Inside this issue, you’ll find the 230 places, people and adventures our readers named the best of Sarasota for 2006. They cover a lot of territory, from beachfront restaurants to country club golf courses out east. But one part of Sarasota is adding new shops, restaurants and experiences so rapidly, we decided it needed a "best" list all its own. We’re talking about our new downtown, of course, and we asked some adventurous editors and insiders what they like best about Sarasota’s rapidly transforming urban core. Their answers have already inspired us to sample new places and pleasures, and we hope they’ll do the same for you. (With thanks to Bob Ardren, Susan Burns, Ilene Denton, Larry Eger, Judi Gallagher, Pat Haire, Patty Larsen, Chris Miller, Mary McCulley and Hannah Wallace.)
Best downtown seating: Settle into the comfy new couches next to the bar at Selva Grill to enjoy drinks and conversation before moving on to ceviche or a full dinner.
Best place to enjoy the Saturday paper (or surf the Net): At the new downtown Starbucks, before or after grabbing groceries at the Farmers’ Market or lunch at Whole Foods.
Best happy hour: Any hour at O’Leary’s new tiki bar in Bayfront Park is a happy one, with water views, live music from 11:30 a.m. on, cheap drinks and quick service, too-since you’re never more than a foot away from the bartender.
Best streetside café: At the handsome new outdoor bar at Smokin’ Joes you can order from a great selection of beers and enjoy sunshine and fresh air-even if the guy next to you lights up one of the shop’s imported cigars.
Best fashion advice: At her L. Boutique at Burns Court, Leanne Swor has not only assembled an inspired collection of haute clothing, she’s also helping some of the town’s best-dressed women redefine their look.
Best place to raise a glass: At the weeknight tastings at Whole Foods, where you can cruise the take-out counters while sipping a cool new South African chardonnay or a Spanish rioja.
Best alternative to skateboarding: Surf is up at the new Freaky Tiki’s on Main Street, where mellow Marley rules the speakers and groovy gear for board and beach fills the racks.
Best enchanted garden: Behind Sarasota Collection in the Rosemary District, where Marcus and Pam Anast have transformed a shabby back yard into a romantic showcase for their custom-designed teak furniture and an Arabian-nights canopy; their Friday night parties there for friends and customers are becoming the hottest ticket in town.
Best place for a ladies’ lunch: At pretty, vine-covered DJ’s, you can order a lovely chopped salad and still leave room for the house’s specialty dessert, the chocolate pyramid (think chocolate on chocolate on chocolate).
Best bargain bling: The new Jaxi’s in Towles Court is a treasure trove of inexpensive accessories, from nifty necklaces to summer sandals.
Best meditation on style: Harmony meets hip at Lotus on Main Street, where a spirited selection of candles, linens, clothing and more aims to create a more blissful lifestyle. Where else can you find both Australian Ugg boots and Zents Earth bath salts?
Best place to feel like a VIP: The intimate, low-key bar at the Bijou Café, where you’ll hang with all of Sarasota’s major players, and be treated like one, too. Sometimes we’ll order dinner from the bartender and stay there all night.
Best non-hair reason to visit a salon: Even if you don’t need a trim, it’s worth walking into Ana Molinari’s to check out her ever-changing collection of unique accessories; she has more next door at her bridal shop, La Mariée.
Best cultural day trip: OK, it’s not downtown, but just 10 minutes away, the Ringling Museum has enormously expanded and improved its facilities. For just $15 (or for free on Mondays) you can take in the spectacularly renovated Cà d’Zan, the new Tibbals Learning Center’s fantastic circus exhibits, a new visitor’s center and gift shop-not to mention an entire museum full of art.
Best proof that we’re way ahead of the curve: When a dog bakery opened in Brooklyn not that long ago, the New York Times went on and on about the concept, but guess what? Sarasota’s Max’s Dog Bakery has been serving canine customers for years.
Best new public art: Call them eggs, cocoons, pills or whatever, those smooth spheres in front of the new Sarasota Herald-Tribune building help make that futuristic structure fun and approachable.
Best outdoor sport: Businesses along Main Street no longer hang "Gone Fishing" signs on their doors like they did on slow summer afternoons decades ago, but folks still cast their lines downtown-including fly fishermen who land snook and even an occasional tarpon by the new Ringling Bridge.
Best way to navigate the new downtown: Small, not too speedy and great on gas mileage, motor scooters are also a blast to ride; and they can slip into the tiniest spaces whenever you want to stop.
Best Asian imports: At A Taste of Asia, Laotian, Thai and other Far East flavors mingle magnificently in dishes such as the char-grilled bun shrimp, fired with spice and cooled by mint and lettuce; and the new owners at Pho Cali are creating exciting Vietnamese food-don’t miss the clams with basil and brown sauce.
Best juxtaposition of the new and old Sarasota: In Laurel Park, where two neighborhood joints tell the story: the Short Stop, which sells beer, lotto tickets and take-out food and groceries to good old business boys and street people alike, and right around the corner, the Metro Café, serving latte, panini and wine to a hip, tech-savvy young crowd.
Best mob scene ever: Weekend nights all year round and almost any night in season, stroll down Main Street and you’ll see people of every age and background crowding sidewalk cafés and restaurants, heading to the theater, waiting in line for book signings at Sarasota News & Books, or maybe even watching one of the Sarasota Film Festival’s outdoor screenings. And similar activity is taking place on side streets and over in Rosemary. That downtown they’ve been promising us for years? It’s here, folks!