Best Fight to Stay in Business While the City Keeps the Street in Front of Your Restaurant Busted Up for Two Years

Cocopelli Café

From the exterior, Cocopelli looks like the sort of bistro where the soupe al'oignon comes crusted with construction dust. Or like a place you can't enter without overcoming great obstacles. Worse, it resembles a restaurant that's closed. That's because this homespun bistro opened on a stretch of Biscayne Boulevard just as renovation on the road was beginning. Jackhammers blasted away. Dust and debris went flying. Frustrated drivers leaned on their horns, and gas fumes plumed from idling cars. Rather than head out on the town for a casual French dinner, the café's customers battled a slow crawl through what to the untrained eye looked like Kabul. Yet through it all, Cocopelli kept cooking up rustic renditions of classic bistro fare. Tender escargots. Foie gras terrine. Steak frites. Grouper en papillote. Homemade fruit tarts. And a funny thing happened: Loyal locals struggled through the hostile territory for the delicious food, affordable prices (most entrées cost less than $20), and accommodating service. Now that the war zone has moved south and the dust has settled, we'll all be able to see more clearly what an exemplary little neighborhood restaurant this is.
In May 2004, Marvin Woods opened his cozy, low-country restaurant at Biscayne Boulevard and 129th Street. In May 2005, M Woods' fried chicken was deemed best in these pages. Now it's May 2006, and Mr. Woods and his award-winning birds have flown the coop. Farewell, lobster dumplings in vanilla-bean lobster broth and coconut-steamed shellfish. See ya, Cajun rib eye and luscious pulled pork. Bye-bye, Caribbean jerk duck cake, braised oxtail, and gumbo with fresh crabmeat and homemade duck sausage. Let's hope Marvin finds another place to roost real soon so we don't have to forever bid adieu to his outrageously scrumptious, seven-layer red velvet cake. Somewhere Elvis must be frowning.
Pacific Time's original pastry chef created what is generally regarded as South Florida's first chocolate bombe. Nowadays every restaurant serves a version of this warm bittersweet chocolate cake with melted bittersweet chocolate center. Some call it "molten chocolate cake" or "chocolate volcano"; more than a few deceptive proprietors refer to it as "soufflé." Regardless of how it reads on the menu, the dome-shape product is usually delivered to the restaurant frozen and then is warmed to its oozy state in the microwave. Pacific Time is one of our finest dining establishments and, as such, does not have a microwave on premises. The flourless bombes are baked in the oven, per order, and make competitors' renditions taste like cupcakes pumped with Hershey's syrup. Other desserts are explosively rewarding as well, and much like the cuisine at this Pan-Asian eatery, they are defined by clean, exquisite flavors. Apple tatin is crisply crusted and drizzled with rosemary-flecked caramel sauce. A pink pepper tuile cuddles fresh strawberry ice cream infused with aged balsamic vinegar. Pot de cr?ème, an ethereally creamy pudding, delves decadently deep in espresso and bitter chocolate. Baked Alaska and key lime are merged into one wondrous delight. Prices for these precious treats run from $7.50 to $11.50. Dessert wines by the glass include popular Bonny Doon Framboise and a riveting 1997 Far Niente Dolce. Choose from excellent coffee drinks too. Go to Pacific Time for one of the finest seafood dinners in town, but linger over dessert. It's the bomb. And more.

Best Restaurant to Survive Indifference

Plein Sud

Inconspicuously tucked into a nondescript strip mall, Plein Sud defines the term quiet little bistro. No star chef, glossy magazine ads, or featured appearances at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. No breathless word-of-mouth among the SoBe arbiters of hot spots. No marketing maven marveling at the rustic, flower-dappled décor. No PR machine boasting about the homemade foie gras terrine, blanquette de veau, or beef Bourguignonne -- which, incidentally, bursts with lusty red wine aromatics. Still, the seats are filled at this North Miami restaurant, mostly with locals who luxuriate in the unpretentious ambiance, personalized service, and authentic provincial French fare. Patrons also get a good deal, because just about every entrée costs less than $20. There are bigger and bouncier bistros, to be sure, but Plein Sud is plainly one of the best. Regardless of whether you care or not.

Best Show of Humility by a Restaurant

Oggi Caffé

Oggi Ristorante
Located off the 79th Street Causeway for fourteen years, the popular Italian café ran an ad in this paper that contained the tagline: "It is hard going from 'Very Good' to 'Great,' but we keep trying."
Francis Holder's little family bakery in Lille, France, which opened in 1889, was mostly known for its viennois breads, which are pretty much the same sort of artisan loaves you can find at Paul French Bakery in Aventura, in North Miami Beach -- and in some 300 other branches around the world. That is because Holder's son took over the Lille bakeshop in 1958 and parlayed the family recipes for pastries and breads into the hugely successful Paul chain of bakery/cafes. The old-fashioned black storefronts and quaint, tea-shop interiors are the very antithesis of cold, franchised design, and the food does not taste mass-produced either. Soups, salads, quiches, crpes, and cheese plates are prepared freshly on premises. Some of the breads and rolls, made from stone-ground grains and imbued with crunchy crusts and tangy tastes, are delivered from France unbaked and frozen, or prebaked frozen, but even that is a plus -- they pop from the oven fresh and hot, and contain the intangibly important French water. These breads also make for excellent sandwiches -- try the Normand, with Camembert, butter, and lettuce on sesame paulette bread. And the Flan Normand rocks too -- an ethereal apple pie topped with custard and almonds. And the éclairs, napoleons, Italian roast coffees, cappuccinos, frappés ... It's nearly impossible to conceive of Paul being a chain restaurant. Which is what makes it the best.
Five reasons why Spris is better than the place you go for pizza:
1. It boasts alfresco seating on Lincoln Road, the Piazza Navona of Miami-Dade County.
2. Paper-thin pizza crust is properly crisped, charred, and blistered in a fiery, wood-burning oven.
3. It offers more than 30 toppings, including prosciutto, arugula, wild mushrooms, and aged speck ham.
4. A beat-the-clock deal from 5:30 to 7:00 p.m. means you can order a pizza for the price that matches the time ($5.30 to $7 per pie).
5. Your favorite pizzeria might serve salads, sandwiches, antipasti, carpaccios, and calzones that are as tasty and sprightly as those at Spris (or maybe not), but does it offer you the menus from a full-service Italian restaurant (Tiramesu) and a Belgian mussels-and-beer establishment (Le Bon)? Didn't think so.
Connoisseurs of the good greasy stuff usually drive to Hollywood, an area disproportionately blessed with real-deal diners, to get their fix. Meanwhile, back in Miami, there is Airport Diner, a nine-year-old restaurant that fails one test: It is Spartan and spotless, way too clean compared to its peers. What's worse, the food is not nearly as greasy as its competitors'. Make a mess and add your own grease, because this high-flying eatery scores big in other categories: (1) The coffee is robust and delish. (2) The "light and tender" -- as the menu puts it -- pancakes blow away those at the nearby IHOP and Denny's. And you can order them as a five-stack ($4.99), short stack ($3.99), or in various combos with eggs and meats. (3) Waffles. (4) Bagels. (5) French toast. (6) The eggs -- ordered sunny-side-up to judge the cook's skill -- tend toward perfection. Runny yolks, fully cooked whites, firm around the edges. Served with equally perfect hash browns, toast, sausage, and bacon ($4.99), and you can change the starch to home fries or grits. Twenty-one egg combinations are listed on the menu. The cook -- not chef -- griddles eight "steak" and egg meals such as pork chops, burger patty, New York strip, all priced less than $9. (7) The waitresses don't smile much. (8) The owners are of Greek heritage, so one of the eleven renditions of omelets features feta; another also includes tomato and black olives. (9) Yes, they have biscuits with sausage gravy and "chicken-fried steak," which the menu calls "country fried." (10) All the classic entrées are served, from liver and onions ($7.99 with salad or soup, bread, vegetables, and starch) to a twelve-ounce T-bone ($14.99). (11) Four outstanding Greek dinners, less than $9. (12) Pasta. (13) Beer and wine. (14) The dessert list includes baklava, right there next to the key lime pie. (15) Ten breakfast specials offered weekdays from 6:00 to 11:00 a.m. (16) You don't have to go anywhere near I-95 to visit.
Sara's has been around for more than twenty years, and for fifteen of those years my husband Harold, may he rest in peace, dragged me here to eat. "Such a selection," he would say, who knows how many times, during social situations with other people. "More than 150 items to choose from." Then he would begin rattling off dishes, one after the other, like a crazy person. "Potato pancakes, cheese blintzes, and stuffed cabbage the size of my fist." He'd hold up his fist when he said this, and he'd have a funny look in his eyes. "Southern-fried Chick-In, Chick-In Parmigiana, Chinese sweet-'n'-sour Chick-In -- can't tell it from the real thing." Oy, how he could go on. "Enchiladas, chimichangas, whole-wheat pizzas, baba ghannouj, falafel, whitefish salad, Turkish salad, Rabbi Lipskar salad...." At this point one of his listeners would inevitably interrupt and ask, "Rabbi Lipskar salad?" "Don't ask," my husband would inevitably reply. I have been dragging myself to Sara's for the past three years. I go alone; I don't make a big deal. Sometimes I get the vegetable quiche, sometimes a tuna burger, sometimes a simple bagel with cream cheese and Norwegian salmon. It's nice that everything is vegetarian. Believe me, at my age I need to eat healthily. But still, would it kill them to put a real chicken dish on the menu?
La Sandwicherie
Photo courtesy of La Sandwicherie
In the early Nineties -- when Blimpie bases overran the land, Quizno's was not even a gleam in its mother's eye, and the Miami Subs and Grill on Washington Avenue lured SoBe's pioneer party people with Dom Perignon (at $95 a bottle, to give you an idea of how long ago those times were) -- Le Sandwicherie was a bright beacon for true hoagie aficionados. This remains true, especially at 5:00 a.m., which is still the outdoor stand's closing hour. Admittedly it may strike some as stretching it to call this French-owned place's creations hoagies; they are fresh-baked baguettes with top-quality fillings such as chunky country pâté. But wait for the toppings -- sacre bleu! The decidedly un-Gallic amount of this gut-busting garnish of lettuce, tomato, green and hot peppers, black olives, onions, cukes, pickles, mayo, and dressing makes these sandwiches as All-American as spaghetti and meatballs (even though the pickles are cornichons, and the dressing is a subtle mustard vinaigrette that even a Michelin Guide inspector could not fault). Prices? Petit: $5 or $6, up to $8 for a croque monsieur with a hefty side salad. Now that the national food media has proclaimed gourmet sandwiches fashionable, Miami has many newer sandwich shops. But those who may be over the mango aioli only need to order Le Sandwicherie's saucisson sec with everything ($5.90) to realize there is still no place that does sandwiches better.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®