Our city has been in the national news a lot lately, but we didn't need those glowing articles in The New York Times or Money magazine or other big-shot publications to tell us what we've known all along: Sarasota really is the best of all possible small cities.
We editors are all longtime Sarasotans who pride ourselves on knowing every nook and cranny of this great town. But we're always surprised and delighted by the new discoveries our readers divulge in their answers to this annual poll. In a town that's adding new shops, restaurants, spas and sports venues with lightning speed, a scorecard like the annual SARASOTA Magazine "Best of the Best" poll is handy, indeed.
Here once more are the winners of our "Best of the Best" poll, as chosen by you, the readers. In each category, top vote-getters are listed first; finalists come next, in alphabetical order. (You'll notice a tie or two.) Congratulations to all, and be sure to tune in to ABC7's "Best of the Best" on the 6 and 11 p.m. Friday news broadcasts of April 29, May 6, May 13 and May 20.
BEST FOOD AND DRINK
BEST WATERFRONT RESTAURANT
Ophelia's On The Bay, Phillippi Creek Oyster Bar
Marina Jack is a Sarasota picture postcard with a cheerful restaurant attached. Arrive at this downtown bayside eatery by boat, car, bike or on foot (if residing at a Gulfstream skybox) and enjoy a casual meal inside or out. Then stroll the dock and City Island and take multiple photos to make the home folks jealous.
BEST MEAL DEAL
Dutch Heritage Family Restaurant, Mel's Diner
Yoder's is the location for hefty portions of country comfort food (Amish-style) that nourishes the body and is good for the soul. Save room for a toothsome dessert or take it with you for later. Not a place for dieters with a carb-aversion. This is a "once on the lips, forever on the hips" kind of restaurant.
BEST ITALIAN RESTAURANT
Café Baci, Carrabba's Italian Grill
The band of brothers who own Caragiulo's is known for wine smarts, movie knowledge and quick wit. The brothers' pizzas and vintage film posters are enough to draw a devoted crowd to this bustling downtown trattoria, but the salads, pasta and live entertainment keep you coming back for more. This year the family opened a Caragiulo's in Bradenton that quickly made new friends.
BEST CHINESE RESTAURANT
Le Chang of Boston
Mrs. Chen's, Oriental Buffet
Situated just off fashionable Palm Avenue in downtown Sarasota, Le Chang is spacious and sophisticated in décor, and its menu roams from casual Asian snack food to complex dishes meant to be savored over a leisurely evening with complementary spirits. This is stylish Chinese fare.
BEST JAPANESE RESTAURANT
Jo-To Japanese Steakhouse, Saga Japanese Steakhouse
The young, fun things in town flock to DaRuMa to nibble the sushi and stir-fries while sipping exotic drinks and catching up on all the latest gossip. It's definitely a place to meet and greet if you want to stay in the loop.
BEST THAI RESTAURANT
Siam Orchid, Thai Garden
Intimate, authentic Bangkok is a delightful initiation to Thai food as well as a dependable hangout for those already devoted to creative and perfectly prepared traditional recipes. The food looks like art, smells like perfume, and tastes fresh and healthy.
BEST FRENCH RESTAURANT
C'est La Vie
Café L'Europe, A French Affair, Le Perigot
Oh so French, from its tiny round tables on the Main Street sidewalk to the tempting pastry cases inside, C'est La Vie is a jewel box destination for delicious breakfast pastries, slim long baguettes to take home for dinner and great European-style sandwiches at noon. The place is small, so devotees are always trying to figure out the optimum time to get a seat.
BEST MEXICAN RESTAURANT
El Adobe, Mi Pueblo
Mexican food is the new nationwide trend; and Two Senoritas, recently renovated and looking quite festive, is the spot to nibble and sip beer or to settle in for a long, multi-course meal of spicy traditional favorites. It's as popular with local residents as with tourists looking for a fun fiesta experience.
BEST RESTAURANT TO PROPOSE
Beach Bistro, Ophelia's On The Bay, Vernona at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota
An architectural icon in the modern mode, the Summerhouse (in recent jeopardy of being wiped from the landscape) is a spacious glass box in the middle of a lush tropical garden, only a short walk to the bay or Gulf of Mexico. It's a romantic spot where dinner will also win your heart, but head there fast: It's due to close to the public any day as construction looms.
BEST SEAFOOD RESTAURANT
Barnacle Bill's Seafood, Phillippi Creek Oyster Bar
With its Pottery Barn-like interior décor, fast-friendly service and creatively prepared seafood specialties, Bonefish Grill is a chain restaurant that quickly earned the loyalty of year-round residents and seasonal visitors, too. And it's made early-bird diners of folks who will eat at any hour just to score a table.
BEST RESTAURANT TO SEAL THE DEAL
Michael's On East
Fred's, Vernona at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota
Social mavens hatching a charity fund-raiser, political hopefuls, development dons, divas and doers all understand that if you want to be seen and then talked about doing something potentially significant, you need to book a prominent banquette at Michael's at noon. And you can count on owner Michael Klauber (who can work a room with the best of them) to pay attention to your convocation.
BEST NEW RESTAURANT
Fleming's Prime Steakhouse
Stonewood Grill, The Table
With its vast wine cellar (more than 100 labels by the glass), light-bright modern femme-friendly décor and superbly turned out beef and seafood, Fleming's is an upscale chain that acts like a gourmet independent restaurant.
BEST HEALTHY RESTAURANT
First Watch, Nature's Way
At Sweet Tomatoes you can make smart dietary choices among a whole farm truckload of nutritious fresh fruits and vegetables, but that doesn't mean you have to. There are plenty of carbs and fatty full-flavored items on that long and winding bar. Be good or be bad-it all tastes great.
Ruth's Chris Steak House
Fleming's Prime Steakhouse, Outback Steakhouse
Acclaimed in towns all over the world, the steakhouse with the funny name that single mom Ruth Fertel started in 1965 New Orleans has grown into a chain with 76 fine-dining restaurants globally. Elegant but comfortable décor, side dishes generous enough to share, great wines and attentive service. Ruth's Chris does it right, every single time, everywhere you go.
BEST WINE LIST
Fleming's Prime Steakhouse
Fred's, Michael's On East
This chi-chi national chain establishes its reputation with both great steaks and fine wines, more than 300 different kinds in any one of its restaurants. Local managers can select some wines for specific markets, and the wine menu for Sarasota is excellent, with many boutique choices.
BEST POWER BREAKFAST
The Broken Egg, The Serving Spoon
First Watch is big enough so that a whole committee can meet around a table and do both breakfast and corporate business before heading to the office. Smart servers keep the hot, strong coffee coming, and the menu pleases the oats 'n' groats crowd, dieters or those who demand a huge and hearty platter to start the day.
The Colony Beach & Tennis Resort
First Watch, Vernona at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota
Besides the high quality of the food and service, which is resort-perfect, The Colony is one of the rare brunch places where you can also gaze out a few feet to see birds, boaters and waves gently lapping the shore under a bright and promising sun. What a first-rate way to begin a day.
Cà d'Zan at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, Cock and Bull
Fred's not only has razzle-dazzle trendy designer cocktails and plenty of gourmet snacking nibbles, but crowds of gorgeous young people who flock to this indoor/outdoor contemporary bistro to see and be seen at the cocktail hour. The eye candy can be incredible, even on a weekday.
BEST OUTDOOR RESTAURANT
Old Salty Dog
Ophelia's on the Bay, Zoria
It's all about the laid-back, vacation ambience at Old Salty Dog-and getting a great grouper sandwich, too. Tourists make pilgrimages to this unassuming place. Just don't expect anything elegant. The beauty is all in the view and realizing that sometimes the most satisfying things in life don't cost much at all.
BEST EARLY BIRD SPECIAL
Barnacle Bill's Seafood, Rosebuds
The best thing about the early bird dinners at Café Baci is that you never feel you're eating on a budget. The classic Italian presentations, service, and surroundings make you feel like a Rockefeller doing something quirky, eating a delicious leisurely meal before the sun goes down.
BEST PIZZA (NON-CHAIN)
Demetrio's Pizzeria, Rico's Pizzeria
Whether you sit at one of those high tables inside, under an umbrella on the street or take it home sweet home, your pizza from Il Panificio will always satisfy in the most elemental and essential ways. Perfect crust, just the right amount of topping and absolutely first-rate fresh ingredients.
BEST PLACE FOR DESSERT
Vernona at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, Yoder's
The owners of Euphemia Haye are so devoted to the pleasures (and powers) of desserts that they've devoted a whole floor of the restaurant to sweet treats. Climb up to the Haye Loft and experience an entire universe of cakes, pies, creams and confections both gossamer light and cheesecake heavy. The difficulty will come in trying to choose which to try first.
Columbia Restaurant, Crispers
At Sweet Tomatoes, you compose your very own, fully personalized custom salad from a panoply of garden-fresh items and garnishes. Everything you could possibly want is on that plate. Bless Sweet Tomatoes for figuring you out so expertly.
Jo-To Japanese Steakhouse, Pacific Rim
Swiftly and silently prepared by Asian masters of the game, the sushi at DaRuMa is certainly delicious to eat, but it's also fun to watch being made. Sushi is the perfect snack food for the young designer martini crowd because it's elegant finger food that doesn't interrupt the flow of conversation, and plates can be passed around.
Chili's, Hob Nob
At Patrick's the kitchen starts with quality beef, flattened to the right size for the un-fancy, non-multi-grain bun. It's cooked the way you ask and served with fries and a pickle spear. A simple meal prepared with restraint and dignity. In other words, perfection.
Oaks Open Pit Barbecue
Sonny's Real Pit Bar-B-Q, Woody's Barbecue
If the aroma alone doesn't seduce you into the Oaks, then you really aren't a barbecue lover. But if you are passionate about tender pulled meat in an extraordinary sauce, then you don't need an invitation to become a regular at this nondescript joint. Big pleasure in a small box.
Michael's On East
Morton's Gourmet Market, Nellie's Deli
Many in this city, during the social season, eat MOE catered lunches and dinners three or four times a week. And that's not counting the weddings, bar mitzvah bashes, anniversary parties and surprise birthday parties. And all you ever hear them say is, "Phil did a great job." We never get our fill of Phil.
Publix, Too Jay's
Nellie's is one reason so many professional women in this town have gleefully stopped cooking and have closed their kitchens to everything but bottled water. It's just too easy (and palate pleasing) to stop at Nellie's on the way home from work. Variety, quality, dependability and great value-Nellie's for our bellies!
BEST GOURMET MARKET
Morton's Gourmet Market
Publix, Whole Foods
Morton's is dedicated to offering a fine-dining occurrence in a take-out experience. Or, for the gourmet cook, the market stocks hard-to-find ingredients. And if you're giving a little cocktail party or need to bring something for a potluck, you know that the cheese gallery, the bakery and the haute gourmet section (yes, they stock beluga caviar) will please the most discriminating palates.
Morton's Gourmet Market, Panera Bread Company
How many mornings have been saved by those sweet people in white uniforms behind the Publix counters? They're always on time when we need cupcakes for a child's classroom party, doughnuts for a business meeting or an emergency birthday cake. They can even charm the crankiest little shopper by providing a free cookie, and their wedding cakes keep getting better and better.
BEST ICE CREAM
Big Olaf Creamery
Cold Stone Creamery, Kilwin's
What is it about Big Olaf ice cream? Is it the big hand-chopped chocolate chunks in the ice cream? Is it the waffle cones, the ultra-rich flavors and the fact that there are so many appealing flavors? Why, yes, all of that. And doesn't the name, Big Olaf, just sound like a man of experience who knows what great ice cream is all about?
Chocolate Martini at Cà d'Zan Bar, Ritz-Carlton Sarasota
Chocolate Martini at Cosimo's Brick Oven, Cosmopolitan at Fred's, Espresso Martini at Fred's, Smokin' Martini at The Smokin' Martini
Chocolate's in the news today: it's now considered a health food. And what better way to have a medicinal dose than in a handsome martini glass spiked with vodka in a place as gorgeous and sophisticated as the Ritz-Carlton bar? Can something this wickedly wonderful truly be good for you?
BEST BEER SELECTION
Cock & Bull Pub
Ale House, Sarasota Brewing Company
Sarasota is known as a wine city, but more and more connoisseurs of fine spirits are investigating international beers, ales, porters and the like. The Cock & Bull Pub offers tempting variety and draws a crowd that wants to talk about the merits of various nations when it comes to beer production. And they pull a lot of pints, too, when the talking is done and the tasting gets underway.
BEST HAPPY HOUR
Applebee's, Cock & Bull Pub, Fred's
A successful happy hour depends upon the variety of spirits offered, price and the people who bring personality to the party. And Chili's offers something extra: it celebrates happy hour all day, every day, with most drinks always two for one.
BEST ARTS, SPORTS AND ENTERTAINMENT
BEST PERFORMING ARTS GROUP
Asolo Theatre Company
Florida Studio Theatre, The Players of Sarasota
From flying high in Peter Pan to getting down-to-earth with Menopause: The Musical, this acclaimed acting company knows how to please its audiences, of all ages.
Roberta MacDonald, Carolyn Michel
This is Arnold's sixth season at the Asolo Theatre Company, and his first win in this category. For him comedy was king this year; he scored laughs as the venal sheriff in The Front Page and the bumbling Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
BEST BLACK-TIE EVENT
Sarasota Film Festival Tribute Dinner, ODA Extravaganza
Every year, Sarasota's well-heeled denizens gather under the stars in the Cà d'Zan's courtyard to raise funds for the Ringling Museum. There's just nothing "un" about this dazzling, hip affair that celebrated the circus and ballet arts this year.
BEST PLACE TO WORK OUT
Southside Athletic Club, Shapes
C'mon-this is the year you promised you'd work on those thighs. And why not do it at the Y? With three locations, great equipment and a dedicated staff ready to help, there's no excuse not to!
Sarasota Film Festival
Arts Day, Florida Winefest & Auction
No, it's not just about the parties, although they are pretty nifty. This year's festival showcased 150 films and hosted appearances by the likes of Leslie Caron, Peter Falk, Paul Reiser and Gary Busey. Not bad for a young festival that helps put Sarasota on the map.
BEST PLACE TO WATCH A PERFORMANCE
Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall
Asolo Theatre Company, Sarasota Opera House
You either love it or hate it-the color, that is. Still, this 1,736-seat "purple cow" wins everybody over with an intimate interior space that lets you get up close and personal with some of the world's most dazzling stars and shows.
BEST PLACE FOR LIVE MUSIC
Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall
Five O'Clock Club, Gator Club
Despite the surprised looks of the ushers, hundreds of Donna and the Buffalo fans bopped in the VW aisles at this year's performance. With its new state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems, the Van Wezel rocks!
BEST PLACE FOR TENNIS
Bath and Racquet Club
The Colony Beach and Tennis Resort, University Park Country Club
With 27 courts, leagues, mixers and round robins, clinics, private lessons, national tournaments and tennis camps, who wouldn't want to swing his or her racquet at this longtime local club?
BEST PLACE FOR GOLF
University Park County Club
Bobby Jones Golf Course, TPC at Prestancia
Rated 4-star by Golf Digest's "Places to Play" since 1996, this striking Ron Garl-designed, 27-hole course is among the top 50 in Florida. The natural surroundings (nothing is manmade) and exemplary service will make you proud you chose golf instead of ping-pong.
The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art
Sarasota Classic Car Museum, G.WIZ
Not just for tourists, the Ringling Museum sits on a 66-acre estate that includes the Circus Museum, the Cà d'Zan, the Museum of Art, the original Asolo Theatre, and the spectacular Rose Garden. Check out the Baroque masters or picnic in the shadow of the Ringlings' mansion-this treasure should be enjoyed regularly.
BEST ART GALLERY
Galleria Silecchia, Paradise Gallery, Selby Gallery
If art depicting marine animals tickles your fancy, Wyland Gallery will satisfy your needs. The gallery features paintings and sculpture by Wyland-as well as works by a host of other artists known for their marine and environmental themes.
BEST ATTRACTION FOR KIDS
Jungle Gardens, Mote Marine Laboratory
Freeze your shadow. Visit the butterfly habitat. Create animated videos. Launch cloud rings or choreograph an avalanche in the ExploraZone, an interactive science series from San Francisco's Exploratorium. Great imaginations begin at this state-of-the-art science and technology museum.
Lido, Whitney Beach on Longboat Key
Think of it as our year-round snow show. Powdery, sugary, white sand that has garnered awards for years. Though we'd like to keep it our little secret, the word is out: The sand on Siesta Key beaches is outrageously awesome.
BEST GOODS AND SERVICES
BEST HAIR SALON
Diane K Salon
Nuovo, Yellow Strawberry
This we hold to be true: When you walk out of a Diane K salon (and there are two locations in Sarasota), you will look 10 times better than when you came in. Aside from a host of expert professionals and top-of-the-line products, the chairs vibrate. Life is good.
BEST TRAVEL AGENCY
AAA Travel Agency
Gulliver's Travels, Palmer Ranch Travel Agency
AAA is not just about tickets; it's about luggage and passport photos and insurance and tour books and maps and cool travel accessories and discounts to just about anywhere. Walk in a travel novice; walk out ready to explore the world.
BEST BABY SHOP
Bennett's World for Children
Gymboree, Little Bo-Tique
Kissy Kissy bibs, Primigi shoes (in fuchsia!), Thomas the Tanks, dollhouses, Little Me rompers, strollers, high chairs, cribs, bedding, Mustela skin and hair products, sonogram frames-everything but the baby.
BEST SKIN CARE
Diane K Salon
Body & Spirit, The Met, Neoderm
Your skin needs pampering and the experts at Diane K Salon know this. Who needs thousands of dollars of cosmetic surgery when you can come here and walk away looking years younger?
BEST ANTIQUE SHOP
Sarasota Trading Company
Crissy Gallery, Jack Vinales Antiques
Sarasota Trading Company owner Lance Stahl loves to collect new and old treasures he finds on his travels, including antique fans, snappy martini glasses etched with palm trees, vintage drawer pulls, funky picture frames, risqué greeting cards-even furniture made from restored wood from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Happy hunting!
Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million
Lose yourself in the thousands of publishers' overstocks and remainders. There's coffee and chairs and cozy corners to snuggle up with your favorite tome.
Bank of America
Where do you stash your millions? Bank of America, of course! Solid name, handsome downtown branch with fast-moving lines and tellers who remember you name-even if you don't have those millions.
Beneva Flowers & Gifts
Enchanted Forest, Mr. Florist Plants-n-Things
Yes, they deliver fresh flowers. But they also offer gourmet meals, aromatherapy baskets, stuffed animals, sports gift sets, Lenox giftware, pasta baskets, talking teddy bears... You get the idea. Need an instant gift delivered? Memorize their number.
BEST HOME ACCESSORIES
Bed, Bath & Beyond, Home Resource, Pier One Imports
What would you name a store that features everything for the home, including kitchenware, linens, furniture, bath accessories, glassware and seasonal gifts? How about Home Goods? Works wonderfully for us.
BEST FURNITURE STORE
Robb & Stucky
Kanes Furniture, Rooms To Go
Robb & Stucky offers one-stop shopping for absolutely everything you will need in a home or office-from the floors to the walls to the windows. And to help you decide whether you are a metro, contemporary or classic kind of person, the R&S design team is there with you every step of the way.
BEST CONSIGNMENT STORE
Designer Consigner, Laura Jean's
You may go into downtown's Woman's Exchange telling yourself you're just looking, but you'll leave with something-a Russell Wright celery dish, a Bakelite bracelet, or even a three-piece living room set. Proceeds are directed to worthy area causes, so don't worry, shop!
BEST GIFT SHOP
Elysian Fields, Mary's On Main
We can safely say that if you need to buy a cat aficionado a gift, Persnickety Cat would be the place to go. Mugs, notepads, magnets, stuffed animals, door stops, tea pots, greeting cards-all devoted to the feline creature. (And don't tell your cat friends, but there are dog items and much more as well.)
Splash, Swim City
If the mirrors could be rigged to hide the cellulite, we might get over the trauma of squeezing our adult bodies into a few inches of nylon. But have no fear, there's a "swimwear specialist" to help you wade through the huge selection of name-brand swimwear here.
Body & Spirit, Diane K Salon
Be inspired. Find tranquility. Get pampered. Go ahead-indulge yourself (or someone else) at The Met, a luxurious St. Armands retreat.
Giggles, Saks Fifth Avenue, SOMA
Who wouldn't want to wear lingerie hawked by Bob Dylan? Feel "just like a woman" in VS's Wonder Bras and V-Strings. Never before has so little meant so much.
AAA Limousine, Ashley's Limousine, Black Tie Limousine
Think more than limo at Longboat Limousine. Think Rolls-Royces, luxury sedans, and something called "Liquid Limousine," a fully equipped yacht for sunset cruises, dinner trips. The Cadillac stretch offers an ultra-luxe drive to anywhere.
BEST DRY CLEANER
Michael the Cleaner
Bob's Dry Cleaners, Cove Cleaners
Who knew that a name like Michael would become synonymous with dry cleaning in Sarasota? Would Harriet the Cleaner be as popular? Whatever-this is where smart Sarasotans go to clean just about everything in their closets.
BEST PRIVATE SCHOOL
Cardinal Mooney, New Gate School
This college preparatory school features two campuses-on Siesta Key and in Lakewood Ranch. Serving families since 1924, ODA offers an innovative, balanced program of academics, athletics and the arts for pre-K through high school.
BEST RETIREMENT COMMUNITY
Bay Village, Lakehouse West, Plymouth Harbor, Sarasota Bay Club
Glenridge, a community of 270 homes, fosters personal growth, celebrates self-determination and offers residents an innovative mix of learning opportunities. That-and a new state-of-the-art performance hall-makes "retirement" seem a thing of the past.
BEST HOT SPOTS AND HIGHLIGHTS
As one entrepreneur demonstrated this year, you can sell our sand on eBay for a pretty penny-if you can get it past John McCarthy, Sarasota County's manager of parks and recreation, who's been on the lookout for opportunistic tourists with bags and shovels. Shouldn't we at least get a commission?
BEST PLACE TO TAKE VISITORS
The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, St. Armands Circle
First, it's free. Second, it's spectacular. Third, there are miles of it. Fourth, the sun sets over it in an explosion of tropical colors. Your guests will quickly forget the sludge and sleet they left behind and thank you with big, warm smiles.
BEST PLACE FOR A FIRST DATE
St. Armands Circle, The Summerhouse
It's calming, pretty and a great place to check out each other's near-naked bodies as well. Throw in a picnic, some sunscreen (for massaging on backs, natch), and this date might be the start of something big.
BEST PLACE TO RIDE OUT A HURRICANE
Another state, The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota
At home? Did you guys miss last summer or what? (Or maybe you've got better hurricane shutters or more of an inland location than we do.)
BEST LOCAL TV PERSONALITY
Bob Harrigan, ABC7
Scott Dennis (ABC7), Richelle Ridgeway (ABC7)
We love our home team, especially after a year where they worked so hard to keep us safe and informed about all those storms.
Downtown, University Park Country Club
This award-winning, master-planned community stretches into Sarasota and Manatee counties and has become its own universe of family-friendly communities, quaint village squares, and miles of hiking trails, green spaces and wetlands. And it's an official "Green Development," which is something to crow about.
BEST FREE FUN
Bayfront Park, Jazz on St. Armands Circle
For far more than just swimming, Sarasota County's 13 public beaches stretch for 35 glorious miles and harbor freshwater and saltwater marshes, mangroves, tidal flats and pristine dunes, as well as picnic shelters, playgrounds and horseshoe, volleyball and tennis courts.
BEST PART ABOUT LIVING HERE
OK, OK, so what's a hurricane or two or three have to do with our reputation for great weather? In the middle of January we're wearing shorts and walking barefoot in the sand. Case closed.