Before you start reading about this year's winners in our annual "Best of the Best" competition, let me congratulate you on winning some accolades of your own. New York's MRI, the nation's largest media research firm, recently surveyed our subscribers; and they tell us that our Southwest Florida readers are the most affluent of all the regional audiences they study-including Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle, to name just a few. Specifically, subscribers to our Naples publication, Gulfshore Life, led the country in wealth, and SARASOTA subscribers ranked No. 2.
Money isn't everything, of course-SARASOTA subscribers also outscored other readers in education, travel, interest in the arts and community service. But it's a measure of our city's growing prosperity that even the average among you has an annual household income of $277,300, a net worth of $1, 272,800 and that 36 percent own at least one vacation home.
It's thrilling-and a little daunting-to be publishing for an audience like that, so we appreciate that 96 percent of you said you read the magazine regularly and thoroughly and that 83 percent discuss what you read with others.
We want to make sure we keep giving you lots to talk about, so we once again asked our editors for their own personal "bests" about living in Sarasota. With thanks to Susan Burns, Ilene Denton, Marsha Fottler, Pat Haire, Kay Kipling and Anu Varma, here are our 2004 "Best of the Best" editor's picks.
Best Revolutionary Idea: The COEXISTENCE exhibition at Bayfront Park. Sarasota was the smallest city to be included in the national tour of this inspiring exhibition, which features giant posters created by artists to change the way we think about the "others" in our societies.
Best Appetizer: Sean Murphy's Death by Foie Gras ($19) at the Beach Bistro. There's just nothing else like it.
Best Heavy Pedal: Try to bike to the top of the new Ringling Bridge without leaving your seat. Even if you can't, you'll get cooling breezes and spectacular views-plus a doozy of a ride down the other side.
Best Restaurant Redesign: The Sarasota University Club always had some of the city's best views, but now the inside vistas wow diners, too. Don't miss Joe Barren's floral murals in the Garden Room.
Best Little Stage: Venice Little Theatre's intimate Stage II risks material most community theaters won't touch, like Stephen Sondheim's Assassins and Jeff Daniels' Boom Town. It's a drive for some, but a refreshing change from ordinary fare.
Best Architecture to Eat: At the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, chef Stephane Cheramy's lofty, fragile constructions of chocolate, fruits and lighter-than-clouds creams. The best part: toppling the tower and diving in.
Best Dog Trainer: No-nonsense Roz xxx of Top Dog Training is the canine counterpart to the horse whisperer. In seconds, she can make a wriggling puppy sit and stay. Now, if only she accepted unruly kids as students.
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Best Reincarnation of the Drive-in Movie: From football to NASCAR, if it's a major night-time sporting event, Mr. Big's on Clark Road projects it on the wall in the adjacent parking lot. Cheap drinks, great crowd. Go, team!
Best-Laid Plot: Your own little patch in one of the county's community gardens, where you can grow fresh produce and friendships with fellow gardeners, who range from foodie Boomers to newly arrived Chinese immigrants.
Best New Place for Ice Cream: Jolly, on Palm Avenue next to Epicure. The seating is leather, the lighting is ultra-cool and the ice cream is gelato. And it's open until midnight. That alone makes it a winner.
Best End of an Era: Yes, we know the Broadway Bar is moving into spiffy new digs on 10th Street, but we'll miss the old North Trail location, with its vintage beer lights, hazy atmosphere (before the smoking ban) and best jukebox in town. Thanks for the memories.
Best Reason to Buy Cotton Candy: So you have something ethereal to ingest while watching the equally ethereal high-wire artists, aerialists and balancing acts of Circus Sarasota each winter.
Best Herbal Heaven: We could make an entire meal of the rosemary bread squares that come to the table at Howlin' Wolf Restaurant in Coral Cove Plaza. Keep 'em coming, Chef Eric.
Best Reason to Stay through June: The Sarasota Music Festival, because you'll see musical magic being made by those gifted students and teachers, and besides, it makes you feel so cultured.
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Best Beautiful Food: At Silver Cricket, the tapas are beautiful, the plateware is beautiful, the room is beautiful and so are the people at the bar. You get the picture.
Best Sweet Treat: With its walk-up window, slightly sticky outdoor benches and patrons from entire Little League teams to local bigwigs, downtown's Dairy Queen offers a taste of small-town flavor.
Best Souvenir Menu: Ophelia's tri-fold piece with photographic art by Jade Gates. You'll want to frame it.
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Best Road Warriors: The 30 or 40 bikers in bright blue, red and yellow outfits who pedal off from Bikesenjava on Hillview right after work on Tuesday and Thursday and take over Orange Avenue and the bayfront.
Best South Beach Style: The cool interiors, hip cuisine and well-heeled crowd at Maison Blanche on Longboat Key.
Best Way to Awe Out-of-Towners: A sunset drive along Casey Key, especially the stretch where you're flanked by a sliver of beach on one side and majestic mansions on the other.
Best Tropical Treat: The humid little Tropical Display house at Selby Gardens holds an astonishing trove of 100-200 rare, beautiful and weird orchids and bromeliads. Just don't get too close to the carnivorous napenthes, which digest hapless insects-or fingers-that fall into their flowers.
Best Time Travel: On North Lemon, Sierra Station Café is a real Indiana railroad depot (1852) that's been granted a new life and purpose by antiques experts Al and Monica Tomlinson. The coffee is great, too.
Best Outdoor Entertainment: Bayfront Park, where families picnic around the water park, singles walk their dogs, dads and kids kick soccer balls and everybody watches Le Barge cruise by with those strange palm trees. If you happen upon a wedding by the dolphin fountain, join the spectators standing in the background and holding hands.
Best Multi-Tasking Chef: Paul Mattison. With a St. Pete restaurant, a café on Lemon Avenue, a new steakhouse on Longboat, catering galore and multi-media gigs, he makes Emeril look like a slacker.
Best Menu and Attitude Improvement: Main Street Bistro.
Best View in Town: Go to the eighth-floor bar at Christopher's at the Radisson Resort, look across Lido Beach out to the Gulf at sunset and see clearly why you're in Sarasota.