Real estate is falling, the economy is stalling and those presidential candidates seem to have been duking it out for decades. But let the rest of the country complain about 2008: Here in Sarasota, we’re still busy counting our blessings, from year-round sunshine and technicolor sunsets to sumptuous Sunday brunches overlooking sparkling waters. That’s the message you sent us with this annual reader survey, as you flooded the mail and cyberspace with your votes for what you love about living in our seaside city.

Sarasota’s magic casts an ever wider spell, judging by the number of nominations that came to us from other states—and even countries. We can picture those readers, perhaps shivering in an Iowa winter or fighting midtown Manhattan traffic, thinking back to the restaurants, shops and experiences they savor on their trips to Sarasota and counting the days until they can return. Whether or not they’ve decided to join those of us living here full-time, they’re Sarasotans in spirit, and we like to think that our magazine links all of us who love this place together.

Please note that the winner of each category is listed first, followed by two finalists (more in the case of a tie) who are listed alphabetically rather than by the number of votes they received.

To learn more about our winners, be sure to tune into ABC7’s “Best of Everything” coverage during evening newscasts this month.

And now, get set for a refresher course in what makes Sarasota so special.

Food & Drink

Restaurant View
Marina Jack
Ophelia’s, University Park Country Club
Kick back on Marina Jack’s outdoor patio or dine upstairs in the formal dining room—it really doesn’t matter, when you can look out at blue skies, a bustling marina and the shimmering waters of Sarasota Bay.

American Restaurant
Stonewood Grill, Vernona
Classic pizzas, huge salads, sizzling steaks, the big game on TV—Patrick’s lives up to its rep for casual dining with New York flair. Every hour is happy hour in this winning location on the corner of Main Street.

Meal Deal
Applebee’s, Sweet Tomatoes
Good home cooking at reasonable prices (we’re talking meat loaf, broasted chicken, mashed potatoes and 25 kinds of fresh-baked pie) has been driving crowds to Yoder’s for more than two decades.

Italian Restaurant
Carrabba’s Italian Grill
Café Baci, Caragiulo’s
When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, Carrabba’s welcomes you like familia with Italian classics such as minestrone and quattro formaggi pizza and grilled creations galore. There’s a reason chefs eat here on their off hours. 

Chinese Restaurant
Mrs. Chen’s
Empress Garden, Oriental Buffet
Wind your way through Mrs. Chen’s enticing buffet and choose from a multitude of Chinese specialties that are delicious and affordable—and don’t feel bad about going back for seconds.

Japanese Restaurant
JoTo, Pacific Rim
At DaRuMa, the chefs’ knives fly through the air, mesmerizing the watching diners, as they create a feast for the eyes and the palate.

Thai Restaurant
Pacific Rim, Tropical Thai
Bangkok’s traditional décor—complete with intricately carved wooden tables—and Southeast Asian dishes make every meal an exotic adventure. Save room for the sticky honey bananas.

French Restaurant
C’est La Vie
Bijou Café, Café L’Europe, Maison Blanche
If there’s a better way to spend a lazy Saturday morning than lounging at one of C’est La Vie’s sidewalk tables over chocolate croissants and good, strong coffee, we haven’t found it. Be sure to take home a crusty baguette or loaf of hearty farmer’s bread.

Central/South American Restaurant
Selva Grill
Columbia, The Table
Credit Selva Grill with making Peruvian staples like ceviche and anticuchos as Sarasotan as Amish peanut butter pie. Its gourmet take on South American cuisine and the smoldering, urban atmosphere draw serious diners and hip young couch-sitters alike.

Mexican Restaurant
Mi Pueblo
El Adobe, Two Senoritas
This is comfort food at its south-of-the-border finest. Mi Pueblo’s three locations serve Mexican favorites in a family-friendly atmosphere, often accompanied by live mariachi music.

Romantic Restaurant
Bijou Café, Vernona
Ophelia’s sensual, sophisticated menu and moonlit views of little Sarasota Bay cast a spell that’s sure to kindle—or rekindle—any love affair.

Restaurant to Seal the Deal
Michael’s On East, Vernona
When a career-changing triumph could be in the cards, grab your briefcase and head to Fleming’s. Get your group into a cozy booth, order them a perfect steak, and by the time you get to the chocolate lava cake, they’ll be signing on the dotted line.

Seafood Restaurant
Bonefish Grill
Barnacle Bill’s, Captain Brian’s
In Florida, we take our seafood personally. Fortunately, so does Bonefish Grill. Serving carefully assembled sautés or cooking your choice on a wood-burning grill, Bonefish makes sure that every bit of fresh-caught flavor shines through. 

New Restaurant
Horse Feathers, Mattison’s 41
Cork lives up to its name with a stellar wine cellar (the restaurant’s downstairs half, The Bottle Shop, offers retail and special order wines) and gourmet reinventions of Continental cuisine. Plus, the second-floor view of the bustling Circle is unbeatable.

Restaurant Wine List
Michael’s On East, Vernona
With more than 100 wines by the glass, including many hard-to-find boutique varieties, Fleming’s delights any oenophile. Start with a single glass or spread your wings and try the popular wine flights or the “Pick of the Month.”

Power Breakfast
First Watch
Broken Egg, Vernona
Many a big-shot business deal has been brokered over the Siesta Key cocktail (granola, organic yogurt, fresh fruit and nuts in a parfait glass) at First Watch, strategically located at Five Points in downtown Sarasota.
Vernona at the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota
The Colony, First Watch
At least once in your life, splurge on Vernona’s Sunday brunch. The selection is spectacular and every single item is a work of culinary art. Enjoy it all inside the elegant restaurant or outside overlooking the water.

Outback, Ruth’s Chris
At Fleming’s, the atmosphere is clubby, the steaks are sublime, the sides and desserts are wickedly rich, and the wine list is second to none.

Bar Scene
Ca d’Zan Lounge
Horse Feathers, The Table
The Ritz-Carlton’s Ca d’ Zan Lounge has it all: elegantly relaxed ambiance, savvy bartenders and the finest cocktails and cigars around—plus live music and dancing several days a week. 

Restaurant to Eat Outdoors
Marina Jack, Old Salty Dog
From the waterside tables on Ophelia’s terrace you’ll see diving ospreys, squadrons of pelicans, mullet jumping and an occasional kayak gliding by the mangrove islands across the way. And the food is every bit as good as the view.

Restaurant to Arrive by Boat
Marina Jack
Old Salty Dog, Ophelia’s
A landmark on the downtown Sarasota bayfront, Marina Jack is a beacon to hungry boaters. Tie up for a bite on the patio, a burger by the bar, or a full-on dinner in the fancy dining room—which has won three consecutive Wine Spectator Awards of Excellence.

Non-chain Pizza
Il Panificio
Demetrios’, Rico’s
Great crust, fast service, outdoors, indoors or take-home. What more could you want?

Place for Dessert
Euphemia Haye
Jolly, Yoder’s
Dessert is so important at Euphemia Haye they’ve built a special room for it: the upstairs Haye Loft, where you can deliberate over a long list of out-of-this-world confections.

Place for Salad
Sweet Tomatoes
Columbia, Whole Foods
You could eat at Sweet Tomatoes every day without sampling everything the huge, ever-changing salad bar has to offer, from fresh veggies and soups to homemade muffins.

Pacific Rim
DaRuMa, Yume Sushi
Pacific Rim in Southside Village has become a happening hotspot for diners who love the Asian stir-fries, traditional Japanese sushi and brand-new creations like the Southside roll, with tempura salmon and cucumber.

Cheeburger, Cheeburger, Hob Nob
You can get it Cajun, you can get it South Beach, you can get it black and bleu. Whichever way you go, you’ll be hooked by your first bite into Patrick’s luscious, serious-sized beef burger.

Lee Roy Selmon’s, The Oaks Open Pit BBQ
Sonny’s promises to make you feel good. How could you feel any other way with a plate heaped with smoky, tender barbecued pork, beef and chicken? Add some sweetened iced tea and you’ll be downright euphoric.

Phil Mancini of Michael’s On East
Mattison’s, Nellie’s Deli
Sometimes it seems as if there couldn’t be a party, wedding reception or bar mitzvah in this town if it weren’t for Phil Mancini’s catering team. Crab cakes, rack of lamb, California rolls…everyone has a favorite, and the service is as superior as the food.

Nellie’s Deli, TooJays
Boar’s Head meats, cheeses, four kinds of rotisserie chickens, salads galore and a crew that turns out custom sandwiches in no time flat—no wonder the Publix delis won your vote. 

Gourmet Market
Morton’s Market
Publix, Whole Foods
Morton’s is as beloved for its specialty foodstuffs and take-out cases stuffed with freshly made goodies as it is for pizza, wine, cheese—and a bakery that churns out gorgeous fruit tarts and chocolate cakes. Is it lunchtime yet?

C’est La Vie, Morton’s
At the Publix bakery, they mix, knead, decorate, frost and display the biggest variety of first-rate baked goods in town.

Restaurant Service
Mattison’s City Grille, Vernona
For an exceptional dining experience, the service must be as top-notch as the food. The Fleming’s waitstaff has mastered this subtle but exacting art, cosseting you with comfort and anticipating your every need.
Ice Cream Store
Big Olaf, Coldstone Creamery
True confession: We’ve been known to down a slice or two of super-rich homemade fudge while waiting in line for a scoop of Kilwin’s mocha chip ice cream at the popular St. Armands confectioner.

Arts, Entertainment & Sports

Performing Arts Group
Asolo Repertory Theatre
Florida Studio Theatre, Sarasota Ballet
The Asolo’s season started with a bang, with the world premiere of Broadway-bound A Tale of Two Cities. Now New York will know, as we have for years, the brilliance of our longtime theatrical mainstay.

Local Actor or Actress
Carolyn Michel
Cliff Roles, Elex Bornett
Michel has played immigrant mothers, sophisticated ladies, Holocaust survivors, spinster schoolteachers, acerbic writers and even a dog. Offstage she’s a dedicated supporter of philanthropic causes and special event producer. When does she sleep?

Black-tie Event
Oceanic Evening, Orchid Ball, Florida Winefest Party
The magic of the illuminated Ringling Museum courtyard at night…the sight of 1,000 or so fashionistas wearing their finest…the creative “theme” surprises…no wonder no one wants to go home the night of UnGala.

Place to Work Out
Gold’s Gym, Lifestyles
Sure, the Y is bright and clean and the equipment is first-rate. But it’s the good this longtime charitable leader has done for so many Sarasota kids and families that builds your community spirit while you build your bod.

Festival or Special Event
Sarasota Film Festival
Arts Day/Night, Florida Winefest & Auction
The little film festival that could has, over the past 10 years, made a name for itself far and wide, while giving us new movies to watch, star-gazing opportunities and even helping young filmmakers get their start.

Place to Watch a Performance
Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall
FSU Center for the Performing Arts, Sarasota Opera House
In a town full of stages, the Van Wezel remains the cultural centerpiece, the place where you thrill to the dance/illusions of Momix, the passion of Rent or the exuberance of Patti LaBelle.

Place for Live Music
Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall
Ca d’Zan Lounge, Gator Club, Mattison’s City Grille, 5 O’Clock Club
The Big Purple brings us world-class symphonies, Japanese drummers, top-flight jazz and Broadway musical hits. Oh, and operettas, pop stars and chamber ensembles, too. (Hard rock: not so much.) And FridayFests on the Bay go one better; they’re free.

Place to Play Tennis
University Park Country Club
Bath & Racquet Club, The Colony
The members at UPCC love their beautiful tennis courts…and their top-ranked pros…and their fully equipped fitness center…and their relaxing massage therapy. Darn it, why aren’t we members?

Place to Play Golf
University Park Country Club
Founders Club, Palm-Aire Country Club
Not just any 18 holes here—27, designed by famous golf course architect Ron Garl. Old oaks, shimmering lakes, challenging play—and the outdoor café offers a lovely view of it all, even if you don’t get into the game.

John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art
G.WIZ, Mote Aquarium
The Ringling has always been one of our crown jewels, but with its beautiful new gallery wing, a top-drawer restaurant and the refurbished Historic Asolo Theater, it’s now a 21st-century art phenomenon. Join so you can visit as often as you like.

Art Gallery
Wyland Galleries
Paradise Gallery, Selby Gallery
Wyland’s old space on St. Armands just wasn’t big enough to handle the admiring—and acquisitive—crowds drawn by its marine and environmental paintings and sculptures, so the gallery recently moved to a new and expanded location.

Attraction for Kids
Sarasota Jungle Gardens, Mote Aquarium
Who wouldn’t want to spend a morning with the children or grandchildren at a hands-on museum intriguingly named The Gulfcoast Wonder and Imagination Zone?

Siesta Key Public Beach
Lido, Turtle
We’ve lollygagged at beaches from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean, and nothing compares to the spectacular swath of powder-soft white sand that is Siesta Key Public Beach. Is there any doubt why it’s won the world’s whitest sand beach contest?

Goods & Services

Hair Salon
Yellow Strawberry
Diane K, Nuovo Salon & Spa
The professional stylists at Yellow Strawberry Global Hair Salon offer a full range of services and pleasing pampering, whether you want a trim or a complete makeover.

Travel Agency
Landings, VIP World Travel
The folks at AAA want to make sure you get where you’re going, whether you need roadside service or a flight to Europe. And for members they have great rates on flights, cruises, hotels, car rentals and vacation packages.

Women’s Boutique
Foxy Lady
Chico’s, The Met
With two locations, this family-owned store has for more than 20 years been providing Sarasota’s best-dressed women with unmatched personal service and the hippest, hottest brands around.

Men’s Boutique
The Met
Saks Fifth Avenue, Tommy Bahama
The Met is a mecca for stylish men, with brands like Hugo Boss, Burberry, Armani and Ted Baker—and the lady in your life will love its equally excellent collections for women.

Skin Care
Monee at Diane K, The Met
The most flawless skin in town gets that way at this physician-supervised clinic, which offers state-of-the-art procedures and products and an expert staff of nurturing women who make every visit fun.

Antique Shop
Woman’s Exchange of Sarasota
Crissy Galleries, Sarasota Trading Company
Posh designers and savvy shoppers crowd the aisles at the Woman’s Exchange, a longtime local institution that’s beloved for its ever-changing collection of consigned antiques, silver, art, jewelry and so much more.

Barnes & Noble
Books-a-Million, Borders, Main Bookshop
The aromas of Starbucks grab you when you walk in, but you’ll be equally hooked by the extensive selection of books and CDs, helpful staff, comfy reading nooks, and the perpetual hope that Mr. (or Ms.) Bookworm Right is lurking around the next shelf.

Bank of America
SunTrust, Wachovia
We have a host of banks on almost every corner, but you deposit your greatest trust in Bank of America, a national giant with 19 local locations.

Beneva Flowers & Gifts
Tiger Lily, University Florist
The arrangements are fresh and original, and there’s a great selection of gifts and other products, but it’s Beneva Flowers’ “Yes, We Can” philosophy of service that keeps longtime customers loyal.

Home Accessories
Pier One, Pottery Barn
Domestic divas thrill to HomeGoods’ ever-changing inventory of quality discounted furniture, rugs, lighting, kitchenware and decorative accessories.

Furniture Store
Kanes of Sarasota
American Signature, Robb & Stucky
Furniture is big business in this go-go-growth town, and Kanes has dressed many of Sarasota’s fine homes and condominiums with high-style furnishings since 1950.

Consignment Shop
Woman’s Exchange of Sarasota
Designer Consigner, Laura Jean’s
You name it, the Woman’s Exchange has probably stocked it during its 46 years, all the while providing more than $7 million for scholarships for arts nonprofits and students.

Best Gift Shop
Persnickity Cat & Co.
Elysian Fields, Wish
For your in-laws, your neighbors and the boss who has everything, Bee Ridge Road’s Persnickity Cat is packed full with gift-giving inspiration.

Best Swimsuits
Splash, Swim City
Swim Mart has the suits, sandals, resort wear and more to keep you stylishly dressed even when you’re wearing less.

The Met – Fashion House, Day Spa & Salon
Body & Spirit, The Ritz-Carlton Spa
The Met offers every aesthetic treatment imaginable in serenely elegant surroundings. To really spoil yourself (or someone else), go for the “Full Day Retreat”—seven-and-a-half hours of pure, uninterrupted bliss.

Jeff Hibbs Landscape, Hazeltine Nurseries
From palms to peonies, top builders and private homeowners turn to ArtisTree for landscape designs that add beauty and value to their properties.

Limousine Service
Boss One
Luxury Limo, Prime Time
How do you distinguish prom from any old dance? A bachelorette party from gals’ night out? Boss One limos are the way to go when it’s more than a special occasion. Choose from Lincoln, Hummer, the “limo lounge” or even a shuttle bus.

Dry Cleaner
Cove Cleaners
60 Minute, Michael the Cleaner
Every well-dressed man or woman depends upon a good dry cleaner, and you, our styling readers, depend on Cove Cleaners most.

Retirement Community
Plymouth Harbor
Bay Village, Sarasota Bay Club
You may have to get on a waiting list to get into Plymouth Harbor, which offers beautiful bay views, a world of activities and the company of sophisticated retirees, but those who are happily ensconced there say it was well worth the wait.

University Animal Clinic
Bay Road Animal Hospital, Bee Ridge Veterinary Clinic
University Animal Clinic’s caring, highly trained staff makes sure your dog’s tail is wagging (or your kitty cat is purring) when you leave the office.


Hotspots & Highlights

Tourist Attraction
Mote Aquarium, Ringling Museum
Balmy Gulf breezes, swaying palms, warm water, crystal sands, sensational sunsets and better-than-you’d expect food at the concession stands. What are you waiting for?

Best Local Controversy
Midnight Pass
Growth/development, “What is art?”
Let it flow or no? Impassioned arguments for and against restoring the original Midnight Pass waterway have been going on for 25 years. Whichever way the tide is pulling, you guys refuse to let it go.

Local TV Personality
Heidi Godman
Scott Dennis, Silke Rible
Heidi Godman celebrates her 20th anniversary with ABC7 this year. You’ve witnessed her growth into a crisp and confident pro with an endearing soft spot for children. 

Vern Buchanan
Charlie Crist, Katherine Harris
His first race for public office ended contentiously, but after a year on the job, Congressman Vern Buchanan won your vote.

Place to Meet Singles
Horse Feathers
Ca d’Zan Lounge, The Table
A stylish crowd gathers around the—what else?—horseshoe-shaped bar at downtown’s one-year-old HorseFeathers. (And if you’re already hitched, sit in a corner and enjoy the duck confit or lobster tower instead.)

Free Fun
Bayfront Park, Downtown Farmer’s Market
Our beaches are among the few in the state that don’t charge for parking—yet. But the county is expanding its fees as tax revenues shrink, so grab your blanket and head to those warm, welcoming white sands while they’re still free.

Reason to Move Away
Property taxes/cost of living
Hurricanes, none
While it’s hard to live like a beach bum in Sarasota, we’ll take this place over the blighted big city any day.

Reason to Stay
Beaches, culture/art
As we tallied the votes for this contest in February, it was 74 degrees. Enough said.