and knickknacks and people that food sometimes seems to be a secondary consideration. But when you're ready to chow down outdoors (indoors is a little more formal), order at the counter from a long list of Nica favorites, including sauced-and-seasoned pork, beef, or chicken, as well as fish dishes accompanied by yucca and beans and rice, all for around five dollars. To wash it down, choose from a selection of coffees, beers, wines, and juices. Keep in mind that you can do this all hours of the day and night. You'll have to leave at some point, of course. But chances are you'll be back, sooner than later.

Unlike local patrons who vow undying devotion, we've never been huge fans of the original Red Thai Room in Hollywood. Not that we dislike it, but mostly we walk away merely satisfied and color-blinded by the vibrantly scarlet walls. Not so at this tropically designed sister location where no one seems to have discovered the terrific fare. The true character of the restaurant, located in the space that formerly housed a Dan Marino's Town Tavern, can't be glimpsed from the road. So passersby have virtually no idea that a thatched-roof porch is available for drinking and dining and that a multiroom interior yields some very romantic tables. The fare, ranging from excellent versions of standard pad thai and various curries to innovative dried-tofu salads, is also way above par. Come to think, it's been a year or so since we've been back to the original. Judging by the cooking and prompt service at this second locale, perhaps it's time to give the Hollywood joint another brightly hued shot at redemption.
Tucked away in the corner of a secluded strip mall on Key Biscayne, this 30-year-old neighborhood hangout is short on elbow room, long on history, and steeped in cholesterol. Think we're exaggerating? The house special consists of ham, bacon, eggs, and cheese on a buttered English muffin. Next time you're in the area, slide in, grab a seat, and slip back to a time when nuts and berries were for the birds.
Among the leisure class in 1789 France, heads rolled. Among the leisure class in 2002 Miami, the rolls get passed -- around a table. Quite appropriately French bread is served during Les Halles' Revolutionary Brunch, which carries the economical price of $17.89, in tribute to the year French peasants revolted. And the little people are treated regally to a multi-course affair. First with an effervescent pink kir royale (champagne with a touch of crème de cassis). Next with one of many savory appetizers including a tasty mélange of warm portobello mushrooms, potatoes, and goat cheese or crêpes filled with ham or seafood. Traditional brunch favorites such as eggs Benedict, omelets, and French toast, along with heartier dishes like steak tartare and salade niçoise, make up the list of main courses. Silky chocolate mousse, crème brélée, and profiteroles are among the rich desserts. In an eminently democratic move, brunch can be had from 11:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday. Vive la France!

The key to being a fine Italian eatery is to effectively deliver high-end cuisine without losing the rustic charm and culture of the Italian countryside. Though some may argue Il Tulipano lost much of its charisma after moving from North Miami to its new digs in the Grove, the same cannot be said for the delectable Tuscan dishes that dress Old World staples with the finest of modern touches. From the exquisitely prepared fresh asparagus and mozzarella-tomato-basil appetizers to the homemade pasta entrées, Il Tulipano specializes in serving up classical sustenance. Not to be missed are the tender veal and the seafood-laden linguine, each perfect examples of northern Italian cuisine. Add stellar wine selections and decadent desserts (an apple tart both rich and savory), and it's clear that Il Tulipano has earned this award.
This outstanding eatery just beyond the Doral Country Club delivers a cuisine one would expect in one of those hard-to-find, five-table family restaurants. With a head chef, Iggy, able to cite Milan as one of his training stops, you know you're getting the real deal and plenty of it. From traditional antipasti (dressed just enough to add style but not so much to become silly) and homemade pastas to fresh seafood dishes, Bruschetta covers every Italian base, including its bread namesake, and has room left over to experiment. The specials vary, obviously, but if available do not pass on the sea bass (entrées are usually between $14 and $19). Also worthy of note is the bold and tasty pears with cheese. Of course no Italian dinner would be complete without dessert. And if sweets are your thing bring a healthy appetite -- the after-dinner treats are decadent, original, and well worth the guilt.
The performance ran late, you got to talking, but still you're really hungry. Miami, unlike Miami Beach, isn't chock-a-block full of kitchens open past 10:00 p.m., so where to head? Of course, how could you forget! But better hurry over to Versailles before it gets too crowded. In fact lines snaking outside the restaurant after midnight are not unusual, and those lines include children and grandparents. A plate of ropa vieja might hit the spot, or a simple medianoche sandwich, made for exactly this hour. The lights are bright inside, the mirrored décor adding even more luminosity, and at some point you won't know whether it's midnight or noon. And of course it doesn't matter. This most famous of Cuban restaurants has defied changes in time in many other ways, so sit back and order a café con leche. Tomorrow may never come.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®