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Hilton - Naples, Florida
All-American Hotel, All-American Restaurant

It was a timely flight out of Boston, a smooth landing in Atlanta, and enough -- but not too much -- time to make our connection. Seemed too good to be true, and it was. We were on line and ready to board when the announcement came: unusually strong winds were preventing takeoffs. Enough said. By the time we arrived at the Hilton in Naples, Florida, it was 10 o'clock at night. Our day had begun 14 hours earlier.

Hungry, exhausted, we checked in and followed the bellman to a large, comfortable room with a separate studio-type wing where, on a smartly set dining table, unrequested and definitely unexpected, was a platter of sandwiches and a bottle of wine.

A banquet prepared by a Michelin-rated chef could not have been more welcome.

"After you called from Atlanta, we knew you'd be arriving late and probably didn't have any dinner," said Robin Foster Williams when we met her the next morning. An affable auburn-haired woman with a winning and ready smile, Robin -- who is director of sales for the hotel --demurred at our expression of gratitude, claiming she'd done no more than what was expected. What to us was a very big deal was, we came to see, the norm at the Naples Hilton, emblematic of a hotel-wide attitude that manifests itself in a myriad of gestures to be found in housekeeping, front desk, dining room -- all aimed at assuring the comforts and pleasures of every guest.

The 199-room Hilton, which opened at the turn of the millennium, sits comfortably back from bustling Tamiami Trail overlooking smartly landscaped grounds. There's a definite Floridian feel to the site, and it moves indoors through great glass doorways to a spacious sand-colored lobby of marble and stone accented with ironwork: wrought iron gates, some set into decorative arches, and large pewter chandeliers. Lush palm-like plants branch out from oversized clay urns; huge bouquets of tropical blooms: hibiscus, birds of paradise, and passion flowers add splashes of vivid color.

At the far end of the lobby, a pair of ceiling-high double doors opens into Shula's America's Steak House, the sole restaurant in the hotel, where breakfast, lunch and dinner are served. If the lobby conveys a contemporary Southern mood, the dining room -- whose walls are paneled in rich mahogany -- bespeaks a clubby atmosphere. Tall windows, outfitted with wooden blinds that filter the strong afternoon sun, line the western wall while square-shaped pillars divide the deep space into intimate dining areas with furniture that is unfettered, solid and comfortable.

If, by chance, one should wander in without knowing what Shula's is all about, huge black and white, gold-framed photos hanging on the walls will provide instant identification. All are football heroes who played for the undefeated  (17-0) 1972 Miami Dolphins. And this is one of the 29 restaurants conceived and operated by the erstwhile coach of the Dolphins: Don Shula. His motto: "Still Undefeated" that appears under the restaurant name says it all.

Music plays in the background. It is too soft to disturb conversation but loud enough to recognize: Frank Sinatra singing "I'll Be Seeing You.” Don Shula, we're told, loves Frank Sinatra.

There is a refreshing, all-American ethos to the place, a sportsman's ambience, a what-you-see-is-what-you-get sensibility. The emphasis is on the beef: center cut, Premium Black Angus, aged 21 to 30 days.  In addition to the regular menu, you're presented with a football. One quarter of it is painted Florida turquoise and lists the size and cuts of steaks: 20-ounce Kansas City Strip, 12-ounce Filet Mignon, 48(!)-ounce Porterhouse, 16-ounce New York Sirloin, 22-ounce Cowboy (Ribeye) Steak, and 24-ounce Porterhouse.

"This is the best beef money can buy," Nora Alvarez, a young woman who's come to Naples from Mexico, tells us as she wheels over a trolley displaying the varied cuts.

But there are also lobster tails, jumbo barbeque shrimp stuffed with basil, Florida gulf shrimps in tangy sauce, fresh crabs cakes, stone crabs (in season), salads, vegetables, and an impressive list of American wines, heavy on the Californian. Our server Adam Rosenberger, who is originally from Miami, suggested the dry and oaky Cake Bread Chardonnay from Napa, and it proved an excellent companion to our food.

When the steaks -- accompanied by Béarnaise sauce with a tarragon reduction --arrived, Adam cut into each to assess whether they were done exactly as ordered (they were). We also had lobster mashed potatoes (fresh lobster meat being incorporated in the potatoes) topped with lobster bisque and scallions, and after being warned the size of crème brulée was intimidating, had fresh Florida strawberries in a honey coated crisp for dessert.

Size matters in the Shula's program. It's rare that one departs without a doggie bag, Adam said. Nevertheless, there have been instances when a 48-ouncer has been consumed by one person (gasp!) in a single seating.

David Brian graduated from college a little over a year ago with a major in English. But he's been working in restaurants since he was in high school and has happily found his niche as Shula's sous chef working under head chef Cesar Fernandez who came to Naples from Puerto Rico.

"I'm very interested in international cuisine, but I do enjoy this traditional style of cooking," David told us. "We have vegetarian options, great salads and desserts. But the beef -- from carefully-bred, corn-fed cows from Nebraska -- is what it's mostly about. Shula's is very selective; only one percent of the meat presented is accepted."

Nora Alvarez and the Shula's display - click to enlarge
Nora Alvarez and the Shula's display

Server Adam Rosenberger - click to enlarge
Server Adam Rosenberger

Sous Chef David Brian - click to enlarge
Sous Chef David Brian

Server Eric Boyce - click to enlarge
Server Eric Boyce

"Coach Shula was known for his perfectionism on the gridiron, and that same attitude is carried over to the restaurants," said Tom Donahue, Shula's compact and muscular general manager who, along with Robin, had joined us for dinner. "This is one of his favorites. It's distinctive and was built from the ground up along with the hotel.

"The first Shula's steakhouse opened in 1989," he added. "For several years investors had been trying to get him to go into the restaurant business. But the coach was in the prime of his career at that time and was focused on that. Then his friend Bob Gramm, a former United States Senator, convinced him to open what was the first restaurant in the old Miami Lakes  Country Club. They went in as partners. Then they did a second. The 30th, 31st and 32nd are on the way."

And the Shula's Steakhouse Gang - click to enlarge
And the Shula's Steakhouse Gang 

Robin Foster Williams, Director of Sales - click to enlarge
Robin Foster Williams, Director of Sales
Tom Donahue, g.m. of Shula’s - click to enlarge
Tom Donahue, g.m. of Shula’s

Tom, a lifelong Dolphins fan, has been at the Naples Hilton for five years, while Robin has been on the scene for nine years. "The restaurant and the hotel are two separate entities working together," she told us. "And while Shula's is a popular destination throughout southwest Florida, our guests love the fact that there is a Shula's Steakhouse right here on the premises.

"I was brought over by Clark Hill, who is general manager of the entire hotel," she continued. "I knew him for 20 years; we had  worked in competing hotels in Fort Meyers. After he came to the Naples Hilton, he  hired me to work in sales. Then the sales director left, the team said they wanted me to take over the job, and Mr. Hill offered it to me. That's how Mr. Hill works. He knows every one on the staff, moves people up through the system.

"We have been blessed with the most wonderful g.m. He gives us the tools we need and let us do our job. His attitude makes us work a lot harder. He wants us to be happy and healthy too. We can attend yoga classes; we have outings on Sweet Liberty, a large catamaran. At the same time, we have great respect for the job. I’ve never worked for a company that treats you so well."

"It’s my intention to stay with this company until I retire," Tom added. "It is a remarkable environment, I think  distinctive, because of Clark’s management style and the longevity of some of the staff. We have regulars who return year after year."

The Naples Hilton is a place to return to. It combines the convenience and efficiency of a Hilton with the feel of a boutique hotel. And it's located  in one of the loveliest towns on the Gulf Coast. The beach fronting the Gulf of Mexico is virtually down the block. The charming Old Town with antique shops and quaint restaurants is a short drive away. Just beyond is a residential section with many fine examples of the appealing and distinctively American bungalow, beautifully preserved, carefully restored.

And then there is the Hilton and Shula's America's Steakhouse.  A great American hotel, a great American restaurant.

Hilton Hotel
5111 Timiami Trail North
Naples, Florida 34103

Phone: 239 430 4999

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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