Every year, we ask our readers to choose "The Best of the Best" in all sorts of different categories. This year, you responded by nominating close to a thousand outstanding restaurants, shops and experiences in the Sarasota area. You’ll read about the top vote getters inside-more than 191 winners and finalists in all-but being the opinionated infomaniacs we are, we editors always have some ideas and yes, oddities, that don’t make your final list. So once again this year, we’re offering up our personal picks of places and pastimes that make Sarasota our favorite spot on earth. (With thanks to Glenn Braverman, Susan Burns, Marsha Fottler, Kay Kipling, David Higgins and Hannah Wallace.)
Best healthy excursion: Drive out to Jessica’s Stand on 47th Street and load up on incredibly delicious, certified organic tomatoes, celery, cucumbers and more.
Best way to learn Italian: Listen to the chit-chat of waiters at Jolly Espresso Bar and the adjoining Café Epicure on Palm Avenue.
Best way to bond with your dog: Share sunshine and lunch at a picnic table at O’Leary’s in Bayfront Park; you order the blackened grouper sandwich, and he can dine from the communal dog dish.
Best deep-sea diving: Eat your way through the 10 ceviche selections at Selva Grill.
Best children’s entertainment: Van Wezel’s already excellent Saturday Mornings for Kids series is even more fun now, with pony rides, face painting, games and refreshments outdoors.
Best budget pillows: The Thai silk creations at East Indies Home.
Best reason to call a cab: Your second Bahi Hut "Sneaky Tiki" cocktail of the evening.
Best concert to travel for: On May 14, WMNF’s Tropical Heatwave in Ybor City features multiple stages, more than 20 bands and the dancing-est crowd around.
Best proof of human cloning: How else could chef Paul Mattison juggle all his top-quality restaurants, culinary tours and a new kitchen shop, too?
Best drug-free way to revisit the ’70s: Tucked away off Bahia Vista, the dark and cozy Melting Pot revives the forgotten art of fondue. (If only the tabletop pots came in harvest gold or avocado green.)
Best earthy experience: Head to Ellenton to take one of Blake Whisnant’s free classes on gardening in his wonderful Earth Box containers. (Call 800-821-8838 or go to earthbox.com.)
Best South Trail hotspot: At Simon’s deli, the green soup, paninis and apple lemonade are amazing, and you’ll see movers and shakers from all over town.
Best thing to do after seeing everything else on the Ringling grounds: Sit on the Cà d’Zan terrace with a cold beer from the snack bar and soak up the architecture and bay views.
Best way to give your house Hollywood glamour: Choose a piece from the collection of mirror-clad furniture at Parker Robinson on Main Street.
Best new wine bar: Cru on Main Street has fine wine downstairs, fine food upstairs and fine-looking folks wherever you look.
Best way to celebrate sunset: Kayak through Jim Neville Preserve to see roseate spoonbills and more, then pull ashore and uncork some champagne on secluded Midnight Pass Beach.
Best alternative to Gulf-front sunsets: Take in twilight on the bird walk at Myakka River State Park, where wading birds and waterfowl outnumber humans 100 to one.
Best chance to get culturally au courant: At the Sarasota County Arts Council’s SmARTtalk luncheons, directors, critics, dancers, artists and other creative types talk about (and sometimes demonstrate) what they do, then answer questions from the audience.
Best place to see high-priced interior designers: At the Woman’s Exchange, Sarasota Trading Company and Curtis Brothers’ secondhand furniture store downtown.
Best neighborhood hangout: At Knick’s at Southside Village, the beer is cold, the burgers are grilled just right, and pretty soon, everybody knows your name.
Best bayfront walk: City Island now has boardwalks through the mangroves, sailboats, picnic tables and parking, even during season. (And you can bring the dogs.)
Best Korean food: Sam Oh Jung at Bayshore Plaza in Bradenton serves up kim chee pickled side dishes, really spicy pork and noodles and great prices.
Best thing to do on a rainy day: Bring an umbrella and follow the path through a magic rain forest under banyan trees and through bamboo stands at Selby Gardens.
Best sale: At Foxy Lady’s late-summer progressive sale, some of Sarasota’s most stylish clothes end up marked down 70 percent.
Best plant show: The Fruit & Nut Society’s annual rare fruit tree sale.
Best jazz ensemble: Michael Royal’s trio (led by the brilliant pianist and with a bass player who has conducted for the Moscow Philharmonic), now playing at Fred’s for Sunday brunch.
Best edgy art: The series of contemporary plays, including Edward Albee’s The Goat and the Death Row stories of The Exonerated, on Florida Studio Theatre’s Gompertz stage this season.
Best use of a vacant building: Downtown developer Bill Isaac’s opening the defunct Ovo Café for art shows on weekends.
Best bully: Harvey Vengroff, who threatened to kill his Backlot theater and move his company to Bradenton if officials didn’t grant approvals. But, hey, it worked-good news for theater lovers.
Best new urban destination: Why are Lexuses parking on Central? To shop the Rosemary District’s cool new businesses, from a gourmet olive oil shop to a hip new dinner restaurant.
Best sidewalk double-take: Jack Dowd’s marvelous, scary-looking giant bronze sumo wrestler in front of the Dabbert Gallery on pretty, peaceful Palm Avenue.
Best neighborhood to shop, live, eat and work in: Burns Court (drop in and see us in Suite 205 in the U.S. Garage).