The quaint and quirky Island Cow (2163 Periwinkle Way, 239/472-0606, 7:30 a.m.–10 p.m. daily, main courses from $7) is a great place to grab a great meal any time of day. Breakfast seems to function with a theme of “more is more,” and whether it’s one of their enormous pancakes, a belt-stretching seafood omelet (shrimp, scallops, and crabmeat with what seems like half a dozen eggs and a quarter pound of cheese), or a plate of eggs, grits, and home fries, there’s absolutely no way you’ll push back from the morning table feeling hungry. The lunch and dinner menus are no less satisfying, with quesadillas, po’boys, pasta, and seafood dishes. Beer and wine is served too, but the beverages of choice come from the dairy bar, which whips up smoothies, milkshakes, floats, and even egg creams.
Seafood offerings abound on both islands, and the best choice for raw-bar fans is one of the two locations of the Lazy Flamingo (1036 Periwinkle Way, 239/472-6939; 6520 Pine Ave., 239/472-5353, 11:30 a.m.–1 a.m. daily, main courses from $7). In addition to freshly shucked oysters and clams, the Flamingo also has a standard selection of fried seafood, conch fritters, sandwiches, salads, and wings.
For dinner, the seafood preparations at Gramma Dot’s (634 N. Yachtsman Dr., 239/472-8138, 11 a.m.–10 p.m. daily, lunch from $9, dinner from $19) are uniformly excellent, if somewhat uninventive. Although you may balk at the notion of spending $23 on a plate of coconut shrimp, the prawns used are gigantic and super-fresh, coated perfectly with coconut shavings, and served with a rich sweet pineapple sauce. Scallops, grouper, and mahimahi round out the seafood section of the small menu, which also has a few steak and chicken dishes.
There are several upscale dining options in Sanibel, but many of them make the mistake of assuming that charging more for something inherently makes it taste better. The global cuisine served at Dolce Vita (1244 Periwinkle Way, 239/472-5555, 5–10 p.m. Tues.–Sat., 10:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. Sun., main courses from $17) is pricey, but unlike some other places on the island that shy away from bold flavors in deference to their somewhat older clientele, the food is richly seasoned. Covering traditional American and European standards as well as novel dishes like Moroccan lamb, huckleberry-sauced venison, and spicy lobster-tail pasta, the menu at Dolce Vita is varied and surprisingly adventurous. The nightly entertainment is almost exactly the opposite of “adventurous,” but the dinner-club environment is very elegant.
No visit to Sanibel or Captiva  would be complete without a meal at the
Bubble Room (15001 Captiva Dr., 239/472-5558, lunch 11 a.m.–3 p.m. daily, dinner 4:30–10 p.m. daily, main courses from $10), perhaps not so much for the food, which is decent but unlikely to win an award for innovation any time soon, but for the sheer insanity of the decor. Imagine decades’ worth of movie memorabilia, vintage toys, pop culture effluvia, and various kitsch from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s jammed into a restaurant where the servers are dressed as youth scouts, and you’re halfway there.
The Bubble Room is definitely quirky and has played on that reputation for years, but what makes the environment so much fun is the sense that all that crazy clutter is there by accident and not by design; it doesn’t feel like a corporate-designed bit of weirdness, it’s just weird.
As for the food? Dishes like the “Duck Ellington,” the “Cluck Gable,” and the “Salmon Davis Jr.” are more fun to order than they are to eat, but they’re still decent. By far the best thing on the menu is the “bubble bread,” a decadently sweet sticky bun concoction that is perhaps the best finish-your-vegetables bribe ever invented.
The Mad Hatter (6460 Sanibel Captiva Rd., 239/472-0033, 5–10 p.m. Tues.–Sun., main courses from $18) serves a selection of upscale platters—seared duck breast, truffle-encrusted scallops, foie gras—in an appropriately luxe environment. Grab a window seat for marvelous sunset views.
Although it’s located within the South Seas Island Resort, Holy Smoke…Heavenly Barbecue (5400 Plantation Rd., 239/472-7501, 11 a.m.–10 p.m. daily, main courses from $8) still serves up some decent barbecue. While you might not expect much in terms of authenticity from a resort barbecue joint, there is something of an advantage to Holy Smoke’s people-pleasing approach: They serve up a wide variety of barbecue styles. They don’t do any of them particularly well, but they do a decent enough job with the Memphis-style ribs, Texas brisket, and Carolina pulled pork.