After nearly a quarter century of covering this town from top to bottom, we've learned a thing or two about the best Sarasota has to offer. We know we have Sarasota's best readers, and you're eager to help us tell the rest of the world what's best about our city, from dining and shopping to heroes and highlights.
And this year's "Best of the Best" competition was-well, the best ever, as paper ballots poured into our office in record numbers and hundreds of you took advantage of our online voting system, logging in thousands of choices.
Tabulating all those votes is no simple task, especially when the answers of some mischievous spellers required extensive analysis-sometimes by more than two people. But we persevered, determined to give every qualified ballot its due and ensure that every citizen's voice be heard.
So here they are, your picks for the best of everything that Sarasota has to offer. The top vote-getters are listed first; finalists are shown below in alphabetical order. Because of several ties, some categories have more than two finalists.
Congratulations to each of our winners, and to each of you as well, for your continued support and enthusiasm. And be sure to tune into contest co-sponsor WWSB Channel 40's "Best of the Best" series, which begins May 2 and runs every Friday throughout the month on the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts.
BEST WATERFRONT RESTAURANT
Finalists: Beach Bistro, The Colony Beach & Tennis Resort, Marina Jack
Water, water everywhere is what diners in this city want for the ultimate mealtime mood enhancer. Ophelia's romantically pairs a Continental menu with tropical views for an incomparable experience for tourists and residents alike.
BEST MEAL DEAL
Finalists: Dutch Heritage, Mi Pueblo
Early birds, snow birds, night owls, legal eagles-all birds of a gourmet feather eventually flock together at this Mennonite restaurant where simple home cookin' leaves money left over to feather your nest.
BEST ITALIAN RESTAURANT
Finalists: Carrabas Italian Grill, Mediterraneo
When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, you're in Sarasota. This area has its share of Italian restaurants, but Cafe Baci stands out for authenticity, quality, and a comfortable ambience. The outside doesn't look like much, but genuine gourmet surprises await within.
BEST CHINESE RESTAURANT
Finalists: Le Chang of Boston, Mrs. Chen's
Not your mother's frozen supermarket egg rolls. Meals at Oriental Buffet deliver all kinds of exotic Asian specialties and an ever-changing menu, along with the health benefits of adding a little ginger and green tea to your diet.
BEST JAPANESE RESTAURANT
Finalists: Jo-To Japanese Steakhouse, Saga Japanese Steakhouse
From sushi to sake to steak prepared and served as if you were in the land of cherry blossoms, DaRuMa has atmosphere and expertise to spare.
BEST THAI RESTAURANT
Finalists: Siam Orchid, Thai Gardens, Tropical Thai
Besides Bangkok's refreshing take on Thai specialties that appeals to nearly everyone, this tastefully appointed restaurant finds fans among vegetarians who can always be assured of special attention and creative dishes.
BEST FRENCH RESTAURANT
C'est La Vie
Finalists: Cafe L'Europe, Cafe of the Arts
Is it the flaky warm croissants, the fruit-filled pastries, the hearty sandwiches or the cross-cultural chatter that keeps the downtown crowd so passionately devoted to C'est La Vie? Eat in, take out or snag a seat under an umbrella on the sidewalk.
BEST MEXICAN RESTAURANT
Finalists: El Adobe, Mi Pueblo
Love those margaritas, the heaping platters of Mexican comfort food and the prices at this colorful downtown eatery. Two Senoritas is a popular meeting place after the monthly art gallery walk and a genuine neighborhood hangout for folks who call downtown home.
BEST RESTAURANT TO PROPOSE
Finalists: Alley Cat Café, Bijou Café, Euphemia Haye, Michael's On East, Ophelia's
If you've got the ring, The Summerhouse will take care of the romantic meal and the ambience. They'll even chill the champagne in advance so your surprise will unfold blissfully. And the lush gardens have been the location for many outdoor wedding ceremonies.
BEST SEAFOOD RESTAURANT
Finalists: Bonefish Grill, Phillippi Creek Village Oyster Bar
Locals love Barnacle Bill's catch-of-the-day because of its fresh, innovative preparation, moderate prices and comfortable, nautical atmosphere.
BEST RESTAURANT TO SEAL THE DEAL
Michael's On East
Finalists: Fred's, Patrick's
It's not just the great food and drink that make Michael's on East the place for auspicious beginnings; there's something about the plush décor that signals good things to come. Drop by any time to spot this town's wheelers and dealers in action.
BEST NEW RESTAURANT (Opened in 2002)
The Bonefish Grill
Finalists: Patria, Too Jay's
Sleek décor, hip patrons, excellent martinis-The Bonefish Grill gives chain restaurants a good name. It outgrew its first location on Tamiami Trail in no time, and stylish gourmands are now packing the new University Park location.
BEST HEALTHY RESTAURANT
Finalists: Nature's Way, Panera
Healthy eating is a pleasure at Sweet Tomatoes, where luscious salad fixings jostle for attention with made-from-scratch soups, pasta cooked every 20 minutes, and freshly baked goodies.
Ruth's Chris Steakhouse
Finalists: Outback Steakhouse, Sam Seltzer Steakhouse
Pricey, but worth the indulgence, Sarasota's premier steakhouse features a majestic décor, professional wait staff and a signature filet so tender it slices with a fork. We like to start with the lobster bisque and end with bread pudding, all complemented by an impressive array of wines and a la carte sides.
BEST WINE LIST
Michael's On East
Finalists: The Colony Beach & Tennis Resort, Fred's
Co-owner Michael Klauber personally selects vintages of an astounding diversity, from a $22 bottle of French Chardonnay to a $750 burgundy. His staff is keenly trained in the art of matching your meal to the appropriate vintage.
BEST POWER BREAKFAST
Finalists: The Broken Egg, The Serving Spoon
Extensive menu aside, First Watch patrons love the leisurely atmosphere and corner coffee-shop feel. There's a tempting array of omelets and hearty bacon and egg meals, as well as baked goods and healthy fruits and grains.
The Colony Beach & Tennis Resort
Finalists: First Watch, Hyatt
Sunday brunch here is not only a long-standing local tradition, it's an opportunity to see and be seen, all while taking in breathtaking water views from the Colony Dining Room.
Finalists: Gator Club, Patrick's
With its snazzy interior and extensive wine and martini menu, Fred's tops the list of late-night hotspots. Also appealing: a delicious selection of nibbles, and the even more delicious-looking people surrounding the gorgeous circular bar.
BEST PLACE TO EAT OUTDOORS
Alley Cat Café
Finalists: Old Salty Dog, Ophelia's
Whether you choose to dine amid lush tropical plants in the courtyard or opt for the tin-roof pavilion, outdoor dining at the Alley Cat transports you to a place of almost mythical romance.
BEST EARLY BIRD SPECIALS
Finalists: Marie's Italian Kitchen, Rosebuds, Steak and Ale
Early diners love Café Baci's great Northern Italian fare, huge portions and reasonable prices. Osso buco once a week; make sure you arrive early for the choicest cuts.
BEST NON-CHAIN PIZZA
Finalists: Caragiulo's, Demetrio's Restaurant and Pizza, Honeycrust
Who would have thought that a town renowned for its citrus would have a plethora of authentic pizza joints? Whether it's deep pan, Chicago-style, or Little Italy, you'll find it in Sarasota. But if you want a slice at Panificio, be aware the parking lot fills fast over lunch hour.
BEST PLACE FOR DESSERT
Finalists: Epicure, Yoder's
Euphemia's Haye Loft is a loving ode to the self-indulgent sugar glutton in all of us. Enjoy desserts and coffee in overstuffed sofas while soothing jazz lingers in the background. Feeling decadent? Skip dinner and head upstairs first.
BEST PLACE FOR SALAD
Finalists: Columbia, Crispers
It's no surprise that the winner of the best healthy food would take the salad award, especially since the salad bar here spans what seems like the length of a city block.
Finalists: Jo-to Japanese Steakhouse, Pacific Rim, Taste of Tokyo
Sarasota takes its sushi seriously, and DaRuMa diners are loyal to a fault. And why not, when they can enjoy specialties like tuna, salmon and eel and breathtaking bay views?
Finalists: Chili's, Hob Nob
Not every cheeseburger prepared in Sarasota is paradise, but at Patrick's, a burger comes pretty darn close. Regulars at the friendly restaurant and bar at the corner of Five Points downtown swear by its juicy beef burgers, grilled to such perfection that it's hard to keep your tablemates from swiping bites.
Michael's On East
Finalists: Morton's Catering, Nellie's Deli
For years, Michael Klauber and Phil Mancini have been creating gourmet cuisine for special events that range from intimate business luncheons to grand fund-raisers and weddings. As good as the food is the professional staff that prepares and presents it with signature aplomb.
Finalists: Morton's Market, Publix
A deli is where we go when we need something good, quick and reasonable. Nellie's is a hometown favorite that manages to be all three-and consistently creative as well.
BEST GOURMET MARKET
Finalists: Granary, Publix
Even with a wealth of selections that rival those in any big city, Morton's retains the feel of a neighborhood grocery. The aisles can be tight when downtown employees jostle for ready-made dinners on their way home from work, but the staff is hospitable and the food first-rate.
Finalists: C'est la Vie, Panera
How lucky are we that the best bakery in town resides inside the biggest and best-managed supermarket. Even the pickiest purists line up for these fresh goods, from signature birthday cakes to an abundance of breads, muffins, pastries and more.
Espresso Martini at Fred's
Finalists: Chocolate Martini at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, Espresso Martini at Silver Cricket
How about a drink that promises a jolt of caffeine with its relaxing vodka base? It may be a mixed message, but voters went wild for Fred's mix of this seductively sweet beverage. Just be sure to check your upper lip for a cocoa mustache.
BEST BEER SELECTION
The Ale House
Finalists: Bennigans, Sarasota Brewing Company
A cool draught is a lifesaver in Sarasota's heat, thanks to these winners. The Ale House comes out on top with a heady selection of brews, including the addition this year of that ancient Belgian beauty, Stella Artois.
BEST ART, ENTERTAINMENT & SPORTS
BEST PERFORMING ARTS GROUP
Finalists: Florida Studio Theatre, Sarasota Ballet of Florida
The verdict is in: With a strong production of the courtroom drama Inherit the Wind and a moving Brighton Beach Memoirs, among other offerings this season, the Asolo (also last year's winner) kept its place in your hearts. Now if it can somehow hold on to the Conservatory.
BEST LOCAL ACTOR OR ACTRESS
Finalists: Carolyn Michel, Bradford Wallace
By the voting deadline, Scott's big voice and big presence hadn't appeared in a theater company production this season, but her fans have not forgotten her. Maybe this win will encourage Scott and local theaters to join forces again.
BEST BLACK TIE EVENT
Finalists: Mistletoe Ball, Out-of-Door Extravaganza
Every year the top-drawer committee working to present the UnGala strives to come up with something new and different in the world of benefit bashes, and you all agree they again succeeded. The glorious setting of the Ringling Museum's courtyard and loggias doesn't hurt, either.
BEST PLACE TO WORK OUT
Finalists: Gold's Gym, Southside Athletic Club
We're still discovering the benefits of all those machines in the workout room at the renovated Berlin Branch, while our young ones can't get enough of the water slides at the Selby Aquatic Center by Palmer Ranch. And downtown's location is so convenient we really have no excuse for not getting there more often-darn it.
BEST FESTIVAL OR SPECIAL EVENT
Suncoast Offshore Grand Prix
Finalists: Sarasota Film Festival, A Taste of Sarasota
You love the roar of those big powerboat engines (and maybe the bikini-clad young ladies who pose with their owners?), but this year's expanded film fest and the opportunity to sample all those goodies from local restaurants also made your motors race.
BEST PLACE TO WATCH A PERFORMANCE
Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall
Finalists: FSU/Asolo Center, Sarasota Opera House
The legal battle over our lavender lovely's renovation continues, but that doesn't stop audiences from pouring into the hall for big shows like Riverdance and Rent and big stars like Tony Curtis and Bill Cosby. Maybe the new dining service from Café L'Europe in the Grand Foyer has something to do with that.
BEST PLACE FOR LIVE MUSIC
Five O'Clock Club
Finalists: Gator Club, Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall
When the cars start lining up on Hillview in the evening, you know performers like bluesman Tom Cat Blake or reggae/ska masters Strangeways are playing at the Five-O. It's intimate, it's a little noisy, and it's fun.
BEST PLACE TO PLAY TENNIS
University Park Country Club
Finalists: Bath & Racquet, The Colony Beach & Tennis Resort
There's lots of court action at University Park, with league play, tournaments, lessons and friendly matches filling the schedule year-round. Bet you can't play just once.
BEST PLACE TO PLAY GOLF
University Park Country Club
Finalists: The Legacy Golf Course at Lakewood Ranch, TPC at Prestancia
University Park's golf has been top-ranked by everyone from Florida Golf News to Golf Digest to the real experts-you.
The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art
Finalists: G.WIZ, Museum of Asian Art
Attendance has zoomed at the Ringling Museum since they re-opened the Cà d'Zan; and if you like the place now, just wait until that new visitor's center and expanded circus museum come on board.
BEST ART GALLERY
Finalists: Galleria Silecchia, Wyland
You get caught up in looking at the pre-Columbian ceramics or the tribal masks from Africa, and then you turn around and wham! you're struck by the Surrealist-influenced photographs of Jerry Uelsmann. Credit the eclectic tastes and talents of Missing Link gallery owner Frank Breuer.
BEST ATTRACTION FOR KIDS
Finalists: Jungle Gardens, Mote Marine Aquarium
Sure, kids love it, but, hey, we grownups like it, too. Personally, we love moving around the little action figures and Lego pieces to make those animated movies, and the butterfly garden's nice, too.
BEST PLACE TO HIKE, CANOE OR KAYAK
Myakka State Park
Finalists: Lido Beach, Oscar Scherer State Park
Myakka is not just a journey in space, it's a time trip as well. Once you get into the heart of this 28,000-acre wildlife refuge (the state's largest park), you're in Florida before man's arrival, where bobcats roam, owls hoot, and maybe even the mighty panther prowls. Don't say we didn't warn you.
Finalists: Crescent, Lido
We love them all. That's why we keep a beach towel and sunscreen in the car at all times. Because you never know when you just might have to play hooky.
BEST GOODS & SERVICES
BEST HAIR SALON
Finalists: Spa Hollywood, Yellow Strawberry
Talk about the cutting edge! At Victor Leon and Sarasota's other top salons you'll get creative designers, coloring and styles that prompt passers-by to inquire where on earth you got that fabulous do.
BEST TRAVEL AGENCY
AAA Club South Travel
Finalists: Gulliver's Travels, VIP Travel
AAA offers discounts on area attractions, vacation rentals, hotel reservations, cruises and tours, even luggage. Plus, trip planners come complete with speed trap warnings (a must in uncharted territory).
BEST CHILDREN'S/BABY SHOP (not a department store)
Bennett's World of Children
Finalists: Baby Gap, Bambinos
More than just a clothing shop for youngsters, Bennett's features everything from toys to pint-sized furniture and accessories that suit any underage lifestyle.
Susie Del Castillo (Victor Leon)
Finalists: Kelli Binns (Signature Nails), Julie Young (Signature Nails)
A well-dressed woman must have the nails to match, and these winners will help you get them.
BEST MASSAGE THERAPIST
Michelle Buice (Signature Nails)
Finalists: Andrew Duskin (University Park Country Club), Karen Knieriem (Essential Health Care)
There may be bad massage therapists-though we've never met one-but these are the ones you say are the very best.
BEST ANTIQUE SHOP
Sarasota Trading Company
Finalists: Chrissy's, Country Loft
Scrounging through these packed aisles is like sifting through the trunks in your crazy great-grandmother's attic. You're bound to find something that's quirky, beautiful, classic, functional, or downright valuable. Be sure to check every nook and cranny-treasures lie hidden everywhere here.
Barnes & Noble
Finalists: Books-a-Million, Main Bookshop
The bookselling giant attracts residents of all shapes and sizes, gender and age, with a daily diet of aromatic coffee and deli treats, CD listening rooms, author appearances and guest lectures. The immaculate interior and regular deep discounts are winners, also.
Bank of America
Finalists: SunTrust, Wachovia (formerly First Union)
Banks' services, products and even their names keep changing, but the qualities that distinguish the best-integrity, responsibility and a commitment to their customers and community-remain the same.
Finalists: Bee Ridge Florist, Mr. Florist Plants 'n Things
From his unassuming location in a strip mall off Beneva Road, owner Arthur Conforti has successfully merged the fine art of flower design with computerized systems and savvy promotion. Name a regular customer and he's likely to tell you his or her favorite rose. And those friendly customer service reps ensure every arrangement arrives fresh and beautiful.
BEST HOME ACCESSORIES
Finalists: Home Goods, Pier One Imports
The home store that inspired an entire episode of the TV sitcom Friends several years ago is also inspiring many Sarasota homes. Its smooshy soft fabrics, smartly styled furniture and an evolving line of nostalgic accessories give trendy cocooners hep-cat comfort.
BEST CONSIGNMENT SHOP
Finalists: Designer Consigner, Laura Jean's
The last resting place for luxurious furs, household furniture and anything else that well-heeled residents want to unload. This anchor of the SoMa district at Oak Street and Orange Avenue is so popular that during high season, there's often a line of luxury cars waiting for a space in the parking lot. The best part-all proceeds benefit charitable causes in Sarasota.
BEST GIFT SHOP
Finalists: Elysian Fields, Mary's on Main
Can't decide what to give that special someone? Then head to Persnickety Cat, home of every little thing on earth: needlepoint, candles, knick-knacks, pillows, cards, pet items-the list goes on forever.
Finalists: Splash, Swim City
Not all of us were cut out for itsy- bitsy teeny-weeny yellow polka-dot bikinis-but everyone can find a style to suit at Swim Mart. Along with skimpy shockers, Swim Mart stocks compassionate separates that flatter any figure, dozens of designer labels and accessories for men, women and children.
BEST PET GROOMER
Finalists: The Pampered Poodle, Southside Village Pet Salon
If animals could talk..Hey, Scottie, sorry I'm late. Been dying to get to PetSmart all day, but my owner had to stop at three places first. (Humans, can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em.) As soon as I get a bath and blow dry, I'm heading straight over to pick up a new squeak toy and check out that Irish setter.
Finalists: Body & Spirit, Spa Hollywood
Day spa fanatics say the world melts away once they reach the top of the curving staircase at The Met's day spa on St. Armands Circle. The atmosphere offers Zen-like tranquility and the treatments are oh-so divine.
Finalists: Burdines, The Girl from Ipanema
Victoria's is so alluring and feminine that men still blush when they enter its sweet-scented interior. The guys may favor the lusty merry widows, but a word of advice here: Your girlfriends are mad for Victoria's silky cotton undies, too.
BEST NEIGHBORHOOD FOR YARD SALES
Finalists: Harbor Acres, Southgate
With miles of winding streets, enough retirees to guarantee great vintage finds and a steady flow of new residents who discovered they packed way too much for their Florida ranch, Gulf Gate is garage-sale heaven indeed.
BEST DRY CLEANERS
Finalists: Bob's Cleaners, Michael the Cleaners
If Sarasota looks clean, presentable and well-pressed, these are the folks to thank.
BEST PRIVATE SCHOOL
Finalists: Julie Rohr Academy, New Gate School
Remember those rumors that Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman had enrolled their children at Out-of-Door on Siesta Key? They hadn't, but if that ill-fated couple had ever moved here, they probably would have picked this prestigious academy with campuses on Siesta Key and in Lakewood Ranch. For more than half a century, it's offered advanced academics and extracurricular programs to Sarasota students.
BEST LIMOUSINE SERVICE
Finalists: All American Limousines, Black Tie Limousine
Wanted: drivers. Must be punctual, discreet about backseat liaisons and able to corral rambunctious teenagers, bachelor and bachelorette parties. And if they're driving for Longboat Limousine, they must be able to handle any car in the fleet, from a vintage 1961 Rolls Royce or a 29-foot cabin cruiser to the Mercedes with extra leg room.
BEST NEW COMPANY
Finalists: Giovannie Day Spa, Hammond Financial Group, The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota
Word on the street about this bakery has been as hot as the dough rising in its aromatic ovens ever since it opened last year in Sarasota Pavilion. Residents are traveling out of their way to snatch up the golden-brown breads, tasty bakery treats and soups and sandwiches.
BEST HOTSPOTS & HIGHLIGHTS
BEST SARASOTA SOUVENIR
Finalists: Shells, a Tan
So that's why we have to keep replenishing our beaches!
BEST PLACE TO TAKE VISITORS
Finalists: John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, St. Armands Circle
Many visitors head straight from the airport to roll up their thermal underwear and plunge their pale toes in our sugary sand. And no Sarasota vacation is complete without a champagne toast at sunset while azure waves lap at the ebbing shoreline.
BEST PLACE FOR A FIRST DATE
Finalists: Selby Gardens, St. Armands Circle, The Summerhouse
Why not? The beach is, after all, free; it's definitely romantic, and there's lots of room to get lost if things don't go all that-well, swimmingly.
BEST LOCAL TV PERSONALITY
Scott Dennis (Anchor WWSB-TV)
Finalists: Bob Harrigan (Meteorologist WWSB-TV), Vida Urbonas (Anchor WWSB-TV)
Dennis has been with WWSB-TV since 1985, an eternity in today's television market. He rose through the ranks of weekend sportscaster to sports director and, in 1995, was named anchor. He's been charming viewers with his soothing and knowledgeable demeanor ever since.
University Park Country Club
Finalists: Lakewood Ranch, Palmer Ranch
Let us count the ways University Park has made its name in this region: Numerous readers' choice awards, rated one of America's best golf courses by Golf Week Magazine, rated four stars by Golf Digest and as "the best in American living" by the National Association of Home Builders.
State Representative Katherine Harris
Finalists: Carolyn Mason, David Mills
No chads hanging over this vote!
BEST FREE FUN
Finalists: Fishing, First Friday Downtown Strolls
Nature, sport and art-you people are so-o-o well-rounded.
BEST SARASOTA CONTROVERSY
Finalists: Katherine Harris, Midnight Pass
The bridge is halfway finished and still causing mischief, with construction halted twice for cracks and other defects. But contractors say it's on schedule for completion in 2003. No doubt next year we'll hear your opinion of the finished product.
BEST PLACE TO SEE AND BE SEEN
Finalists: Michael's On East, The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota
You may be nobody 'til somebody loves you, but in Sarasota, you're nobody 'til someone's seen you at Fred's, that noisy, bustling bistro on Hillview that's the place to rub bare shoulders with Sarasota's loveliest up-and-comers.
MOST INFLUENTIAL PERSON IN TOWN
Patrick K. Neal
Finalists: Katherine Harris, Carolyn Mason
Pat Neal and Katherine Harris keep topping this category, but this year you also recognized our hardworking city commissioner and former mayor Carolyn Mason.
BEST DRESSED MAN
Finalists: Kasey O'Donnell, Robert Roskamp
Interior designer Kurt Lucas dresses like royalty, which makes sense, since he designed and lives in that house that looks like a miniature castle on Mound Street.
BEST DRESSED WOMAN
Finalists: Katherine Harris, Michael Saunders
Not even an anchor desk can hide the winning style of this WWSB-TV newswoman, who even looked great in that maternity wear she sported earlier this year.
BEST THING THAT COULD HAPPEN IN 2003
Finish John Ringling Bridge
Finalists: Slow growth, World peace
Readers, relax! The bridge will be finished in 2003. It's time to start working on the other two.
BEST PART OF LIVING HERE
Finalists: Beach, cultural atmosphere
The Sarasota story in a nutshell.
As it was in the beginning, is now-and we hope shall ever be.