I was sipping chardonnay on the deck of the $30 million SeaFair (how’s that for a wonderful way to begin a sentence?) when a couple approached me. Our magazine was hosting the kickoff Sarasota party aboard the mega-yacht, which stops at posh destinations and invites visitors aboard to view (and to shop in) its 20-some art galleries. Our party was for the planned Sarasota Museum of Art, and the couple—Neal and Jill Colton—were guests of a museum supporter. “We want to thank you,” Neal told me.
“For the party?” I asked. “Well, sure,” he said. “But mainly for the magazine.”
Neal is a lawyer, still practicing in Philadelphia, and Jill is a retired college professor. They’ve been visiting Sarasota for several years, and when they came across our magazine, they subscribed. They recently bought a house here, and now they come down for a week or two every month. “Thanks to Sarasota Magazine, we know the best places to eat, the best things to do and the causes that connect with our interests,” Jill said. They’ve become big fans of arts groups such as the ballet, FST and Asolo Rep and plan to get involved with the Ringling Museum and Ringling College, too.
I’m sharing this story not to brag (OK, maybe just a little) but to introduce this annual “Best of Sarasota” issue. Every month, we try to connect you with what’s wonderful about living here, but in this issue, we do that full force. First we poll our readers about their favorite shops, restaurants and experiences. Then our editors and reporters get together to choose “The Best of the New.” And this year we went a step farther, asking experts to make some big, bold picks, from “Best Sarasota View” and “Best Sarasota Neighborhood” to the biggest, boldest pick of all—yes, I am talking about “Best Sarasota Restaurant.”
In a town full of impassioned foodies, we knew that could be an explosive topic, and I was bracing for fireworks when we convened the judges: our food reviewer, John Bancroft; contributing food editor and blogger chef Judi Gallagher; retired consumer advocate and all-around gourmet Howard Tisch; and celebrated private chef Jeremy Hammond-Chambers.
But instead of a war, our meeting turned into a love fest, with most of the same restaurants on every judge’s short list. As I listened to them discuss the contenders, I learned two things.
The first: Foodies are total, besotted romantics. They rhapsodized over their favorites like Romeo mooning over Juliet: “When you walk in and smell that bread baking, your heart starts beating faster”; “The Gorgonzola will make you cry”; “His pork belly cemented my love.”
The second: Food is not the most important measure of a restaurant. “I like innovative food, but I want to be assured that every aspect of my experience will be excellent,” said Hammond-Chambers. Atmosphere, service, and consistency were cited again and again. So was cleanliness. Bathrooms, it turns out, are incredibly important. A gorgeous bathroom wins points; a dirty one sinks the entire ship. They also appreciated value. A place with “superb” cuisine was faulted for exorbitant prices; an inexpensive upstart won high marks for its flawlessly executed concept and food.
Creativity counted heavily. In fact, some of the town’s longest-running establishments didn’t make the cut because the judges felt they were “tired” or “have lost momentum.” But much as they valued originality and “chef-driven” restaurants, they ranked several chains high—for consistent professionalism and an operator who “runs it with the passion of a private restaurateur.”
And the winner was? To see that, click here. (And tell us your choice for Best Sarasota Restaurant by emailing me at email@example.com.) Ultimately, of course, we’re the real winners, from old-timers like me to newcomers like the Coltons. Why? Because we live in a place with so many wonderful restaurants, enterprises and experiences to enjoy. Welcome to the “Best of 2011.”