In our ever-zealous pursuit of investigative journalism, we recently invited some of the town's top bartenders to create a drink that captures the color and flavor of our city. We held our "Ultimate Sarasota Cocktail Contest" (see page 150) poolside at Longboat Key's Colony Beach & Tennis Resort with the Gulf of Mexico shimmering in the setting sun; and while our judges sipped their drinks and filled out their scorecards, they fell to musing about the magic synergy between sea views, sunsets and a tall, tropical drink.
Unfortunately, they all agreed, that synergy is starting to slip away, because the time-honored Florida beach bar is becoming an endangered species. As waterfront real estate prices have skyrocketed, many business owners have sold their Gulf-front properties to developers. That's happening not only in Sarasota, which lost 650 hotel rooms to condo development this year, but all along the west coast of Florida.
As a result, those shacky little hangouts where residents and visitors could gaze out at the Gulf while sipping a drink are now in short supply. When Lido Key's legendary Azure Tides Beach Bar closed several years ago, legions of customers turned out to mourn the loss. The Ritz-Carlton bought the property for its beach club and plans to reopen the beach bar in January; although parking will be reserved for members and guests, beach walkers are welcome. Until then, the only public beach bars we can think of-each one worth checking out-are the Colony's Monkey Bar, Sharky's in Venice, the tiki bar at the Radisson and a few spots up on Anna Maria Island.
But beach bars are only a part of Sarasota's cocktail-and conversation scene; we have places for every mood and mindset. Whether or not you believe, like Samuel Johnson, that "there is nothing which has yet been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern," you probably agree you can tell a lot about a town from its most popular bars. So for this Visitor's Annual, we asked some insiders to pick some of Sarasota's top watering holes. Whether you're a hotel guest looking for a romantic spot or a longtime reader wondering where the young professionals gather, here's what our experts had to say.
Best Bar to Meet Power Brokers: "My father always contended that when you're checking out a community, don't go to City Hall or the Chamber of Commerce," says Kerry Kirschner, former Sarasota mayor and executive director of the Argus Foundation, a business advocacy group. "Instead, talk to the bartender where the business people go. He'll tell you who's important and even make the introduction in an atmosphere that's informal and builds camaraderie." These days in Sarasota, he says, that means Monday night at Patricks. The Main Street establishment attracts "a cross-section of attorneys, stockbrokers and others." Come any time after five, he advises, but there's one caveat: "A lot of these are your entry-level movers and shakers. The real power brokers tend to be working out or home with their families."
Best Sex in the City Bar: Twenty-eight-year-old graphic designer Carissa Warfield says that whenever she starts feeling stranded in a sea of seniors, she heads to downtown's Silver Cricket. She can count on finding fashionable professionals in "their mid-20s to 30s" there, crowding around the big mosaic tile bar and drinking lots of bartender Shannon's chocolate mint martinis. "I'm like-wait, there are young, beautiful people in Sarasota!" she says, "Plus, they're actually working and not mooching off their parents." Weekend nights, expect "standing room only crowds," says Warfield. A word of advice: Get out your Prada and step into some Manolo Blahniks. "You can't go unless you look the part," she cautions. "It's not your around-the-corner bar."
Best Travis McGee Bar: The late, great Sarasota novelist John D. MacDonald sent his big, beat-up hero into all sorts of bars, says Jay Davis, who's organized several conferences devoted to Florida mystery writing. On his own time, McGee was likely to seek out a place "with dark, velvet walls and a good steak" and a bartender who could build him a drink with his signature Plymouth gin. But on the trail of a case, he'd often scope out shady developers, drifters and the occasional damsel in distress, in a "real drinking place, like the Crescent Club on Siesta Key." That little bar with its sultry red lighting was famously depicted in MacDonald's Condominium, when a storm surge smashes it-and the foolhardy souls who have gathered there for a hurricane party-to smithereens. But actually, Davis, notes, even sensible, respectable folk stop in at this spot for its authentic, companionable feel.
Best Bar for Live Music: Phil Phunn, emcee of the Sarasota Bluesfest and host of a broadband Internet show about local music (The Phil Phunn Show at www.rockettv.com)), says, "My favorite place is the Five O'Clock Club on Hillview. They have a different band almost every month, and they cover it all-blues, rock, reggae, Big Band and more." Phunn loves the "neighborhood atmosphere" and the eclectic crowd, and says, "It's so friendly that visitors always come back."
Best Bar to Impress Visitors: When wheeler-dealer auto dealership owner and rising Republican power Vern Buchanan wants to show off Sarasota, he starts out the evening at the Ritz-Carlton bar. "It's got a warm, rich, intimate feel that's clubby and fairly masculine," he says. "It's new, it's downtown, which is convenient, and of course, the service is as good as you can get in this town." In addition to a good wine list, he adds, if you go on a weekend night, you'll find "a pretty good buzz going, with a crowd that includes guests from the hotels and a lot of locals."
Best Elegant Piano Bar: Now here's a surprise. According to pianist Michael Royal, who's performed all over the world, most recently at the Detroit Jazz Festival, "there isn't one right now." Though Royal has been featured at a number of local venues, he says too many customers these days seem to prefer casual dress and their own conversation to an elegant evening that focuses on the musical performer. "I can't think of one Sarasota place that has that romantic ambience, where you can have a drink and really listen to music," he says. "It's all becoming homogenized." Royal is currently playing at the Ritz-Carlton, Naples, however, which leads us to challenge Sarasota's restaurateurs: With all our sophistication and cultural credentials, can't we have a piano bar, too?
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