Water, water everywhere—and plenty of agreeable spots to sit, sip and drink in the view. When it comes to waterfront dining and festive sundowners, Sarasota and its barrier islands offer something for every taste.
Looking for the perfect place to celebrate sunset over the Gulf of Mexico with a Cosmo or a margarita? We’ve got it.
A fashionable Sunday brunch where your latest chic little something will draw the admiration it deserves? It’s on our list.
A super-casual, shorts-and-flip-flops lunch with local color to spare and the snap of salt in the air? No problem.
Following is a round-up of nine of our favorite waterfront eating and drinking establishments. Think of this eclectic collection as a starter list for visitors in search of briny nirvana.
In style and setting, our faves are as different from one another as can be, encompassing spots to go luxe, to rough it Old Florida style, or to maximize your water time by arriving by boat. Geographically, they range from southernmost famous-for-shark’s-teeth Caspersen Beach in Venice to the northern tip of Anna Maria Island, where Tampa Bay meets the Gulf of Mexico. The only thing they really have in common is their intimate connection to saltwater.
We’ve lined them up for you two ways. An annotated quick reference list orders our waterfront nine from south to north and includes shorthand tips on what to expect of each one. We begin, however, with a narrated tour ordered by level of sophistication, working our way from extremely casual to putting on the Ritz.
The Old Salty Dog, Sarasota’s City Island. This fine joint, tucked into a working boatyard and overlooking New Pass where it opens into Sarasota Bay, boasts the highest funk factor on our list. I recommend a seat at the roofed but wall-free bar, where you can rub elbows with everybody from the guy who runs the adjacent fuel dock to volunteers and staff from Mote Marine Laboratories and Aquarium across the street.
There’s often a good breeze here, thanks to the spot’s close proximity to the Gulf, but if nature fails, misting fans all around will keep you cool. At lunch we recommend the turkey club, a fine tall sandwich backed up by crisp fries. At sunset, we’d go for the iced peel-and-eat shrimp. The beer is as cold as it should be, too.
Sharky’s On The Pier, Venice. This popular hangout anchors a fishing pier that juts into the Gulf, with gorgeous beach stretching on and on to either side. Outdoors on the deck is the place to be.
The beach bum ambience may owe a good deal to concept design, but the giant hand-cut and battered onion rings are the real thing. If you like those alcoholic concoctions dispensed from what appear to be Slurpee machines, you’ve found your place in the sun.
Mar Vista, Long Beach Village, Longboat Key. This boater’s favorite hides out on one of the prettiest little coves along Sarasota Bay at the north end of Longboat Key. From the water, watch for a rusty tin roof, tree-shaded picnic tables, and a long dock with head-in slips on both sides. Tables inside and out have their charms, but we recommend the deck, shaded by umbrellas, or the picnic tables.
The grouper sandwich is a reliable staple on a varied menu, and my brother is a big fan of the spicy wings. It’s a good place for stone crab claws in season, too, and the wine list isn’t bad.
The Sandbar, smack dab on the beach, Anna Maria. This restaurant and bar, a sibling of Mar Vista, is the northernmost stop on our tour. It’s perfectly named. The only thing separating deck-dwelling sun and sunset worshipers from the blue-green waters of the Gulf is a strip of white sand.
The food is OK here, but the potables, potent or otherwise, always hit the spot. There often is music outside in the evening, but a fabulous sea breeze and the spectacle of Old Sol slipping flamboyantly below the horizon are all you really need. Cheers!
Marina Jack, Sarasota’s downtown yacht harbor. This seafarer’s splashy watering hole also has served as countless visitors’ first taste of Sarasota. And why not? The bay views have always been first-rate, and now the place has grown into its setting.
There’s a sophisticated dining room upstairs and an air-conditioned piano bar below, but here we’re recommending the open-air Portside Patio, with tables both under roof and scattered about an extensive over-water deck. Come for sandwiches, appetizers, raw bar staples or drinks anytime. But be warned: After as little as half an hour of soaking up the Marina Jack scene, you may suddenly feel yourself in urgent need of a yacht captain’s gold-braided ball cap.
The Colony Beach & Tennis Resort, Longboat Key. The sunny main room at The Colony’s beachfront restaurant has big windows and lots of bright pictures on the walls. This is where you want to be seated. If you reserve well ahead, don’t be bashful about asking for a table by the window. A second room, darker and with a deck-level view of the pool, definitely is second choice.
The Colony is one of two spots on our list we’re recommending for both dinner and Sunday brunch. The buffet for the latter is pretty good overall, but its particular strengths are cold offerings, like smoked salmon (plenty of sour cream and capers), fresh iced shellfish and shrimp, salads and the like, and desserts, where you can count on scoring a chocolate fix substantial enough for the most hardened addict.
Beach Bistro, Holmes Beach on Anna Maria Island. Sean Murphy reigns over this perennial award winner with genius and generosity. The tall windows in the formal dining room add beach and sunset views to the superb fare, which is pricey and worth it.
Recently, the restaurant’s bar has expanded, and it’s a great place for more casual chow, like burgers to make your tastebuds dance, a smaller portion of the signature bouillabaisse served in the dining room, or a really snappy shrimp po’ boy sandwich. Excellent wine list and artisanal cheeses, too.
Ophelia’s On The Bay, Siesta Key. Like Beach Bistro, this waterside restaurant is so good you’d eat here as often as your budget would allow no matter where it was situated. As it happens, its setting is right on a superbly serene and unspoiled stretch of Little Sarasota Bay. Come before the sun goes down to watch the dolphins dodge dive-bombing pelicans and tease herons stalking supper in the shallows of the mangrove islands.
Indoor and outdoor seating, plus a cozy bar dominated by a big saltwater aquarium, add to the ample pleasures of the table. The menu changes constantly, but whatever chef Dan Olson has in store the evening of your visit will be as delicious as the view, and the wine list will have no trouble at all keeping up.
Vernona at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota. This is another stellar performer blessed with handsome water views, best enjoyed here from a long covered terrace cooled by paddle fans. Indoors or out, you’ll know you’re dining at the Ritz.
Chef Jeremy Saccardi, whose specialty is regional organic cuisine, has a menu to delight at any hour of day or night (including afternoon tea). If you’re a Sunday brunch aficionado you’ll be in heaven here. Vernona’s buffet is the undisputed empress of buffets—sophisticated, rich, diverse, beautiful and bountiful. If your party’s a large one, paying the bill will require the resources of a minor princeling ($65 per adult, $40 each for kids four to 12), but you’ll be hard-pressed to find better value for the money. Caviar, anyone?
Sharky’s On The Pier
1600 Harbor Drive S., Venice
TIP: Very casual. Go for the view and a frozen cocktail; the deck is the place to be.
Ophelia’s On The Bay
9105 Midnight Pass Road, Siesta Key
TIP: Fine dining; dinner only. Arrive early to watch the light slowly fade over Little Sarasota Bay.
2 Marina Plaza, Sarasota
TIP: Casual outdoor dockside raw bar is perfect for a first visit; mingle with the yachting set and the wannabes, too.
Vernona at The Ritz-Carlton
1111 Ritz-Carlton Drive, Sarasota
TIP: Hey, it’s the Ritz; dress accordingly and dine fabulously. The extravagant Sunday brunch is a must.
The Old Salty Dog
1601 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota
TIP: Very casual, comfortable Old Florida feel; come by boat, car or, if you’re visiting Mote Aquarium across the street, by foot.
The Colony Beach & Tennis Resort
1620 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key
TIP: Fine dining; the big sunny main room is best. It pays to request a window table when reserving for Sunday brunch.
760 Broadway St., Longboat Key
TIP: Casual; great for boating in. Choose the deck or picnic tables under gnarled shade trees at water’s edge.
6600 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach
TIP: Fine dining; dinner only. Go big in the beachfront dining room or enjoy a superior nosh and a glass of good wine in the bar.
100 Spring Ave., Anna Maria
TIP: Casual; celebrate the perfect sundowner out on the deck. If you were any closer to the Gulf you’d need fins.
Sarasota’s food and wine editor, John Bancroft, has written extensively about restaurants, books, music and movies for publications from Arizona Trend to the St. Petersburg Times.