Every year, we ask you what you love about living here. And every year, you deluge us with answers, offering thousands of choices in 80 different categories from best pizza to most free fun, reminding us how much there is to celebrate about our sunny corner of the earth-and alerting us to pleasures we hadn't heard about before. (But, hey-about that new "best celebrity sighting category: did Paul Newman and Renee Zellweger really drop in without our noticing, or were you just pulling our leg?)
It's a big task to tabulate all those results, which came in by mail and over the Internet, but thanks to our trusty IT team, who devised a new electronic system for keeping score, we finished the count in record time. We're proud to once again present your picks for the best of everything in town. The top vote-getters are listed first; finalists follow, listed in alphabetical order. Because of several ties, some categories have more than two finalists.
Congratulations to our winners, and to you as well, for your continued support and enthusiasm. We hope that, like us, you'll learn more about what to eat, see and do in this best of all possible cities. And be sure to tune into contest co-sponsor WWSB Channel 40's "Best of the Best" series, which begins May 7 and runs every Friday throughout the month on the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts.
BEST WATERFRONT RESTAURANT
Finalists: Bayview at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, Marina Jack
Leisurely gourmet repasts savored while you gaze out at rippling water, mangroves moving in the breeze and birds diving for their own tasty meal. Isn't this why you came to Sarasota?
BEST MEAL DEAL
Finalists: Mel's Diner, Sweet Tomatoes
Since 1975, faithful legions have feasted on Yoder's hearty, home-cooked dinners and signature pies, piled high with whipped cream. And what's most delicious is that in our increasingly ritzy city, this remains a place where your wallet can be smaller than your appetite.
BEST ITALIAN RESTAURANT
Carrabba's Italian Grill
Finalists: Mediterraneo, Olive Garden
Arrive early at Carrabba's or prepare to wait. And we do, for as much as an hour on weekends, to experience two rotund Texas brothers' interpretation of Italian grilled food. The wine selection is divine, as are the mussels that languish in a bath of creamy garlic sauce. Keep that crispy bread coming.
BEST CHINESE RESTAURANT
Le Chang of Boston
Finalists: Mrs. Chen's, Oriental Buffet
So many choices and so exotically tempting and artfully organized that you may need to consult your expert waiter. A meal at Le Chang is a transporting experience to the Far East. You get all the palate pleasure with none of the jet lag.
BEST JAPANESE RESTAURANT
Finalists: Jo-To Japanese Steakhouse, Saga Japanese Steakhouse
DaRuMa's atmosphere is so authentic that you may mistake its bayfront views for the sparkling Tokyo skyline. Inside, Japanese chefs juggle razor-sharp knives and transform fresh ingredients into culinary sculptures. It's Teppan-style dining at its finest.
BEST THAI RESTAURANT
Finalists: Siam Orchid, Thai Gardens
Would-be connoisseurs of exemplary Thai food get their advanced cuisine education at Bangkok-lemongrass, Thai basil, coconut milk, and spices and scents that entice and refresh. No wonder this place keeps coming up a winner.
BEST FRENCH RESTAURANT
Cafe of the Arts
Finalists: C'est La Vie, Cafe L'Europe
Long a local favorite, Café of the Arts got a new boost of energy when talented young Jean Luc Taulere (just named the best young chef in Florida) came back home to help his father Alain in the family business. He's given the menu-and the dining room-some hip new touches while still delivering traditional favorites, from duck to the best profiteroles this side of Paris.
BEST MEXICAN RESTAURANT
Finalists: El Adobe, Two Senoritas
Mi Pueblo's the place for homey, heaping portions of flavorful, genuine Mexican fare. Beer and wine are served in thick goblets atop colorful tile tables, and the homemade flan is to die for. There's a no-frills location on Bee Ridge; and for a full bar and mariachi band, head down to the Venice location.
BEST RESTAURANT FOR A PROPOSAL
Finalists: Beach Bistro, Vernona at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota
This romantic restaurant on a bayfront site on Siesta Key is just the place to present the ring, and the menu is as lovely as your lady. But if you're planning to pop the question, do it soon, since this long-time local will be torn down in November to make way for luxury condos.
BEST SEAFOOD RESTAURANT
Finalists: Captain Brian's, Phillippi Creek Village Oyster Bar
They line up early and often at Barnacle Bill's for grilled and fried seafood expertly prepared and served in an atmosphere that is relaxed and congenial. The attentive personal service and prices make people want to come back. And everybody does.
BEST RESTAURANT TO SEAL THE DEAL
Michael's On East
Finalists: Fred's, Vernona at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota
Deals are made, futures sealed, alliances formed and shattered, all over plates of Michael Klauber's award-winning, innovative food. Talk about delicious intrigue!
BEST NEW RESTAURANT (Opened in 2003)
Finalists: Carpe Diem, Mattison's
Who would have thought a decade ago that Sarasota foodies would be yummying up raw octopus, eel, or raw tuna and raving about it? We've become a sushi town; and now with Ichiban (which means "best" in Japanese), we can enjoy a sushi all-you-can-eat buffet for under $20. (And about that Mattison's: did you guys mean the casual City Grille at the Lemon Avenue mall or the posh new steakhouse and wine cellar on Longboat?)
BEST HEALTHY RESTAURANT
Finalists: First Watch, Panera
Salad ingredients elevated to a delicious art form. The help-yourself buffet caters to all manner of diets, healthy cravings, or raw food obsessions. If you don't find what you want in soups or greens, fresh vegetables or salads made with pastas, then you're just too fussy to feed.
Ruth's Chris Steakhouse
Finalists: Outback Steakhouse, Sam Seltzer Steakhouse
It's all about elegance at Ruth's Chris, where reservations are a must and the menu is a la carte. Service reigns supreme, and their consistency shows: For nearly four decades, they've served corn-fed beef from the same 10-15 Midwestern ranches.
BEST WINE LIST
Michael's On East
Finalists: Fred's, Vernona at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota
A nationally acknowledged wine connoisseur, Michael Klauber prides himself on the breadth and depth of his cellar, as well as surprisingly righteous bottle prices in the dining room. And he's always watchful for unusual boutique selections, which makes sipping at Michael's On East a vintage adventure.
BEST POWER BREAKFAST
Finalists: The Broken Egg, Vernona at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota
Sarasota deal-makers start their days transacting at First Watch. The bright interior, plentiful omelette platters and steaming pots of coffee are i-DEAL motivators.
Vernona at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota
Finalists: The Colony Beach & Tennis Resort, Hyatt
Incredibly lavish, this luxury brunch is thrilling cuisine theater. Vernona chefs and food designers deserve a standing ovation, but you'll want to take a seat and sip champagne while you contemplate three kinds of caviar as an overture to the production.
Finalists: Cà d'Zan at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, Silver Cricket
The buzz, the bods, the panoply of colorful martinis and tapas to nibble-Fred's stylish and sophisticated bar is a magnet for the town's young upwardly mobile (and nubile) movers and shakers. The innovative food and beverage menu is also something to admire.
BEST PLACE TO EAT OUTDOORS
Finalists: Bayview at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, Mattison's
You can't surpass nature for ambience, and Ophelia's is right on beautiful Little Sarasota Bay. Dine inside with vistas through big glass windows or choose the patio or even the wooden deck, which puts you practically in the water.
BEST EARLY BIRD SPECIALS
Finalists: Barnacle Bill's, Marie's Italian Kitchen
Two words: Osso bucco. One place: Café Baci, that venerable Italian restaurant where young and old flock to enjoy that traditional tour de force along with lots of other Italian classics.
BEST NON-CHAIN PIZZA
Finalists: Cosimo's, Demetrio's Restaurant and Pizza
Downtown denizens cheered when Il Panificio extended its daytime hours. Now not only can we munch on a gargantuan crisp slice for lunch, we can take an entire pie home for dinner.
BEST PLACE FOR DESSERT
Finalists: Epicure, Yoder's
Determine your caloric fate in the cozy dining room or climb the stairs to the Haye Loft and confront a display of cakes, pies, tarts and confections that defies resistance. Don't venture into that terrain unless you are prepared to unconditionally surrender. Defeat never tasted so sublime.
BEST PLACE FOR SALAD
Finalists: Columbia, Crispers
Salad is anything you want it to be, so no one at Sweet Tomatoes will ever regard your plate as anything but creative cuisine. Pile it high, organize the components in sections, drench it with dressing or be virtuous. Add soup and bread and you probably won't be hungry till morning.
Finalists: Jo-To Japanese Steakhouse, Pacific Rim
Bite-sized morsels of raw fish wrapped in sticky rice and seaweed to enjoy with sake, beer or designer martinis have become the signature cuisine of the young and the cool. And they all look so spectacular at DaRuMa. The food, too.
Finalists: Chili's, Hob Nob, Manhattan Bar & Grill
You may have to unhinge your jaws to wrap them around a Patrick's burger, but your taste buds will be grateful. Juicy, flavorful beef, a thick, fresh roll and crisp dill pickle on the side. Ask for extra napkins.
Michael's On East
Finalists: Morton's Catering, Nellie's Deli
The MOE catering staff is so reliable and so renowned that guests at private parties and charity events know most of them by name and always stop to chat before they chew. Creative menus, expert meal coordination, dependability-Phil Mancini, Patt Lamb and the crew hit all the right notes when orchestrating events big and small.
Finalists: Morton's Market, Publix
Nellie's continues its winning streak with a wide selection of kosher items, bulging sandwiches, delicious home-style soups and baked goods to go. Just grazing the refrigerator cases is a cuisine adventure.
BEST GOURMET MARKET
Finalists: Granary, Publix
A magnet for serious (and casual) chefs, Morton's offers thousands of exotic ingredients and ready-to-eat or ready-to-go delicacies like lobster ravioli and roasted duck in pecan sauce. It's the place for cooking accessories, a full wine shop, scrumptious desserts and homemade duck paté that will melt in your mouth.
Finalists: Morton's Market, Panera
Florida's favorite grocery store could stake its reputation on its key lime pie, but the Publix bakery is also praised and patronized for birthday and wedding cakes, daily fresh breads and cookies (kids get one free). The doughnut case is a shrine for folks on the way to work. If it's your day to bring the breakfast to the sales meeting, be at Publix early.
Chocolate martini at Cà d'Zan at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota
Finalists: Espresso martini at Fred's, apple martini at Fred's
This is the year for designer chocolate, and the Ritz bartenders have concocted a divine way for you to drink yours down. The chocolate martini looks as luscious as it tastes, and sipping one in the ultra-stylish Ritz bar will make you feel ever so chic and knowing.
BEST BEER SELECTION
Sarasota Ale House
Finalists: Cock and Bull, Sarasota Brewing Company
With more than 36 beers on tap and at least 25 more in bottles, Sarasota Ale House is a favorite with the hops and barley crowd. In addition to rare Belgian wheats like Hoegaarden, there's a different domestic beer special every day and more than 30 TVs display your favorite sporting event.
BEST ART, ENTERTAINMENT & SPORTS
BEST PERFORMING ARTS GROUP
Finalists: Florida West Coast Symphony, Sarasota Ballet of Florida
They made us laugh, they made us cry, they made us applaud, with a season ranging from contemporary classics (The Crucible, The Diary of Anne Frank) to frothy, light-hearted comedy (Hay Fever). Bravissimo!
BEST LOCAL ACTOR OR ACTRESS
Finalists: Bradford Wallace, Sharon Scott
She's played everything recently from a Jewish survivor of World War II horrors to Shaw's domineering Millionairess, but her best role may be behind the scenes, as a tireless community philanthropist with a heart for every cause.
BEST BLACK-TIE EVENT
Finalists: Florida Winefest & Auction, Out-of-Door Extravaganza
The roar of the courtyard, the blaze of the klieg lights and the lines of limos discharging the most gorgeous-looking men and women imaginable...the UnGala at the Ringling Museum is where Sarasota's stars and wannabes make their grand entrance, and it's as close to Oscar night as our coast will ever get.
BEST PLACE TO WORK OUT
Finalists: Gold's Gym, Bath & Racquet Club
Everybody goes to the Y, whether downtown on Main, down south near Palmer Ranch, or in between at the Euclid branch. Great equipment, great employees and a great cause, too, since the Sarasota Family YMCA runs a host of charitable and family initiatives along with its fitness programs. See you on the treadmill.
BEST FESTIVAL OR SPECIAL EVENT
Sarasota Film Festival
Finalists: Arts Day, Suncoast Offshore Grand Prix
For 10 days each year, we become a sophisticated, chatty, somewhat bleary-eyed haven for cinephiles and star watchers-Hollywood on the Gulf, you might say.
BEST PLACE TO WATCH A PERFORMANCE
Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall
Finalists: FSU/Asolo Center, Sarasota Opera House
It takes some star power to distract us from looking at all that purple, and the hall provides it with acts from Willie Nelson to Mandy Patinkin to Yo-Yo Ma, not to mention the Royal Phil, Alvin Ailey and Miss Saigon. For 34 years, this landmark on the bay has entertained and enthralled Sarasota arts lovers.
BEST PLACE FOR LIVE MUSIC
Five O'Clock Club
Finalists: Gator Club, Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall
The crowd spilling out onto Hillview Street knows what time it is-it's Five-O for great blues, rock and soul music, every night of the week.
BEST PLACE TO PLAY TENNIS
The Colony Beach & Tennis Resort
Finalists: Bath & Racquet, University Park Country Club
Racqueteers come from all over the world to play at the Colony, which has been named the nation's best tennis resort for a number of years now. All we have to do is saunter down Longboat Key and turn west to the Gulf.
BEST PLACE TO PLAY GOLF
University Park Country Club
Finalists: Bobby Jones, The Legacy Golf Course at Lakewood Ranch, TPC at Prestancia
It's not that you have to play golf to live at University Park. But with 27 Arthur Hills-designed holes weaving amid mature oak and pine trees, wetland preserves and sparkling lakes, why wouldn't you?
The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art
Finalists: Cà d'Zan, G.WIZ
Sometimes, when strolling through that courtyard full of classic statues or those galleries packed with world-famous Baroque treasures, we have to remind ourselves-this is all in our hometown.
BEST ART GALLERY
Finalists: Hodgell, Paradise
Wyland's offerings of dolphins, whales and other marine life are a natural for the Gulf coast of Florida. Guess that's why the St. Armands gallery is going so swimmingly.
BEST ATTRACTION FOR KIDS
Finalists: Beach, Sarasota Jungle Gardens
Here's where we take our kids to play the laser harp, make their own animated movies and ooh and aah at the butterflies. And we never, ever let them know we're doing it because we want to.
BEST PLACE TO HIKE, CANOE OR KAYAK
Myakka River State Park
Finalists: Lido Beach, Oscar Scherer State Park
Fed up with the frou-frou and glamour of our little resort city? Head east and you'll find yourself in a primeval forest, replete with prowling alligators, rapacious birds of prey and treacherous swamps. The best part is there's a ranger and a gift shop nearby.
Finalists: Lido, Turtle
The experts have frequently declared it one of the world's best. We've all been voting with our sand-covered feet for years.
BEST GOODS & SERVICES
BEST HAIR SALON
Finalists: Nuovo, Yellow Strawberry
Repeat winner Victor Leon dominates the tresses sector with savvy marketing, a chic environment and stylists who create edgy cuts that are surprisingly affordable.
BEST TRAVEL AGENCY
AAA Club South Travel
Finalists: Gulliver's Travels, VIP Travel
AAA doesn't win this category year after year because they come first in the phone book. The agency caters to Sarasota's international clientele with professionalism, speed, great discounts and sweet travel deals.
BEST CHILDREN'S/BABY SHOP
Baby & Kids at Bennetts
Finalists: Baby Gap, Little Bo-Tique
It's never too soon to look good-or play around-in this town, as evidenced by Bennett's array of children's fashions, toys and accessories for the literally young at heart.
Julie Young (Alternatives Salon)
Finalists: Teresa Bradala (Victor Leon), Melissa Grey (The Met), Jimmy Vu (Alternatives Salon)
Need to wrap someone around your pretty little finger? Let Julie Young have her way with your nails and the object of your affection will be eating out of your hand in no time.
BEST MASSAGE THERAPIST
Anne Sullivan (Rachel's Skin Care)
Finalists: Christy Dockery (The Met), Karen Knieriem (Essential Health Care)
We're convinced that the talented knuckles, hands and fingers of these massage professionals could soothe the savage beast in anyone. The intense relaxation they instill is our favorite form of anger management.
BEST SKIN CARE
Rachel's Natural Skin Care
Finalists: The Met, Neoderm
Whoever said that beauty is only skin deep hasn't had one of the deep, luxuriant facials from Rachel's Skin Care on Tamiami Trail. Allow her to work her magic and you'll glow, girl.
BEST ANTIQUE SHOP
Sarasota Trading Company
Finalists: Coral Cove Antiques, Elizabeth Rice Antiques, Picasso's Moon
Sarasota Trading Company plies its wares of precious memories and antiques from a charming location on Pineapple Avenue, proving that everything old is new again.
Barnes & Noble
Finalists: Books-a-Million, Main Bookshop
Mega-bookseller Barnes & Noble is part library, part music store, part coffee café. It also stages mini-concerts and lectures, but despite all that multi-tasking, it maintains the cozy ambience of a small-town bookshop.
Bank of America
Finalists: SunTrust, Wachovia
Great customer service and an ATM on every corner. Bank of America is a hit with everyone from corporate climbers to college students balancing their first checking accounts.
Finalists: Bee Ridge Florist, Mr. Florist Plants 'n Things
Yes, he uses sophisticated marketing techniques (including a database that tracks clients' favorite flowers), but it's the creative ways he gives people to make up, break up, say they're sorry or just, "I do," that have turned owner Arthur Conforti's floral designs into a winning business.
BEST HOME ACCESSORIES
Pier One Imports
Finalists: Home Goods, Pottery Barn
Don't blame Pier One for the antebellum frocks worn by former corporate pitchwoman Kirstie Alley in those television ads. Just go and admire the stylish West Indies-inspired furniture, flatware and accessories that can transform any house into an erotic Moroccan hideaway.
BEST CONSIGNMENT SHOP
Finalists: Designer Consigner, Laura Jean's
Not everything's a diamond in the rough at Woman's Exchange, but it's so much fun to discover a Chanel suit for $12 or a leather sofa in perfect shape for less than $100. But wait-there's more!
BEST GIFT SHOP
Finalists: Mary's on Main, Persnickety Cat
For something more existential than a gift from the mall, try Elysian Fields. The aromatherapy products, original greeting cards, healing books and jewelry provide peace, beauty and compassion, too.
Finalists: Splash, Swim City
Itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, yellow polka-dot bikinis, plus one-piece, mix-and-match, cover-ups and surfer fashions to adorn every body type. You really can find a suit you'll look great in here, no matter your age and degree of flab or fitness.
BEST PET GROOMER
Finalists: Dogs R Us, The Plush Pup, Precious Furs, Southside Village Pet Salon
Think of PetSmart as an indoor playground for anything that can travel on a leash or sit on your shoulder. You'll find everything your puppy's heart desires, plus a parade of adorable pets prancing up and down the aisles.
Finalists: Body & Spirit, The Spa at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota
For all the sanity they restore to our harried lives, spa services can hardly be considered a luxury anymore. The Met is the granddaddy of them all in Sarasota, and continues to be a favorite among those who view massage as essential as a flu shot.
Finalists: Giggles, Saks Fifth Avenue
Those silly angel wings aside (they're always getting stuck in the bedroom door), no one makes women feel more beautiful being nearly naked than Victoria's Secret.
BEST DRY CLEANERS
Finalists: Michael the Cleaners, Pointe Cleaners
Hhmmm, dry cleaning. We may not understand the process, but we're clear on the concept that Cove provided voters with unparalleled service this year.
BEST PRIVATE SCHOOL
Finalists: Cardinal Mooney, New Gate School
For innovative curriculum and spectacular locations (the campuses are located on Siesta Key and in Lakewood Ranch) Out-of Door Academy scores highest in this year's rankings of private learning.
BEST LIMOUSINE SERVICE
Black Tie Limousine
Finalists: AAA All American Limousines, Longboat Limousine
The true lap of luxury is in the back of a limousine from Black Tie, from its three-person sedans to a 14-passenger ride so long that it almost needs its own landing strip.
BEST HOTSPOTS & HIGHLIGHTS
BEST SARASOTA SOUVENIR
Finalists: sharks' teeth, a tan
Go ahead and snatch a bag of our quartz crystal beach, then set it in your living room up North. If an ice storm takes down the power lines, the memories of sunny Sarasota beach days can keep you warm.
BEST PLACE TO TAKE VISITORS
Finalists: John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, St. Armands Circle
First stop, baggage claim. Second stop, the beach. Just remember the sunscreen so your third stop isn't the emergency room.
BEST PLACE FOR A FIRST DATE
Finalists: Selby Gardens, St. Armands Circle
Serenade her with waves, caress her with balmy breezes, then bask in the tropical hues of a setting sun. If you're feeling especially frisky, bet her one kiss that you'll see a flash of green.
BEST LOCAL TV PERSONALITY
Scott Dennis (Anchor WWSB-TV)
Finalists: Bob Harrigan (Meteorologist WWSB-TV), Heidi Godman (Anchor WWSB-TV)
With his polite demeanor and gentle delivery, Scott Dennis offers a welcome respite from media pundits who can't deliver the news without screaming at us. Thanks, Scott, for keeping the peace.
Finalists: downtown, University Park Country Club
Families love Lakewood Ranch's parks, bike lanes and immaculately landscaped neighborhoods. Young professionals and older adults appreciate the close proximity to Sarasota and Tampa Bay. The ranch is already bursting with new homes, schools, a shopping center and a business park. Soon to come: its very own Main Street.
BEST CELEBRITY SIGHTINGS
Sarasota Film Festival
Finalists: St. Armands Circle, The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota
We were actually looking for the names of celebrities who had popped up in Sarasota, but knowing where to spot them is even more useful. Kudos to the Sarasota Film Festival for bringing the glitterati to town.
Finalists: Terry Bozar, Ken Jefferson, James McManemon
Sarasota's favorite newcomer has been spied everywhere from a local college concert to the dollar movie theater, but always alone. Given his propensity for seclusion, we wish him peace and privacy in his new home.
Finalists: Bayview at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, Le Tennique
Come on, downtown hasn't been a secret for years. That is, unless you know something we don't, and you're not saying because.it's a secret.
BEST FREE FUN
Finalists: downtown, sunsets
In a town as upscale as Sarasota, it's nice to know that our greatest asset comes free of charge.
BEST SARASOTA CONTROVERSY
Finalists: The new Ringling Causeway, road construction, Selby Gardens
Bridges and traffic and orchids, oh, my! But your biggest pet peeve this year is whether to open-or close-Midnight Pass.
BEST PLACE TO SEE AND BE SEEN
Finalists: Michael's On East, The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota
How good do we look in the rich, dark dining room at Fred's or next door in the Tasting Room, draped around the circular loungers, all tousled with animal print pillows and balancing a martini? The amber glow of those groovy wall sconces doesn't hurt, either.
MOST INFLUENTIAL PERSON IN TOWN
Finalists: Patrick K. Neal, Michael Saunders
And all signs are that Sarasota's U.S. Congresswoman may climb still higher on the political power ladder.
BEST THING THAT COULD HAPPEN IN 2004
Finalists: new hockey stadium, slow growth
Control is such a harsh word. Can't we just cajole our traffic into moving more efficiently?
BEST PART OF LIVING HERE
Finalists: beach, people
Despite a winter where temperatures hovered near 60 degrees for days and days (brrr!) our weather remained the envy of the nation, which reminds us just how good we do have it here, after all.