Le Zoo
Courtesy of Le Zoo

Restaurateur Stephen Starr knows what people want. Indeed, when he opened Le Zoo in Bal Harbour Shops toward the end of 2015, he knew Miamians were hankering for a classic French eatery with great food and service. Naturally, he knew the vibe and decor were equally important, so he created a breezy and uplifting space that's a cross between an archetypal Parisian bistro and a seaside Saint-Tropez café. Starr, who also owns Makoto and Continental in Miami, along with more than 30 restaurants across the nation — also knew to hire the right chef: Craig Wallen. One of the toque's best dishes is the classic trout amandine ($27). A gorgeous trout fillet is evenly fried and coated in a hazelnut butter, lemon, and almond sauce and proffered with toasted almonds and al dente green beans. What makes it soar is that the fragrant sauce doesn't mask the fish, which is flaky and delicate on the inside and crisp on the outside.And surprise, surprise, Starr couldn't have picked a better-suited pastry chef than Kelli Payne. Her profiteroles ($11) will make you feel like a kid again.

When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, calzone, or even tortellini, there's Bella Napoli. The low-key restaurant has been serving tasty Italian treats at bargain prices in South Beach since 1980. It's harder to find a more delicious homemade gnocchi at any price in Florida than the one served in tomato, meat, pink, or alfredo sauce for $10 here. The pizzas are solid, and the calzones are exceptional not only in flavor but also in size. Though the wine list and ambiance won't make a first date think you are a baller, if that first date can appreciate the simplicity of a house chianti and garlic rolls that melt in your mouth, he or she might be a keeper.

Asador 5 Jotas
billwisserphoto.com

The burning heart of northern Spain flickers on the edge of Little Havana. Here, at Asador 5 Jotas, owner Javier Eseverri has created a meat-wrapped wonderland flecked with nearly two dozen types of tapas and a veritable ocean of vino tinto spanning bright, reasonably priced malbecs to big, bold budget riojas. Where you fall is up to you, but don't even think of approaching the hulking chuletón de buey ($24 per person) without a full glass. The aged rib eye arrives sizzling on a hot stone paired with peppy roasted red peppers that add a hit of acidic freshness. Piquillo peppers play a similar role alongside grilled lamb chops that come thick with smoke and rosemary's grassy sweetness. If meat isn't your game, opt for a clay red cazuela of the hard-to-find baby eels called gulas ($11) laced with plenty of garlic and tiny sweet rock shrimp. Whichever way things go, Eseverri is there to ensure you get the finest Basque hospitality — and that you don't guzzle too much wine before heading for the door.

The sun lingers high overhead. Heat mercilessly beats down on the Miami Beach sidewalk, and a crowd grows inside this pintsize café. They're restless with anticipation. It's only moments from the match between Brazilian soccer powerhouses Palmeiras and Santos. You can hear it in the announcers' voices. You can feel it in the room as wave after wave of frosty beer bottles emerge from behind the bar. Then come the baskets of puffy, stretchy pão de quejio ($14.95), followed by steaming bowls of moqueca ($16.95) trailing the pungent aroma of nutty dende oil. Boisterous tables seem to be quelled by their feijoada ($14.95), filled with knuckle-size hunks of pork. Then there's opening whistle and a piercing shout. You see a splash of beer mist through the air, followed by a volley of those little cheese balls. Just another weekend at Varanda's Brasil Café.

Lung Yai Thai Tapas
Photo by billwisserphoto.com

Too often, Asian cuisine means underseasoned rice, overly greasy noodles, and cloyingly sweet sauces. Enter Lung Yai Thai Tapas, where a small countertop offers guests an up-close view of chefs crafting refreshingly authentic dishes. It opened in Little Havana in late 2015 and has since been building a loyal base of customers who return for a true taste of Thai culture. The narrow indoor area and outdoor patio seem a modest space, but there's big power in the kitchen. Chef Veenuthri "Bas" Trisransri was named Best New Chef by Food & Wine magazine in 2007 and has an extensive background in Asian cuisine that he learned from his grandfather. From his years in the restaurant industry, Chef Bas knows that the development of deep, complex flavors can't be rushed, which is why dishes such as the palo moo ($12) and tom yum soup ($5) take hours to reach perfection. It's quality Thai food that's both affordable and casual, and the tapas style will tempt diners to sample everything on the menu. A meal at Lung Yai Thai is a crash course for the palate; come with a sense of culinary adventure, and leave with a newfound appreciation for real Thai flavors and a full stomach. Lung Yai Thai is open for lunch Monday through Saturday from noon to 3 p.m. Dinner service begins at 5 p.m. and ends at midnight except Friday and Saturday, when the restaurant stays open until 2 a.m.

Eat Greek Souvlaki
Courtesy of Eat Greek Souvlaki

Eat Greek Souvlaki owner and chef Dimotakis Vasilios was once just a small-business man. But over the years, he has extended his kitchen genius across Miami-Dade County with locations in South Beach, Wynwood, and Brickell. In addition to serving souvlaki, he also offers abundant portions of colorful salads, overflowing gyros, juicy meat, and fresh seafood platters, along with other Greek classics. There's even a special section for the calorie-conscious — "Spartan Health" — which consists of proteins like fish, turkey, and chicken paired with items such as olives, figs, grapes, green vegetables, whole grains, and wild rice. Think grilled shrimp with spinach brown rice and fresh beets served with dolmadakia, also known as grape leaves ($13.99 to $27.99). Forget the diet and get the baklava ($4.99) for dessert. One bite, and the urge to yell "Opa!" will strike. Don't resist.

For 16 years, Miami has been enamored with the 16 tables inside Pascal Oudin's eponymous Coral Gables restaurant. Here, the cook who at a tender age began training under culinary icons such as Alain Ducasse and Roger Vergé puts on a nightly master class in French gastronomy. The rich country duck terrine ($20.95) comes with a luscious core of foie gras. A handful of cavatelli made with creamy ricotta cheese ($19.95) swims in a buttery fricassee alongside tender snails tinted emerald thanks to a hefty dose of herb butter. Oudin also offers an ever-changing list of enticing tartares — ranging from short ribs to salmon. But there's more to this place's allure. The white tablecloths, the well-manicured clientele, and the spotless service will lure you back again and again, year after year.

Readers' choice: Swine Southern Table & Bar

Best Restaurant on the Upper Eastside

Pinch Kitchen

Pinch Kitchen + Bar
billwisserphoto.com

For years, people have flocked to Miami's Upper Eastside neighborhoods like Miami Shores and Shorecrest to settle down and nest. The only thing missing from these tree-lined streets was a cozy neighborhood restaurant serving delicious food and drinks at reasonable prices. Enter Pinch. Partners John Gallo and Rene Reyes, both Pubbelly Restaurant Group alumni, joined forces to open what they term a "freestyle American eatery." What the heck does that mean? It's a restaurant that serves favorites such as burgers and mussels with just the right panache to make them interesting. A roasted half chicken ($18), served with hyper-local Little River Farm vegetables and mushroom jus, is a rich, flavorful bird, and roasted carrots are given a hit of mint and citrus for brightness ($13). Add a carefully curated local beer list and some good wines, and you've got a neighborhood eatery worth frequenting — even if you have to travel from another neighborhood.

Best Restaurant in Coconut Grove

Ariete

Ariete
Photo by Charlie Garcia

Ever heard of Norman Van Aken or Michael Schwartz? Well, Ariete chef/partner Michael Beltran learned his way around the kitchen from both of those culinary icons. Now he has taken his talents to his own Coconut Grove restaurant. This warmly lit spot is cozy enough for a date, but make no mistake — there's no tweezer food on the menu, only things you want to eat: the juiciest chicken you've ever had, short rib cured pastrami-style ($25), and foie gras. Want to eat light? The chef's dinner-size green salad (price varies) changes daily depending upon what was just foraged from local farms. At Ariete, Beltran makes his mentors proud while walking his own straight line toward Miami's culinary future.

Readers' choice: GreenStreet Cafe

NaiYaRa
Photo by billwisserphoto.com

NaiYaRa's cuisine takes inspiration from Thailand's street vendors, who sell everything from skewers to noodles. The food is bright, delicious, and spicy — bold curries are toned down with hits of lime and coconut. The restaurant also serves fresh sushi and crudo flecked with gold flakes. But the main reason NaiYaRa is so damn busy every night is because of its chef/owner, Piyarat Potha Arreeratn, better known as Chef Bee. Like his namesake, Bee buzzes around the room, flying from the kitchen to the front of the house, stopping at table after table to speak with patrons and explain the origins of what they're eating. Thai beef jerky ($15) and Chiang Rai curry ($22) are likely recipes passed down from the chef's family back home. Don't be surprised if he asks to take a selfie with you as if you were a celebrity — to Bee you are. Speaking of celebrities, look around the room, and you're likely to spot famous athletes or chefs — many of whom are already regulars even though NaiYaRa has been open for only six months.

Readers' choice: Joe's Stone Crab

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®