Sandy Stilwell started washing dishes in her uncle’s restaurant when she was 12 years old and quickly determined one thing: She would never be in the restaurant business. While it took her a couple decades to reconsider, Stilwell now runs seven local restaurants with plans to build an eighth near the Sanibel Causeway. Together, her restaurants served more than 1 million people last year.

“What was my greatest fear has turned into my greatest passion,” says Stilwell, a Fort Myers native who built a career in the hotel industry before venturing into restaurants with the opening of Keylime Bistro at her Captiva Island Inn 13 years ago. We set out to try her lone Fort Myers location, the Sunshine Grille, which moved to a corner lot on Gladiolus Drive in November 2011, doubling its size and offering an updated look and menu.

Chef Roger Chastain, who studied at Johnson and Wales and the Culinary Institute of America and has worked for several elite dining establishments, took over the kitchen at Sunshine Grille last summer. He’s often seen greeting guests to ensure they are thoroughly satisfied with his creative cuisine. Known for its Wood Fired Steaks and Seafood, Sunshine Grille is winner of the 2012 Wine Spectator Award and features live music every night of the week. “We consider ourselves a very great date spot,” says Stilwell, noting the restaurant always takes reservations and welcomes plate sharing.

The atmosphere is relaxed and inviting from your first steps in the door, with the glow from the wood-fire oven promising a culinary delight. As we headed to our booth, we passed by the musician singing softly, the melody perfectly piped throughout the restaurant to create ambiance without overshadowing conversation. We slid into our elevated booth, soaking up the warmth of the room, which was buzzing with life. Although we were in the middle of the dinner crowd, our corner booth seemed intimate enough for quiet conversation. Deep- colored wood, rugged stonework and warm lighting give Sunshine Grille a friendly feel.

At the suggestion of our server, Linda, we launched our dining experience with an appetizer of Sea Scallops and Goat Cheese. The dish was attractively plated with generously sized scallops arranged around a hearts-of- palm pentagon, which enclosed the warm herb crusted goat cheese and roasted red peppers. Served with crostinis and drizzled with fresh herb olive oil, Linda did not steer us wrong on this tasty beginning. We also shared the Mussels Herbanato, featuring Prince Edward Island Mussels sauteed in white wine, garlic and lemon juice with a touch of butter and fresh herbs – delicious! Sunshine Grille is also famous for its Wood Fired Flatbreads. Langostino Spinach features lobster meat and fresh spinach while the Roasted Fresh Veg combines grilled eggplant, portobello, sauteed onion and peppers with that fabulous goat cheese.

It was time to dive into our soup and salad course, and one special salad caught my attention: Jim Nathan’s Favorite. We asked Linda how the amiable CEO of Lee Memorial Hospital got his own menu item. A regular customer, the health-conscious Nathan would often bring an index card listing specific ingredients: spinach, carrots, pecans, croutons, parmesan cheese and mandarin oranges with citrus dressing. Although it’s not on the menu, Nathan liked his salad topped with salmon, Linda noted. Stilwell’s connection with Lee Memorial goes back many years.

She and her restaurants are known for philanthropy, supporting numerous community events benefiting The Children’s Hospital and many other local charities. Stilwell serves on the board of directors for the local Salvation Army chapter, Pace Center for Girls and The Greater Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce. Her restaurants’ food and beverage donations also support CCMI Soup Kitchen, Ronald McDonald House, Barbara’s Friends, Hope Hospice and many other worthy causes.

“When people come in and experience the restaurant, they can know their money is going back into the community,” Stilwell says. As we finished up our salads and some tasty Fresh Florida Seafood Gumbo, we admired the diversity of entrees offered on the menu. With encouragement from Linda and Chef Roger, we agreed to venture into new taste-bud territory with the Sunshine Grille’s famous Low Country Shrimp and Grits. Hailing from the North, I had not tried this southern sensation. Organic whole cut yellow grits provided texture while jalapenos and Andouille sausage gave a gentle heat.

Combined with large, sauteed shrimp and melted white cheddar in a flavorful sauce, it’s easy to see why this dish is a new Sunshine Grille favorite. After sampling the Shrimp and Grits, I was persuaded to try Chef Roger’s snapper special for the evening. I was not disappointed by the flaky, fresh Florida red snapper, topped generously with a breaded crab and shrimp bake and parmesan cheese.

Others in our dinner party tried Wood Grilled Filet Mignon and Wood Grilled Rack of Lamb, both succulently seasoned and cooked to tender perfection. The juicy filet was complemented by a red wine and fresh herb demi-glace, while the rack of New Zealand lamb came with mint jelly sauce. Both were served with mashed potatoes, fresh vegetables and a zippy braised red cabbage. We capped off the evening with coffee and an indulgent white chocolate cheesecake, as well as some warm apple cobbler a la mode. It was a sweet ending to a pleasant evening out at Sunshine Grille.

SUNSHINE GRILLE

8700 Gladiolus Drive, Fort Myers
Open for Lunch and Dinner
Reservations: (239) 489-2233