July 22, 2014

Best New Restaurants in Florida

They're optimistic, as always

Chris Sherman | 12/1/2011
Meghan Purcell
Meghan Purcell's 'town, which opened in the spring of 2010, is already an institution in Jacksonville's Avondale neighborhood. [Photo: Jon M. Fletcher]

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Opening a business in a harsh economy probably sounds like a bad idea to most people — particularly in a sector where the failure rate is high even in the best of economic times.

But for restaurateurs, inveterate optimism is an occupational hazard.

In a homey stretch of Jacksonville, Meghan Purcell opened a hip gastropub, daring what others deem impossibly esoteric.

She succeeded.

In less than two years, 'town is an institution in Avondale, a cozy older neighborhood that's back in fashion, especially among hipster foodies.

Purcell had a few secret weapons. First, she worked at the Spotted Pig in New York's West Village. Second, she grew up next door to Avondale, and when she came back to visit she'd start thinking, "Why not here?" A restaurant that was local and independent fit the place and the time. "People like to support local business in Avondale."

Then there are the Black-Truffle Tater Tots. It's an addictive retro gourmet hybrid hand-made in house and beloved by children of all ages. "If we took it off the list, they'd protest," Purcell says.

While many high-end dinner houses struggle and shut down, a glance around the state this fall turns up dozens of new ventures, so many that singling out a score was difficult — with or without Tater Tots.

While they may have less money, Floridians, like most Americans, have a new fascination with food, and they still like to dine out for convenience and entertainment.

In a few cases, chefs with celebrity, like New York's Daniel Boulud or "Iron Chef" veteran Makoto, can open big-ticket restaurants and succeed, especially amid Miami's renewed hotel boom downtown and the resort areas.

More, however, have had to reinvent the restaurant for new, underserved places, with new anytime hours from breakfast to mid-afternoon and late night, and new foods, including bar snacks, burgers and food truck tacos.

Allen Susser, who presided for decades over Chef Allen's, a Golden Spoon Hall of Famer, made several attempts to adapt his upscale menus in recent years. He finally settled on crowd-pleasing burgers and now has two Burger Bars. Tampa's Chris Sullivan has moved from Outback steaks to chickpea fries under the Mediterranean umbrella of Carmel Cafe.

Burgers, breakfast, bars with high-priced cocktails and beer of artisan style have emerged as key recipes for success in modern times.

The most exciting and successful new restaurants put food forward and downplay formality. Today's diners, the young especially, want foods assembled from carefully sourced ingredients, hand-made, even lumpy and sometimes burned in the fire, with slow-cooked sauces and ethnic spices. For new flavors and lower food costs, the chefs offer cauliflowers, brussels sprouts and turnips, more pork and less expensive cuts of beef, veal and lamb.

The new diners may eat at 4 p.m. or 10 p.m. and order only an appetizer or six. They'll pile in on Saturdays as well as Sundays for brunch — not a buffet, mind you, but farm fresh eggs, thick-cut bacon, oatmeal, waffles and artisan-roasted coffee.

Since the dining setting is less formal (or even non-existent), the ticket is often less, although the quality is better.

As Purcell puts it: "We still want to bring out people to have a great meal in a casual setting where people are really getting more into food."

Tags: Dining & Travel

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