You're a high-dollar lawyer in a city that breeds them and business is good. Then one day, that risky, somewhat shady Latin-American venture you got your biggest client to invest in goes rotten -- bloody coup rotten. He's angry and he's outside your office right now. Your mind is blank, your palms sweaty, your stomach growling. Growling? Ah yes, it is lunchtime. Might as well make your last meal a good one. Striding purposefully out of your office, you sweep your client along to your car, promising that everything will be explained over lunch at the Rusty Pelican. The tension begins to leave your shoulders as your silver Lexus climbs the modest curve of the bridge between the mainland and the Rickenbacker Causeway. You spot the restaurant thinly disguised as a rustic shack. A few minutes later, you're walking into the maritime coolness of the place, where you promptly duck into the bar. Your client parks his fat butt at a table by the window and stares moodily at a yacht bobbing nearby. You take the bartender aside and order oysters, escargot with blue cheese, and two very dry martinis. Back at the table you contemplate the city skyline etched into pale blue across the shallow end of Biscayne Bay -- and think, as you always do, how beautiful Miami is from a distance.

BEST WATERFRONT RESTAURANT YOU'VE NEVER HEARD OF

The Commons

How about a dockside patio with an unobstructed view of both the Atlantic Ocean and Biscayne Bay? How about a Thursday- and Friday-night happy hour with the stars above, a fresh breeze, and sixteen-ounce glasses of Bass & Co. Pale Ale on tap? Tucked into a science lab and classroom building at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science on Virginia Key, this bar-cum-eatery began life as a cafeteria for students who might have cared more about describing the life cycle of Ocyurus chrysurus -- that's a yellowtail snapper to you -- than eating one. But then the caterer Parties By Pat took over the kitchen, decorated with some palm trees and pastel murals in the dining room, and invited in the public. Open only for breakfast and lunch, from 8:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, the Commons specializes in grilled chicken, gourmet pizza, and affordable sandwiches, explains manager José Martinez. The bar is open only Thursday and Friday from 5:00 to about 10:00 p.m.

Calling the Pelican a restaurant may convey the wrong impression. It's a thatched-roof, open-air, low-cost, shorts-and-sandals throwback to a different era, perched high above the sand on the Newport's fishing pier (known to old-timers as the Sunny Isles pier). The north side offers table seating. We recommend the south side. Tall cocktail tables attached to the pier railings accommodate three stools each. Grab one to catch the southeasterly summer breeze and behold the sweeping view down the coast. Turquoise water, white sand, deep blue sky, a distant cruise ship heading to sea. It's sensational at sunset. The Pelican's menu favors burgers over seafood, but if you ask for the freshest fish and have it simply prepared you can't go wrong, especially with an Italian pinot grigio or German Riesling (no bottle more than $15). The kitchen is open till 9:00 p.m. seven days a week. You can park at the foot of the pier but it's expensive. Better to use the public parking up the road and across the street.
This is a humble little spot, a bit down on the heels, but the fresh and plentiful fare makes up for the lack of décor. The star in Holy Family's firmament of classic dishes is its divine pwason gwo sel, a whole fish, usually snapper, prepared and fried in a traditional Haitian style. Also without blemish are the lanbi, or conch, in a Creole-type sauce, and legim, a spicy mixture of vegetables and usually meat. The basic diri ak pwa, rice and beans, are good enough to make up a whole meal. There is one dish missing, for religious reasons, from Holy Family's menu: griot, or fried pork. The restaurant's faithful don't mind at all.

BEST PUERTO RICAN RESTAURANT

Benny's appetizer list is like a dim sum of Caribbean cuisine. Bacalaitos (flat cod fritters), alcapurria de masa (ground beef in fried plantain dough), tostones rellenos (fried plantains sliced and stuffed with your choice of shrimp, lobster, or squid), and the list goes on. You may not want mondongo (beef tripe) with your mofongo (mashed stuffed plantains) but owners Benny and Wanda will recommend it with snapper, yellowtail, or kingfish. Just south of the Miami-Dade County Fairgrounds, Benny's opens at noon, and the slightly cheaper lunch menu is out until four o'clock Monday through Friday. The place closes at 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

BEST NATURAL FOOD/VEGETARIAN RESTAURANT

The Honey Tree

Gleaming white, spongy, and about as tasty as a giant sugar-free marshmallow, tofu isn't exactly the most appealing ingredient. But place it in the capable hands of the chefs at the Honey Tree and tofu is transformed into something entirely different: It's eminently edible. Grilled tofu in tamarind peanut sauce, Indonesian tofu stir-fried with vegetables, curried tofu triangles. Hungry yet? Each weekday the six-year-old market (and three-year-old deli) offers several freshly made dishes for lunch that you can eat in or take out. Mouthwatering and healthy vegan and vegetarian specialties can include penne pasta tossed with tomato sauce and soy sausage, sautéed spinach with mushrooms, and kale and potato patties topped by chunky tomato salsa. A hearty soup of the day, fruity smoothies, and delicious desserts such as nondairy chocolate mousse pie and carob- and walnut-studded banana bread are also available. Sold by the pound, the eats are often gone by late afternoon. So if all else fails, you can choose some organic produce from a small fridge and settle down for a healthful meal from one of the freezers. The friendly folks who surround you will make you feel as good as the food.
South Beach is known as sushi central, and it is arguably true that a greater concentration of very good Japanese restaurants can be found on any square mile of Beach than anywhere in the U.S.A. Still, visiting Japanese chefs, local Asian foodies, and others in the know head west to this small spot in a fairly downscale shopping mall for Miami's most authentic Japanese fare -- especially Matsuri's daily specials, dishes rarely found elsewhere like foie graslike (and nonfishy) monkfish liver in spicy broth, or shisamo, succulent salt-broiled smelts stuffed with their own "caviar." And well worth the drive by itself is Matsuri's selection of toro, buttery belly tuna often seen on sushi-bar menus but almost never available: silken chutoro (particularly tasty in negitoro, a steak tartare-esque preparation of chopped toro and scallions, topped with a quail egg), and even more marbled otoro, the ultimate in sushi/sashimi decadence.
A Grove favorite for years, Paulo Luigi's is a testament to the importance of consistent quality. Serving up outstanding Italian cuisine in hearty portions, the restaurant delivers the best traditional dishes, such as a decadent chicken marsala, while spicing up more modern fare with selections like a mozzarella-drenched shrimp Parmesan. Recent changes to Paulo Luigi's bar area are welcome. Once a legendary sports bar, it has been upgraded to a cozy lounge that will attract nightcrawlers eager for a down-tempo shift from the overbearing Beach scene, as well as diners who want to linger after a satisfying meal.
In terms of franchising, chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa is hardly the Hard Rock Café, but a dozen restaurants worldwide is at least a mini-empire -- and that loss of control when the head honcho isn't in the kitchen most often means the loss of high standards. But both the food and the service at South Beach's Nobu are absolutely extraordinary. Unlike New York's more formal Nobu, this spot, though located in the glam Shore Club, is intended as a more casual hangout. It's possible to just walk in and get a table, especially early in the evening. And though prices are higher than those at the average sushi bar, it's possible to put together a terrific family-style meal of three to five shared items without breaking the bank (or necessitating robbing one). Signature black cod with miso is a must. Though many other eateries now do this savory dish of miso/mirin-marinated sablefish, Matsuhisa did it first and still does it best. Also highly recommended are delicate Arctic char with crisp leaves of near greaseless deep-fried spinach; the generous sashimi salad, silky tuna on mesclun dressed with a subtly sweet/salty ginger-soy vinaigrette; and especially a treat for those who won't eat raw fish, Nobu's "New Style Sashimi," thinly sliced fish or beef partially cooked by a brief pouring of hot olive oil. While psychologically the delicate slices seem seared, they retain the moistness and tender texture of raw fish or beef.
Surprise! (Not.) It's him, for the umpteenth time. In fact this year we considered permanently renaming this award "Best Restaurant in Coral Gables Except for Norman's," to be fair to some of the Gables' other eateries, several of which could top Best lists in any town where Norman Van Aken wasn't cooking. Naturally if Van Aken were a normal chef, such a drastic step wouldn't be necessary. After a decade or so of garnering America's major culinary awards, he'd either be diluting his talent by franchising Norman's nationally or coasting on his many past greatest-hit creations like a culinary golden-oldies radio station. But Van Aken is still cooking day in and day out at the same address. His signature dishes like citrus-spiked creamy conch chowder with saffron and toasted coconut (updated in recent years with a hip foam "cloud") taste as terrific as ever. And imaginative new dishes -- "Seared Raw Tuna Trio with Three Cool Fillings" (braised oxtails, chilled crab salad, and shiitake mushrooms); seared foie gras on Venezuelan corn cake with cachaca-laced exotic fruit chutney; a sly and scrumptious take on surf and turf featuring rare tuna and beef mignons with three sauces (Bordelaise, Bernaise, and aigrelette); warm guava tarte Tatin; and an assortment of new tropical ice creams made with rare imported fruits from the Amazon -- indicate that Van Aken shows no sign whatsoever of burning out and giving the Gables' other chefs a shot at this award for many years to come.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®