After Jimmy Buffett’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise” became a hit in 1978, restaurants throughout south Florida and beyond claimed to be the inspiration behind the song. Life imitated art in 2002, when the songwriter himself opened the first Cheeseburger in Paradise restaurant (in Indianapolis).
Today, there are 43 Cheeseburger in Paradise locations in 19 states nationwide, from Nebraska to Delaware. The chain is owned by OSI Restaurant Partners, Inc. by license from Jimmy Buffet. FYI, OSI operates Outback Steakhouse and Carrabba’s Italian Grill, as well as Bonefish Grill and other restaurants through partnerships. Fort Myers became only the second of two Florida locations when it opened earlier this year, just east of the bustling intersection of Daniels Parkway and U.S. 41, across from the Bell Tower Shops.
Since its Southwest Florida debut, this casual dining establishment has accommodated capacity crowds at prime meal times, seven days a week. During the week, daily happy hours at the full-service bar also pack in patrons who are thirsty for the proverbial “cold draft beer” or a more potent concoction (frozen or not) from the restaurant’s extensive drink menu. Its signature frozen drink – named after the restaurant of course – is not for the faint of heart. Available in two sizes, Cheeseburger in Paradise is a multi-faceted creation featuring rumrunner, margarita and strawberry daiquiri layers with pina colada on top.
Obviously, even those who already live in paradise sometimes feel the need to escape to an island environment other than Sanibel or Fort Myers Beach. Cheeseburger in Paradise is happy to oblige, with island-style decor, inside and out. The interior’s bright colors and rustic accents help to create a laid-back yet festive environment, reminiscent of the Keys and Caribbean.
Furnishings and finishes feature an assortment of textures ranging from weathered woods, tin roofs and thatch, to eucalyptus poles, bamboo and reed board. To underscore the island atmosphere, Cheeseburger in Paradise also contains a tiki bar, tabletops with photographs of tropical scenes and servers sporting Hawaiian-style shirts. When cooler conditions warrant, the garage-doors along one wall open to patio seating outside.
Not surprisingly, the musical selections heavily favor Jimmy Buffett. His popular tunes are also in the repertoire of the live entertainers featured Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, and from noon until 3 p.m. every Saturday.
As one would expect, burgers are central to the menu. Served on a house or wheat bun, Heaven on Earth Burgers include a dozen imaginative offerings, such as the Baja Burger (sour cream, shredded lettuce, jalapenos, onions, cheddar cheese and salsa), the Blue Cheese Blast Burger (lightly melted Danish blue cheese, fried onions, Asian mayo and lettuce) and the Mini-Crab Burgers (four mini-crab cakes lightly breaded and fried, served with lettuce and red pepper aioli sauce). Although beef is the standard ingredient, diners may order turkey or vegetable alternatives at no extra charge.
However, for cheeseburger aficionados, nothing quite compares to the Cheeseburger in Paradise Burger, which surpasses traditional standards to uphold its legendary status. Large and juicy, it features a generously sized patty accompanied by American cheese, pickles, lettuce, tomato, red onion and yes, a big kosher pickle (cold draft beer sold separately).
Mini-burgers may be ordered with or without cheese, and as an appetizer are available in increments of four, six or 10 burgers. Although beef remains the standard centerpiece of the sandwich, any burger at Cheeseburger in Paradise is available as a veggie or turkey burger at no extra charge. Also, burgers are among the many selections served with a choice of French fries, sweet potato chips, island rice or vegetable of the day, with the option to add a house salad.
Beyond its signature cheeseburger, the restaurant’s diverse offerings include salads, sandwiches, fresh fish dishes and house specialties. Many are named in direct reference to the founder’s musical history: Coral Reefer Crab Cakes, Son of a Son of a Sailor Salad and the South of the Border Fish Sandwich. Similar good humor and creativity are reflected in essentially every aspect of the menu.
For example, the hefty Carnivorous Habits Platter is a great way to sample the restaurant’s most popular items, including Mini-Cheeseburgers, BBQ Jerk Ribs, Teriyaki Wings and Onion Six-Strings. As of November, new appetizers included Queso Dip, Fish Taco and Pickle Chips (deep-fried pickles).
Diners would be well advised to save room for a Sensuous Treat or risk missing out on the most unusual and refreshing selection of desserts in Southwest Florida. The addictive Chocolate Nachos feature fried and sweetened chocolate and flour tortillas, smothered in chocolate sauce, strawberries and colored sprinkles. The dish is served with premium strawberry and vanilla ice cream for dipping. Other selections including the magnificent Havana Banana Chocolate Chip Cake, Jamaican Apple Crisp, Key Lime Pie and a dreamy, creamy Mango Cheesecake.
In addition to the regular menu, there are tiki bar, kid’s and gluten-free versions. Most burgers are priced in the $8-$8.50 range with entrees averaging $12-$15 – a small price to pay to escape to paradise.
(Cheeseburger in Paradise is open daily from 11 a.m. at 5050 Daniels Parkway in Fort Myers. Serving until 11 p.m. Monday – Thursday, 1 a.m. on weekends and until 10 p.m. on Sunday. Happy Hour from 11 a.m. until 7 p.m. Monday – Friday. To-go orders welcome. Phone: 239-481-4386 or visit www.cheeseburgerinparadise.com)