Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Diner Envy

Frozen Key Lime Pie

If you know anything about New Jersey, it’s that NJ is known as the official US home of the diner. Sure, other states have coffee shops, or Denny’s or a Waffle House, but there is nothing like a NJ diner anywhere else in the US.

 NJ diners are a place where you can get anything from omelettes to a tuna salad sandwich, to chicken cordon bleu, at any time, day or night. Even Mick Jagger visited the world-famous Tick Tock Diner in Clifton a few years back.

So on a recent vacation to Florida, I had the opportunity to meet friends for lunch at a new kind of diner. And, wow, I was impressed. The Lake Park Diner in Naples has it going on. From the first look, you can see this is a whole different animal. Modern and shiny, with a fabulously creative menu, the management here is on to something. 

Because it’s Florida and you can eat outside year-round, there is a large, pleasant outdoor seating area. As at all good diners, it’s a casual atmosphere. But what’s different here is their mission statement: “we believe that when you go grab a quick bite to eat, you shouldn't have to feel guilty about it afterwards.”  They offer a menu sourced with sustainable, organic products, and focus on putting their customers’ health and the environment first. Combine this with delicious food, and you’ve got a winning ticket.

Pimento Chicken Panini

I had good intentions of ordering a salad, but heck, I was on vacation so instead went for the Pimento Chicken Panini - buttermilk fried chicken, pimento cheese, bacon jam, baby arugula, and provolone - all pressed together on terrific sourdough bread. Let me tell you, the sandwich worked on all levels, but the moist, tender chicken and the fabulous bacon jam were the all-stars. One of my lunch partners had the same thing and she concurred with my enthusiastic review. The sandwich came with a choice of sweet potato fries, regular fries, or mixed green salad. I chose the regular fries because, IMHO, they are one test of a kitchen’s strength. The fries were perfectly crisp and salted. There’s nothing I hate more than ordering fries and having them arrive at your table limp and unseasoned! My friend ordered the sweet potato fries and thoroughly enjoyed them. Our third dining friend loved his Roti Sandwich, which consisted of organic rotisserie chicken with sun-dried tomato goat cheese, organic arugula, crispy prosciutto, garlic aioli, and balsamic drizzle on a rustic baguette. I’m sure, by now, you see this was not your typical diner. 

Lake Park's Sweet Potato Fries

Brice, one of Lake Park’s managers, took very good care of us and offered dessert but we were all too full (heck, I had to take half of my panini home!). If you find yourself in the Naples area, stop by the Lake Park Diner - you may find yourself with “diner envy” and wish for a spot like this in your hometown - I certainly do.

Sunset at CJ's on the Bay

The rest of my Florida trip was a mixture of pure relaxation; reading/snoozing at the pool or beach, and grilling fresh seafood from local purveyors at our rental home. We did venture out to a few waterfront venues (Kane’s Tiki Bar at the JW Marriott, and CJ’s on the Bay in the Esplanade) to enjoy the gorgeous sunsets appearing nightly on the island.

Pelican Bend's Grouper Tacos

But my favorite restaurant meal on Marco Island was at Pelican Bend in the Isles of Capri neighborhood. It’s a very casual waterfront spot with a laid back vibe, serving fresh seafood, burgers, salads, etc. My friend and I gushed over how terrific our grouper tacos were. Topped with lettuce, shredded cheese, house-made pico de gallo, and a Key lime aioli; served with very good cole slaw, and excellent fries. We couldn’t resist sharing the house-made frozen Key lime pie (that mouthwatering image at the top), perfectly tart with a crisp graham cracker crust. We could have sat there all day, watching the pelicans dip in and out of the water. But, alas, there was ice cream to be had!

I have known my friend and traveling companion for going on 23 years but I had no idea she was an ice cream devotee! During my two weeks on Marco Island, we visited all the ice cream shops (some more than once!). Even though there was a gelato shop on the island, my favorite was a traditional ice cream store called Sweet Annie’s Ice Cream Parlor, where I thoroughly enjoyed their Butter Pecan in a sugar cone; a very close second was Beebe’s Ice Cream (loved their Pistachio and Rum Raisin). Dolce Mare (the gelato spot) was good, but I was expecting more. Chances are I am jaded from having the real thing in Italy many times. Oh well, so many ice cream stores…

While there we did a short boat tour of the Everglades where we took in the peaceful beauty of the area and saw the creatures that call it their home: the endangered, gentle manatees, scary alligators, graceful egrets, ibis, and other wildlife. It was an easy, fun way to experience another part of southwest Florida.

Escaping to Marco Island was definitely the antidote to a very long year filled with life changes. The warm air, bright blue skies, gorgeous sunshine, and ocean views do wonders for the soul. Might just have to be a yearly thing.

Twenty-six days until Spring!

Eat well, stay warm, be happy!

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