2002 The Best of the Best

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Never let it be said that Sarasotans have no opinions. They have plenty, and sometimes it seems like they’re determined to voice every single one. That tendency can drive politicians or DOT bridge designers batty, but we love it, because it’s made the annual "Best of the Best" competition we co-sponsor with WWSB/Channel 40 a […]


Never let it be said that Sarasotans have no opinions. They have plenty, and sometimes it seems like they’re determined to voice every single one. That tendency can drive politicians or DOT bridge designers batty, but we love it, because it’s made the annual "Best of the Best" competition we co-sponsor with WWSB/Channel 40 a runaway success. Every year, Sarasotans deluge us with their opinions about the best diversions, attractions and discoveries in town-and those answers are not always what you might expect.

For example, this year, under the category of best place to propose, one true romantic suggested Denny’s, while another confessed, "No idea, I’m way past that." Another reader declared the best Sarasota souvenir is Davidson’s Drug Store-apparently, all of it. (Not that we disagree that Davidson’s is a true Sarasota treasure.)

Voting was brisk this year as Sarasotans crowned a variety of new businesses and restaurants that have never before appeared in our poll. Our Internet response was the highest ever, with more and more readers choosing to bypass the postal service and vote online.

This year we decided to reward those who gave us a moment of their time (or an hour, considering the ballot has swelled to 83 categories) voting with a special sweepstakes. Congratulations to Holly Lingley of Nokomis, who became the first lucky winner of our drawing for a five-night Caribbean cruise for two. For those who haven’t managed to become her new best friend, keep an eye out for our contest next year.

But let’s talk about this year’s contest first. We’ve spent weeks tallying your votes for the best restaurants, goods, services, performing arts and hot spots. It’s a privilege we takes seriously, eliminating any ballots that appear to be duplicates.

The top vote-getters are listed first; the next two are listed alphabetically. Some categories have more than two finalists (and winners) because of ties. In the event of a tie, winners and finalists are listed alphabetically.

Congratulations to every one of them, and to you, for taking the time and effort to recognize their achievements. And be sure to tune in to WWSB’s special "Best of the Best" series, which airs every Friday in May on News 40 at 6 and 11 p.m.

Best Food and Drink

Best Waterfront Restaurant

Ophelia’s on the Bay

Finalists: Marina Jack, Old Salty Dog

Gentle waves cradling colorful boats and tropical birds atop pilings compete with menu specialties at restaurants lucky enough to be perched on bay, bayou or Gulf. Ophelia’s has the romance of a secluded dock nestled among Siesta Key mangroves. Marina Jack is more big-city with island and skyline vistas, and the Old Salty Dog is a little piece of bygone fishing village days when you could catch-’em and eat-’em in the same afternoon.

Best Meal Under $8

Yoder’s

Finalists: Der Dutchman, Mi Pueblo

Believe it or not, you can still be well-fed in this town for less than an Alexander Hamilton. The home cookin’ at Yoder’s and Der Dutchman is inspired by Amish country stick-to-the-ribs meals and includes comfort farm food, desserts such as shoofly pie, and fresh breads and meat loaf. Mi Pueblo has the spice, color and aromas of Mama’s Mexican kitchen.

Best Italian Restaurant

Café Baci

Finalists: Carrabbas Italian Grill, Mediterraneo

Italian is the flavor of Sarasota these days, as well-traveled diners flock to restaurants that remind them of the regions and romance of Italy, where they lingered over several small courses instead of an oversized American production. Thanks to authentic restaurants like Cafe Baci (Northern Italian cuisine) and Mediterraneo, Sarasotans now know the difference between gnocci and granita. Carrabbas attracts young families, the budget-minded date crowd, and folks who like their Italian favorites served in portions grande.

Best Chinese Restaurant

Le Chang of Boston

Finalists: Mrs. Chen’s, Oriental Buffet

Chopsticks are fashionable again, not that you need them to enjoy the Asian upmarket cuisine at Le Chang in downtown’s art gallery district. The dining room is spacious and exudes quiet glamour. The menu is impressive and vast. Not much tony elegance at Mrs. Chen’s or Oriental Buffet, but the Asian comfort food seems to suit the town just fine.

Best Japanese Restaurant

DaRuMa

Finalists: Jo-To Japanese Steakhouse, Taste of Tokyo

When eating is theater we head for DaRuMa. Not only are the dishes arranged on platters like Oriental sculpture, the chefs’ precision tableside meals are pure entertainment. The pretty drinks from the bar are attractive, too. Jo-To makes a steak dinner a spectator sporting event, and Taste of Tokyo provides just that

Best Thai Restaurant

Bangkok

Finalists: Siam Orchid, Tropical Thai Restaurant and Sushi Bar

Sarasota is rich in the perfumey tastes of Southeast Asia. The Bangkok taught us to love lemongrass. Siam Orchid has a way with seafood and fetching decor and music. And Tropical Thai composes plates that are edible art. These restaurants have enriched our culinary knowledge of a graceful land. Before, we only thought of coconut milk when making pinã coladas. Who knew?

Best French Restaurant

Café of the Arts

Finalists: Café L’Europe, C’est La Vie

Café of the Arts’ Alain Taulere is uncompromising when it comes to authentic French food, classic preparations and the correct pairings of cuisine and fine wine. The 29-year-old Cafe L’Europe’s more wide-ranging Continental menu can still focus brilliantly on the French attitude. And C’est La Vie’s downtown sidewalk cafe and bakery has brought the business of eating French pastry and sandwiches to Sarasota.

Best Mexican Restaurant

Mi Pueblo

Finalists: El Adobe, Two Senoritas

Winner for the second consecutive year, Mi Pueblo has patrons shouting olé and asking for more South of the Border specialties. El Abode, with its comfortable interiors and milder menu, has been a favorite on the dining scene for years, and Two Senoritas taps into the young downtown crowd that wants to meet, mingle, snack and clink margarita glasses.

Best Restaurant to Propose

The Summerhouse Restaurant

Finalists: Alley Cat Cafe, Ophelia’s on the Bay

Within the relaxed and elegant garden setting of the Summerhouse Restaurant on Siesta Key, thoughts naturally turn to romance, making it a traditional place for question popping. Select a cozy corner table or take a stroll in the lush tropical garden. The Alley Cat Cafe is less formal but has plenty of charm, and Ophelia’s offers that stunning waterside deck.

Best Seafood Restaurant

Barnacle Bill’s

Finalists: Bonefish Grill, Phillippi Creek Village Oyster Bar

Barnacle Bill’s has quickly made a big, big splash with salmon specialties, grilled and fried shellfish and great sides served in a comfortable, friendly atmosphere. Bonefish Grill is fast becoming a meeting place for the young crowd as well as families who love the variety. And Philippi Creek, with its tropical waterside ambience, offers the kind of seafood experience that appeals to both locals and seasonal visitors.

Best Restaurant to Seal the Deal

Michael’s On East

Finalists: Patrick’s, Silver Cricket

Honestly, so many contracts are signed on the snowy tabletops at Michael’s On East that proprietor Michael Klauber should just hand out Mont Blanc pens at the door. Within the noisy bustle of Patrick’s saloon interior, networking and deal making can happen even over a burger and a beer. The Silver Cricket excels in Asian serenity, inviting as much careful consideration of a proposal on the table as it does of the sophisticated food.

Best New Restaurant (Opened in 2001)

Bonefish Grill

Finalists: Mi Pueblo (Venice), The Vernona at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota

Under the sign of the skeletal fish on Tamiami Trail is the new place to catch a varied menu of seafood that appeals to all tastes and age ranges. Mi Pueblo expands its Mexican kitchen success to South County, and the Vernona dining room has raised the bar in town for visual elegance, tony comfort, and haute cuisine prepared in the palatial Mediterranean manner.

Best Healthy Restaurant

Sweet Tomatoes

Finalists: Nature’s Way, Panera

There’s plenty on the Sweet Tomatoes buffet for those who are sophisticated about eating smart. Nature’s Way is justly popular with the oats-and-groats crowd. At Panera you can gorge with abandon on specialty bagels and multigrain breads, or you can virtuously order from their healthy salads. But soup in the hollowed-out bread round is a genuine Panera treat, so there goes the diet.

Best Steakhouse

Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse

Finalists: Longhorn Steakhouse, Outback Steakhouse

Sarasota finally got one of Ruth Fertel’s celebrated restaurants two years ago. Quietly luxurious with great service, quality food and impressive wines, Ruth’s Chris definitely sets the standard for high-class, pricey steakhouses. Longhorn and Outback operate at budget price levels, and their casual, family atmosphere dictate long lines and a happy clientele.

Best Restaurant Wine List

Michael’s On East

Finalists: Fred’s, The Tasting Room

Michael Klauber is an acknowledged wine connoisseur who travels extensively in search of exemplary vintages and stocks his restaurant and retail wine shop with fabulous finds. Fred’s and The Tasting Room are side by side and under the same ownership. What you drink in the chic little bistro you can go next door to purchase for meals at home. So convenient. And the Tasting Room wine experts are accommodating and knowledgeable. Cheers to this trio.

Best Power Breakfast

First Watch

Finalists: The Broken Egg, The Serving Spoon

Must be all that protein in the omelets. People who take their first meal of the day at First Watch, The Broken Egg or The Serving Spoon seem ready to take on the world at lightning speed. Or maybe it’s the second cup of coffee. Whichever, real power brokers don’t waste a minute, which means they get up early and head for the restaurants where news is happening.

Best Brunch

The Colony

Finalists: Hyatt, Word of Mouth

Brunch means never having to say you’ll choose between breakfast and lunch. At The Colony, expect fancy resort fare in a relaxed, Gulfside elegance. The Hyatt makes brunch a celebratory experience for both hotel guests and locals who know a good thing when they taste it. At tiny Word of Mouth, the portions are huge, and the food so tasty and original, you’ll be doing word-of-mouth advertising for this place, too.

Best Bar

Fred’s

Finalists: Mi Pueblo (Venice), Patrick’s

There has to be something more than a variety of well-priced drinks for an establishment to build a regular clientele, and all three of our winners have that something special. Fred’s is a premier Generation-X hangout-noisy, chic, and full of beautiful people looking for the trendiest martini. Mi Pueblo attracts crowds to its cozy Latin ambience, and Patrick’s urbane sports saloon offers friendly service and animated conversation.

Best Place to Eat Outdoors

Old Salty Dog

Finalists: Alley Cat Cafe, Ophelia’s on the Bay

Refurbished, the Old Salty Dog on Sarasota’s City Island still retains the charm of an "insider" place. Menu items are simple and satisfying both here and at the restaurant’s Siesta Key location. Eating in the shaded garden at Alley Cat Cafe is a gracious Southern experience enriched by modern Continental food. (And we love the mismatched china.) Sophisticated Ophelia’s has the luxury of a dock on the bay.

Best Early Bird Specials

Café Baci

Finalists: The Lazy Lobster, Rosebuds

Some say the official city bird of Sarasota is the early bird. Smart restaurateurs encourage this by offering value-conscious meals to patrons who want to get home in time for the evening news. Cafe Baci specializes in Northern Italian cuisine. The Lazy Lobster pleases afternoon diners with a variety of seafood specialties. And Rosebuds in Osprey offers a genteel Old World experience of Continental dining in a calm room full of faux red roses and mannerly servers.

Best Non-chain Pizza

Crusty’s

Finalists: Demetrio’s Restaurant and Pizza, Rico’s Pizzeria & Deli

Pizza is a highly personal thing in America, where we’re even more finicky than Italians. In this country, we have New York-style pizza, Chicago style, thin-crust, deep-dish, veggie pizzas, all-white pizzas, even pizza made (and expertly made, too) in a Greek restaurant and served with a big Greek salad. But you rose above the confusion and made your choices clear when you voted for these three winners.

Best Bagels

Einstein Brothers Bagels

Finalists: Manhattan Bagel, Panera

Freshness counts in this category, because a day-old bagel is not a good thing. Variety is important, too, because bagel devotees tend to eat them often. And it’s nice to have a change-in the fall, Panera offered a pumpkin bagel. Manhattan does a fine sun-dried tomato bagel, and everything at Einstein is delish.

Best Dessert

Euphemia Haye

Finalists: Epicure, Yoder’s

Euphemia Haye lavishly showcases its incredible desserts, pastries, pies, cakes and tortes in the upstairs Haye Loft. Regulars can’t resist stopping in a few times a week for coffee and a piece of "whatever." At Epicure and Yoder’s you can order in or take your goodie home. Epicure desserts look so pretty on the plate. Yoder’s gives you the pies like grandmas used to bake.

Best Place for Salad

Sweet Tomatoes

Finalists: Chart House, Panera

At Sweet Tomatoes and the Chart House, you can see the options and compose your own colorful plate of crisp greens and accents both sweet and savory. At Panera, you order from a big menu board and let the staff orchestrate your salad experience. Either way, you win because this trio of taste-test victors understands what makes a great salad-only the freshest ingredients and plenty of variety.

Best Sushi

DaRuMa

Finalists: Pacific Rim, Taste of Tokyo

Sushi (and there are four principal types) was alien to most American palates a decade or so ago. Now even some supermarkets sell sushi. DaRuMa has the most elegant Asian ambience. Pacific Rim is sleek, modern and does a great job with fusion meals as well. Taste of Tokyo provides a rarefied sushi experience at the hands of raw fish experts.

Best Burger

Patrick’s

Finalists: Hob Nob, Steak & Shake

It’s big, juicy, fresh and full of flavor, that burger at Patrick’s. Always reliable, always delicious. The Hob Nob burger is served in a more informal atmosphere, but the experience is satisfying and the clientele colorful. Steak & Shake establishments justly pride themselves on having the recipe for the all-American hamburger.

Best Ice Cream

Kilwin’s

Finalists: Ben & Jerry’s, Big Olaf Creamery

Its homemade fudge made it famous, but Kilwin’s could just as easily trade on the taste and reputation of its ice cream. Soul-satisfyingly delicious. Ben & Jerry serves up quality cream with flavor names that make you smile (Cherry Garcia, Chunky Monkey), and who could resist the waffle cones and fat chunks of hand-cut chocolate chips at Big Olaf?

Best Caterer

Michael’s On East

Finalists: Morton’s Catering, Nellie’s Deli

More than a caterer, Phil Mancini at Michael’s On East is a social force in this town. The MOE Ballroom has become the town’s center stage for charity events, wedding receptions, bar mitzvah celebrations, you name it. Morton’s Market and Nellie’s Deli brilliantly fulfill an ever growing demand for high quality meals served at private parties or in reserved ballrooms.

Best Deli

Nellie’s Deli

Finalists: Morton’s Market, Publix

They call themselves a dilly of a deli, and the folks at Nellie’s are absolutely right. Take home a party platter, a sandwich or salad for a light meal, or a hearty entrée. Everything is fresh and tempting- looking. Morton’s Market and Publix have elevated expectations of busy non-cookers with their astonishing and tasty variety.

Best Gourmet Market

Morton’s Market

Finalists: Granary, Publix

Morton’s provides the gastronomic esoteric as well as the gourmand basics: boutique cheese, interesting crackers, strange imported olives. The Granary has a healthy, veggie attitude, with liquid echinacea as well as bean sprouts, vitamins, protein bean salad and blue corn chips. Publix keeps expanding its imported and domestic specialty products for the thrill-seeking palates of international residents and visitors.

Best Birthday Cakes

Publix

Finalists: Beautiful Cakes by Ron and Pastry Art (tie), Morton’s Market

Ice-cream or whipped cream between the layers, purple roses, even a photographic reproduction of the honoree on the top of the cake. You want it, just ask Publix. Those ladies in the bakery aim to please, and they’re always so nice. For something more haute cuisine, our sophisticated finalists excel in specialty eatable sculptures. You want to take lots of pictures of these custom beauties before you slice into them.

Best Martini

Espresso martini at Silver Cricket

Finalists: Espresso martini at Fred’s, Espresso martini at The Tasting Room

The fact that there is even a category for best martini tells you something about this town. The fact that all three winners combine extra strong black coffee with alcohol must mean we intend to stay up all night. Which means some of the bars and restaurants ought to respond by maybe extending their hours a wee bit. Just a thought.

Best Beer

The Ale House

Finalists: Cock & Bull, Sarasota Brewing Company

Beers from around the world draw legions of adventurers to these temples of hops and yeast. Some say sipping global beers offers an insight into other cultures and stimulates our thirst for a better understanding of geography, international politics, world peace. Yeah, yeah, nice try. The brewskis just taste goodski. And frankly, that ought to be enough.

Best Arts, Entertainment and Sports

Best Performing Arts Group

Asolo Theatre

Finalists: Florida Studio Theatre, Sarasota Ballet of Florida

These three duke it out every year, but the Asolo comes out on top this round with a season that offered a sumptuously mounted American classic ("Born Yesterday"), Shakespearean romance ("Twelfth Night") and two comedies ("Fully Committed" and "The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife"). The ballet wowed ‘em with "Carmina Burana," and FST made "Dinner with Friends" an experience worth sharing.

Best Local Actor or Actress

Carolyn Michel

Finalists: Roberta MacDonald, Sharon Scott

Michel repeats last year’s win, as she headed into a season that gave her a great new role as a New York matron on the verge of a breakdown in "The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife." Scott’s powerhouse vocals are always popular with audiences, and MacDonald demonstrated she’s still superior (Mother Superior, that is) in "Nunsense."

Best Black-Tie Event

UnGala Gala

Finalists: Mistletoe Ball and Florida Winefest & Auction (tie), Out-of-Door Extravaganza

Whether it’s a glamour war (UnGala Gala, Mistletoe) or a bidding war (Winefest, Extravaganza), these events bring out all the beautiful people who like to make a splash while supporting a host of worthy causes. Meanwhile, the Extravaganza’s return to campus proved you can go home again.

Best Place to Work Out

YMCA

Finalists: Gold’s Gym, Shapes

In the land of year-round swimsuits, we can’t afford to get flabby. Fortunately, our array of fitness facilities makes it impossible to slack off. The Y, with three facilities (including the just-remodeled Berlin Branch), aerobics classes and swim areas, gets the gold, but lots of fitness buffs liked Gold’s and Shapes, too.

Best Festival or Special Event

Suncoast Offshore Grand Prix

Finalists: Arts Day, 4th of July

Organizers of the Offshore Grand Prix maintain that reports of their demise last year were greatly exaggerated and promise they’ll be back with those roaring powerboats. We hope they’re right. In the meantime, we have the cultural clout of Arts Day and major fireworks displays at the bayfront and Siesta Key Beach for the 4th of July.

Best Place to Watch a Performance

Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall

Finalists: FSU/Asolo Center, Sarasota Opera House

Performing arts lovers have embraced the renovated Van Wezel, especially since it staged such epic musicals as "Titanic" and "Ragtime" this season. FSU/Asolo Center is a comfortable as well as classy locale (check out that gift shop!) and the Opera House lights up downtown with big-city excitement.

Best Place for Live Music

Five O’Clock Club

Finalists: Gator Club, Mi Pueblo (Venice)

The "Five-0" really earned this award for bringing national talent to town while nurturing homegrown bands and singers. The Gator has one of the best house bands in town. For muy bueno mariachi music, head south to Mi Pueblo in Venice.

Best Nightclub

Gator Club

Finalists: Down Under Jazz Club, Five O’Clock Club

Two of our winners also scored for live music, but they know a good nightclub offers more than a great band. At the Gator, while crowds swing downstairs, others relax with a Scotch and cigar or billiard cue upstairs in the Victorian-era lounge. With its outdoor patio and friendly crowd, the 5-0 offers fun to even the tone-deaf, and Saturday’s D.J. ’70s Night at the Down Under is always standing-room only.

Best Place to Play Tennis

University Park Country Club

Finalists: Bath & Racquet and The Colony Beach & Tennis Resort (tie), Longboat Key Club

Yes, Sarasota is home to international tennis champions and the world’s most famous sports academy, but the real reason we love tennis is all those hot little outfits. And the way our finely buffed tennis pros look in them when they bend over to pick up a loose ball.

Best Place to Play Golf

University Park Country Club

Finalists: Legacy at Lakewood Ranch, Longboat Key Club

Golfers travel from around the world to play the signature No. 5 hole at University Park and the No. 4 and 11 holes at the Arnold Palmer-designed Legacy at Lakewood Ranch. The course at Longboat Key Club reminds people why they visit Florida in the first place-water, sunshine, exotic birds and sailing ships.

Best Museum

The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art

Finalists: G.WIZ, Historic Spanish Point

Once again, voters went for Baroque with the Ringling. But you also recognized that G.WIZ is a feast for the creative child in all of us; and Historic Spanish Point offers as much lush Florida beauty as it does education about old Florida and its ancient peoples.

Best Art Gallery

Galleria Silecchia

Finalists: Chasen Gallery, Paradise Gallery

Galleria Silecchia got raves for its evolving collection of art, furniture, bronze, ceramic and wood sculpture. Chasen houses fine contemporary art glassworks, and Paradise has an eclectic collection of paintings, sculpture, glass and jewelry.

Best Attraction for Kids

G.WIZ

Finalists: Mote Marine Laboratory, Jungle Gardens

We dedicate this category to the kid in all of us. The kid who loves to push buttons, touch wet, squishy things and pet an occasional reptile.

Best Place to Canoe or Kayak

Myakka State Park

Finalists: Midnight Pass, Peace River in Arcadia and Sarasota Bay (tie)

Sarasota’s abundance of protected waters makes it a natural for paddlers. Your favorite is Myakka State Park-and why not, with all those ‘gators and exotic birds to keep you company? Midnight Pass and Sarasota Bay are tops for saltwater fishing, but if you’re in the mood for a lazy day of easy paddling, try the Peace River in Arcadia.

Best Beach

Siesta Key Beach

Finalists: Crescent Beach, Lido Beach

If you ask us, the best beach is the one we’re lying on at any given moment. For sheer size and beauty, though, few can beat Siesta’s blinding white quartz. Coming in close behind are Crescent and Lido Beach, where the sand isn’t quite as bright but the chances of snagging a parking spot are even more so.

Best Scenic Drive

Longboat Key/Gulf of Mexico Drive

Finalists: Casey Key, Downtown Bayfront

Gulf of Mexico Drive runs the length of Longboat Key past a kaleidoscope of bright blooms, manicured lawns and dazzling sea vistas. Casey Key’s meandering two-lane trail will take you past some of Sarasota’s most exclusive homes. And wherever you may live in Sarasota, you can enjoy the downtown bayfront every day. In late afternoon, the water sparkles like diamonds against a sea of bobbing sailboats; at night, the skyline sparkles with a string of glitzy luxury condos and the new Ritz-Carlton.

Best Goods and Services

Best Hair Salon

Victor Leon

Finalists: Alternatives Hair Salon & More, Nuovo Salon & Spa

Rapunzel should be as lucky as the heads in this town. Victor Leon clips the competition with its innovative "lift cut," and all three of our winners make having a bad hair day a distant memory.

Best Travel Agency

AAA Club South Travel

Finalists: Gulliver’s Travels, Siesta Key Travel

Remember when traveling meant adventure, romance, excitement? These guys still do, and we congratulate them all for their performance under extreme pressure over the last nine months.

Best Children’s/Baby Shop (not a department store)

Bennett’s World of Children

Finalists: Baby Gap, Bambinos

Yes, our beautiful babies grow up too fast, but while they’re still tiny and not breaking curfew, outfit them in these places with Sarasota’s most stylish fashions and accessories.

Best Department Store

Dillards

Finalists: Burdines, Saks Fifth Avenue

Shop to live, live to shop. That’s our motto, and we’ve got the stores to suit every taste and savings account.

Best Manicurist

Janine Dixon (Victor Leon)

Finalists: Linda Duff (Alternatives Hair Salon & More), Julie Young (Signature Nails)

The loveliest nails in town wouldn’t go near a frosty cocktail without consulting one of these digit doctors first. Visit them once, and you’ll never bite those precious cuticles again.

Best Massage Therapist

Michelle Buice (Signature Tans) and

Christy Dockery (Fitness Quest) (tie)

Finalists: Andrew Duskin (University Park Country Club) and Gordon Lindsey (Gordon Lindsey’s Therapeutic Massage) (tie)

In mere minutes, our winners will knead, squeeze and soothe every inch of you until you’re a puddle of muscles that has to be peeled off the table. No wonder they’re called therapists.

Best Antique Shop

Sarasota Trading Company

Finalists: Churchill’s, Orange Pineapple

Sarasota is a trove of treasures for antique lovers. With selections that run the gamut from the simple to sublime, the Trading Company, Churchill’s and Orange Pineapple are practically tourist destinations all by themselves.

Best Bookstore

Barnes & Noble

Finalists: Books-a-Million, Main Bookshop

Every bookstore offers its own special pleasures. At Barnes & Noble, it’s the aroma of fresh espresso wafting through aisles of glossy hardbacks. At Books-a-Million, the deep discounts. At Main Bookshop, it’s the umbilical urge to curl up in an antique recliner with one of Cosmo’s cats dozing at your feet.

Best Bank

Bank of America

Finalists: South Trust, SunTrust

Neither a borrower nor a lender be-that’s what these guys are for. In a town bursting with financial institutions, these three stand out for their commitment to integrity, customer service and available ATMs.

Best Florist

Beneva Flowers

Finalists: Mr. Florist Plants ‘n Things, Flowers by Fudgie

Thank goodness for the floral creations of Arthur Conforti’s finely tuned Beneva Flowers, Mr. Florist’s elegant showroom and the laid-back Fudgie on Siesta Key. How else would we make up, break up or welcome new babies into the world?

Best Home Accessories

French Twist and Home Resource (tie)

Finalists: Pottery Barn

Someone once said, put nothing in your home unless it is useful or beautiful. These three places specialize in an endless variety of objects that are exactly that.

Best Consignment Shop

Woman’s Exchange

Finalists: Designer Consigner, Laura Jean’s

Some people sail, some watch football. For others, nirvana is scouring the nooks and crannies of Sarasota’s abundant consignment stores. Woman’s Exchange always scores for its enormous collection of antiques, furniture, clothing, jewelry and more. For designer fashions at a fraction of the original cost, look to Designer Consigner and Laura Jean’s.

Best Gift Shop

Persnickity Cat

Finalists: Elysian Fields, Mary’s on Main

Persnickity Cat’s gigantic showroom is so large that you could stop in for a quick gift and not emerge for days. Elysian Fields serves our higher spiritual selves. Mary’s fine crystal and silverware is perfect for brides and anniversaries.

Best Swimsuits

Swim Mart

Finalists: Signature Tans, Splash

One of the reasons women (and men) love Swim Mart is the monster selection of stylish suits in every size imaginable. The sale racks are especially appealing. Prefer a little sun with your suit? Try Signature Tans. Need a cheap souvenir, too? Then Splash is the place to go.

Best Pet Groomer

PetsMart

Finalists: Bark Place and Pampered Poodle (tie), Southside Village Pet Salon

It’s a real zoo at PetsMart, where dogs, cats, and an occasional rabbit and ferret strut the aisles on the leashes of their proud owners. But far from the madding crowd, the store, like our other winners, will snip and scent our four-legged friends in privacy and style.

Best Spa

The Met

Finalists: John Carl Spa and Salon and Nuovo Salon & Spa (tie), The Colony

Living well is always the best revenge. Even if you’re not currently carrying a grudge, our fabulous spas will pamper you from head-to-toe with mud baths, massages and manicures, oh, my!

Best Gardening Supplies

Home Depot

Finalists: Farm & Garden Supply, Frank’s Nursery

We hire designers to fashion the interiors of our homes. These guys have all the materials to ensure your yards make a fashion statement as well.

Best Lingerie

Victoria’s Secret

Finalists: Giggles, Saks Fifth Avenue

Whether you’re looking for lace, leather or just plain comfy cotton, our lingerie leaders will release your inner goddess. You may also walk away with a pair of fur-lined handcuffs, but that’s another category.

Best Neighborhood for Yard/Estate Sales

Siesta Key

Finalists: Gulf Gate, Harbor Acres

Bargain hunting in Sarasota is so competitive that to some, combing through local yard sales is blood sport. The real winners here are the early birds who rise before dawn to snag the best deals, and they’re doing it most often in Siesta Key, Gulf Gate and Harbor Acres.

Best Dry Cleaners

Cove Cleaners

Finalists: Bob’s Dry Cleaning, Michael The Cleaner

This gown cost me $

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