For years, Florida was tagged as a land of early-bird specials and seafood buffets, hardly a place gourmets would head in search of fancy food.
But largely unheralded, a fine dining culture has blossomed in Florida over the past few decades. Sophisticated cooking with a multitude of global influences can be found in the state's increasingly cosmopolitan cities.
This year, Florida gained some new recognition for its gourmet scene when the prestigious Michelin Guide rolled out an edition with recommended restaurants in Florida. Three cities -- Miami, Tampa and Orlando -- joined the short list of U.S. cities where diners could consult Michelin before eating out.
The Florida guide, which is published online only, highlights 118 restaurants, features 35 types of cuisine and includes 14 outlets that earned a coveted Michelin star -- a sign, the guide says, of "high- quality cooking" that is "worth a stop."
Tourism promoters, who largely underwrote the cost of the project, hope it will bring more visitors with deeper pockets to the table.
A chef prepares a salad at Rooster and the Till, a restaurant in Tampa listed in the new guide. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Visit Tampa Bay
"Our cuisine is a huge part of who we are," said Dana Young, CEO of Visit Florida. "The launch of the Michelin Guide in Florida is fantastic news for our state," she said.
For some, the Michelin acknowledgment is long overdue. Norman Van Aken began cooking with Florida-based ingredients 40 years ago, joining like-minded chefs in South Florida who became known as the "Mango Gang."
Working at a restaurant in Key West in the 1980s, Van Aken recalls how he often felt his food was in competition with the diner's perception of what a restaurant meal in Florida should be.
"I had to overcome their sense that it couldn't be as nice as, say, a New York City restaurant or a Chicago restaurant," said Van Aken, who most recently served as chef/owner at Norman's, an independent restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando for 16 years. "I have fought that mindset my entire professional career."
Van Aken, who plans to open a restaurant in Orlando this November, said mention by Michelin could help homegrown Florida restaurants compete with big-budget New York restaurant groups now flocking to the state.
The terrace at Knife and Spoon, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Orlando listed in the guide. Photo Credit: Don Riddle
Travel agents, too, say clients need encouragement to go beyond the Florida dining they're familiar with.
Kacie Walls, an agent at Travelista Travels in Ocean City, Md., recently took a Visit Florida fam trip to St. Augustine and was impressed with the ambience and quality in the quaint colonial town. She began posting food pictures and recommending restaurants she'd sampled.
"Most of my clients go to Disney, and I feel like they don't realize that there's life outside of Disney in Florida," said Walls, noting that a lot of her families are now stopping in St. Augustine on their way to Orlando to try something different.
"It's not like sitting beside the water with your gator nuggets and your fish fries," Walls said.
Florida's rookie class of Michelin-starred restaurants includes those serving Japanese, Colombian, Mexican, Korean and Cuban cuisine. The sole two-star restaurant in the guide is the L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, presenting French food in Miami's Design District.
In addition to the stars, the guide includes 29 Bib Gourmands, restaurants with "exceptionally good food at moderate prices," plus unstarred local favorites such as Little Havana's Versailles and the venerable Bern's Steak House in Tampa.
The guide's summaries paint the essence of a restaurant in 100 words or so. "Celebrities, politicians and locals alike make a beeline to this crustacean hot spot," says the write-up on the Miami Beach mainstay, Joe's Stone Crab.
A table at Ariete, a one-star New American restaurant in Miami's Coconut Grove. Photo Credit: Antonella Re
One newly starred restaurant has seen immediate benefits. "It's definitely saved us through the summer months," said Ashley Moncada, chef de cuisine at Ariete, which serves New American food in Miami's Coconut Grove neighborhood.
Since the Michelin Guide was released in June, Ariete has been regularly full, a change from last summer, Moncada said. The steadiness gives her more control over revenue and provisioning, she said. A policy caps reservations at 60 diners nightly, 80 on weekends. After receiving its star, Ariete started charging $50 to no-show diners who don't call to cancel reservations.
With culinary tourism on the rise, recognition by Michelin might bring more organized tours to Florida to see what the fuss is about.
Kensington Tours, which typically focuses overseas, two years ago launched an expansion in North America and so far has rolled out tours in New Orleans and Hawaii.
Jason Susinski, product director for Europe at Kensington, won't say if Florida is on the list for expansion but said it is probably worth the cost for destinations to affiliate with Michelin.
"More and more clients are looking for destinations that have a strong culinary presence," Susinski said. "If they're looking through a Michelin guide and they see a spotlight on Florida, that absolutely will influence a lot of clients' decisions to go to Florida, as opposed to Georgia, say, or North Carolina.
"It is a very strategic decision to align with the guide," Susinski said.