We admit it—we’re crazy about Sarasota, Florida, from the blue-green Gulf and wild rivers to the bustling downtown and world-class cultural and restaurant scene. We are, after all, a magazine whose motto is “Living in Paradise”—and that’s not an exaggeration, it’s a simple statement of fact.
And at the risk of seeming ridiculously optimistic during a year of global gloom, we’re convinced there’s more to love about this city than ever. The beaches and the sunsets are as beautiful as they were when real estate prices were rocketing; our retailers and restaurateurs keep coming up with creative new ways to excite us (and often to do that without breaking our budgets), and artistic experiences that thrill and inspire us are more abundant than ever.
This year, we’ve expanded our list of “bests” to include both the winners of our annual readers’ poll, and choices from our editors, which begin below. We didn’t make those choices lightly—behind every “best” lies lots of discussion, cross-checking and sampling, and even some downright debates. We hope our story helps you discover some great new Sarasota spots and experiences, and we invite you to share your personal “bests by going to this story at sarasotamagazine.com and posting a comment at the end.
Best Totally Shameless Diet Busters
The Salty Dog (The Old Salty Dog): a quarter-pound, batter-dipped, deep-fried hot dog. Get it topped with bacon and cheese (and then schedule a visit with your cardiologist). $6.95, 1601 Ken Thompson Parkway, 388-4311; 5023 Ocean Blvd., 349-0158; 1960 Stickney Point Road, 927-1110.
Twisted Southern Chicken (Lee Roy Selmon’s): Two chicken breasts atop smashed potatoes (with ham) and smothered in maple-bacon creamed corn, sour cream and cheddar cheese. Because dinner tastes better when it’s served in one big pile. $9.99, 8253 Cooper Creek Blvd., 360-3287.
The Pound (Flying Dog Café): A simple sandwich on steroids, featuring a whole pound of Boar’s Head deli meats—your choice of three (ham, salami and bacon, anyone?)—topped with whichever two cheeses you prefer, and mayo, of course. Get the mixed fruit as a side if you feel guilty. (Get the mashed potato salad if you don’t.) $7.50, 500 Tallevast Road, Sarasota, 359-9788.
The Baked Ziti Special (Filippo’s Pizzeria): Penne pasta and meat sauce, injected with ricotta, smothered in mozzarella cheese and baked into a luscious mass. It’s what every casserole dreams of being. $10.95, 6392 N. Lockwood Ridge Road, Sarasota, 360-8065.
Funnel Cake Fries (Suds Sports Grill): A heaping helping of the doughy, deep-fried, powdered-sugar-dusted carnival treat, served in strips disguised as fast food’s favorite side dish. With a side of—not ketchup—raspberry compote for dipping. $3.95, 5301 29th St. E., Ellenton, 721-3663.
The Fat Sandy (Munchies 420 Cafe): A Philly cheese steak made with two hamburger patties and fried chicken fingers, topped with mozzarella sticks, onion rings, steak fries and macaroni and cheese. Hey, if you’re already ordering delivery at 3 a.m., you might as well go all out. $9.79, 6639 Superior Ave., Sarasota, 929-9893.
Best new neighborhood coffeehouse: Café Du Monde at the corner of the North Trail and Mecca Drive has become a hit with Ringling College folks and museum-area residents for its friendly vibe and the simple but delicious breakfast, lunches and pastries it serves with the java. 5119 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, 355-1114.
Best place for an afternoon coffee break: Downtown Sarasota’s Pastry Art is a great alternative to Starbucks, with fresh-brewed coffee and pastries that are indeed artful—and delicious. Head over around 3 p.m. and settle into a comfy chair by the window or at an outdoor table. Then relax and let the world pass you by for a bit—you’ll return to work rejuvenated (and properly caffeinated, too). 1512 Main St., Sarasota, 955-7545
Best European-style coffee: We love the rich dark blend (it’s a proprietary mix of carefully chosen beans) they serve at C’est La Vie. And the atmosphere could not be more Parisian, with croque monsieurs, croissants and other authentic delicacies and a staff that chatters in French. 1553 Main St., Sarasota, 906-9575.
Free—and freeish—cultural treats.
Best public art: It won’t cost you a penny to engage with 15 or so major works of art during our city’s bayfront biennial, Season of Sculpture, which starts in early November and continues throughout next spring. We got a sneak peek at the works selected, and with names like Peter Voulkos, Isaac Witkin and Robert Ressler represented, you’ll see a fantastic mix of styles and media.
Best-kept arts secret: The Ringling Museum of Art doesn’t always publicize it, but those galleries packed with Baroque art, Rubens tapestries and more are absolutely free every Monday. You can’t get into Cà d’Zan or the circus museum, but between the art on the walls and the beautiful grounds, including the Rose Garden, it’s an always rejuvenating reminder that we live in a wonderful place.
Best bet for theatrical insomniacs: The FSU/Asolo Conservatory Late Nite Series in the Cook Theatre can range from a Valentine’s Day collection of songs and scenes to staged readings of new works to, occasionally, pieces scripted by the talented MFA students themselves. Free and open, no reservations needed, and unlike any other event in Sarasota, the performances start at 11 p.m. How hip is that? 351-8000.
Best ear openers: Every spring, La Musica International Chamber Music Festival features musicians from around the globe, and free rehearsals and lectures are part of the package. And each June, the Sarasota Music Festival unites top faculty and students here for three weeks; the free student concerts are among the most engaging of the whole fest. And for just $12 a concert or $45 for the series of five, you’ll experience amazing innovations in sound in the New College New Music series, from experimental vocal techniques to electronic processing and beyond.
Best cheap laughs: Florida Studio Theatre’s Improv troupe offers live and spontaneous performances on selected Monday or Tuesday evenings in the Goldstein Cabaret. You never know what you’re going to get, because you as an audience member help shape it, but it’s always fun and fresh. Admission is $12. 366-9000.
Best dog days deal: The Players Theatre’s Summer Sizzler offers you three plays for $45, with the lineup this summer including Taming of the Shrew, Wit and a new work by local playwright Jenny Beres, Hay Day. Sign up for all three and you also get three $10 gift certificates for Caragiulo’s to use anytime in June, July or August. 365-2494.
EXPERIENCES & ENTERTAINMENT
Best downtown B & B. Hidden among downtown's towering condo buildings, The Cypress is an oasis on Gulfstream Avenue. Surrounded by oak, palm and mango trees, the tin-roofed home has five guest bedrooms charmingly furnished with a mix of antiques, gourmet breakfasts and owners as hospitable and helpful as can be. You can even see the bay and the sailboats from the front porch. 621 S. Gulfstream Ave., Sarasota, 955-4683.
Best old-Florida dive bar: We love the Sunday afternoon scene at Woody’s River Roo’s tin-sided outdoor bar in the shadow of oak trees and the Manatee River’s I-75 bridge. It’s like a waterfront Hob Nob: no-frills good food, a place to get dust on your shoes and strike up a conversation with cowboys and ranchers from Parrish, bikers on their Sunday runs, even the more party-hearty snowbirds. 5717 18th St. E., Ellenton, 722-2391.
Best place to buy tropical trees and plants: Head east to old Miakka, where at the end of a winding dirt road (look for hawks resting on fence posts) you’ll find 20-acre Crowley Nursery and Botanical Gardens, a lush oasis of bamboo, fruit trees and other rare plantings. There’s nothing Cathy and Charlie Crowley don’t know about their stock, and they’re eager to share their knowledge. 16423 Jomar Road, Sarasota, 322-0315.
Best volunteer program: Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium does an awesome job with its more than 1,400 volunteers, who range from teens to super-seniors. You’ll get expert classroom instruction before you start, and you’ll be well-rewarded, too, with free tickets, gift shop discounts and behind-the- scenes access to Mote’s research center. There are opportunities for just about every interest and ability, from handling aquarium admissions to turtle nest walks. 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota, 388-1720.
Best outdoor concerts: The crowds head to FridayFests at the Van Wezel, but we love the serene tropical setting and intimate atmosphere of the eclectic Garden Music series on nine springtime Sundays at Selby Gardens. Runner-up: The wintertime Moon over Myakka folk music concerts also have a beautiful setting, plus you can snuggle up to a big fire pit with hot cocoa. Van Wezel, 777 N. Tamiami Trail, 955-7676, Selby, 811 S. Palm Ave., Sarasota, 366-5731, Myakka State Park, 13208 S.R. 72, 361-6511.
Best high-brow beach experience: The Hermitage Artist Retreat on Manasota Key’s casual sunset beach readings presented by such prominent visiting artists as playwright Romulus Linney. Serious culture, a Technicolor sunset, the sounds of surf and calling seabirds and a sip of wine from your cooler—yes, you do live in paradise! 6650 Manasota Key Road, Englewood, 475-2098.
Best reinvented event: Nearly 550 partygoers voted with their dancing shoes for Rock the Ritz, an informal and fun new version of the old Corinthian Ball for the Sarasota Healthcare Foundation. Black tie was banished, and a big, noisy dance band kept everybody dancing all night long. It was so successful that they’re going to do it all over again next year.
Best way to see Sarasota’s world-famous architecture. Martie Lieberman, a real estate agent with a passion for our Sarasota School heritage (she’s saved and restored several homes), arranges private tours of the iconic modernist masterpieces that made Sarasota world-famous during the 1950s (www.modernsarasota.com).
Best place for a family bike ride: The new 10-mile Legacy Trail, which runs from mid-Sarasota County to Venice, is built along a former railroad corridor that’s now preserved park land. It’s safe, scenic and easy to access, a great place to bond with each other and the pristine beauty that’s just a few minutes away from busy U.S. 41.
Best place to catch a rising star: Yes, it’s high-school theater, but the student productions at Booker VPA can hold their own with many professional theaters and have produced some world-class talent, most recently American Idol’s Syesha Mercado. 3201 N. Orange Ave., Sarasota, 355-2967.
Best buzz around a performing arts group: In its second season under artistic director Iain Webb, Sarasota Ballet garnered a rave review from a New York Times critic and permission from Matthew Bourne, of all-male Swan Lake fame, to present a pas de deux from that piece here—a very rare event. Plus, they’re starting off next season with an Asolo-Ballet collaboration on the Tony Award-winning dance play, Contact. You have to be there. 351-8000.
Best new reason to get excited about Sarasota’s arts scene: The inaugural Ringling International Arts Festival (ringlingartsfestival.org), Oct. 7-11, promises a blissful mix of music, dance, theater and visual art, all of it brand-new to Sarasota, including a piece helmed by über-director Peter Brook and a world premiere by Elevator Repair Service Theater. It’s all in partnership with the famed Baryshnikov Arts Center of New York. A super spotlight on our fair city.
Best party magic: At the Palm Ball for the Sarasota Conservation Foundation at Sarasota Bay Preserve, the 200 lucky guests feel like they’ve time-traveled to an elegant bygone era. The moon sends a silvery trail across Sarasota Bay; live oaks rustle and stately palms wave their fronds; and the Who’s Who crowd in black tie and ball gowns enjoys cocktails in the bayfront home and an intimate feast in the dinner tent. You can almost sense the ghost of Bertha Palmer. Sarasota Conservation Foundation, 918-2100.
FOOD & DRINK
Best new way to treat a potato: Truffled Parmesan French fries, the latest twist on the classic shoestrings, make a good thing better with a seasoning of truffles and a salty, seductive dusting of Parmesan cheese. We love them equally at Libby’s Café + Bar in Southside Village (1917 S. Osprey Ave., 487-7300, $7) and The Bottle Shop on St. Armands (29 N. Boulevard of Presidents, 388-2675, $5).
Best new sushi roll: The volcano roll at the new J-Pan sushi restaurant in Paradise Plaza more than lives up to its name. A chilled spicy tuna roll with asparagus and avocado is topped with an oozing eruption of warm cream cheese, baked crab salad and shrimp. Every bite is hot, cold and totally explosive. $10. 3800 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, 954-5726.
Best place for a cuppa tea: The tearoom in Spice Girls on the South Trail is a funky little hideaway with a charming selection of antique teacups to hold whatever brew you could desire or imagine. If you’re lucky enough to be there on a day when owner Shannon Collins has baked brownies, all the better! 4141 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, 927-3949.
Best new restaurant in South Sarasota: No matter how far north you live, it’s worth getting in your car and driving down to Blackburn Point Road in Osprey to experience the new Aqua. Water views, wonderful seafood and classic Continental dishes, including a crispy duck entrée to die for—chef Matthew Passalacqua really can cook! 576 Blackburn Point Road, Osprey, 918-8041.
Best restaurant debut: Our finicky food critic, John Bancroft, can’t stop raving about MoZaic on Main Street, which wowed him while the place’s paint was still wet with chef Dylan Elhajoui’s Moroccan-inspired creations and a staff that delivered pitch-perfect service. (We love the way all the entrées magically swoop down on the table at the same time.) 1377 Main St., Sarasota, 951-6272.
Best sliders: Nobody does the popular new mini-burgers better than Hyde Park Steakhouse, with Kobe beef dressed up with caramelized onions, sautéed mushrooms, smoked bacon and chipotle aioli ($8; $5 during happy hour). Unless it’s Beach Bistro’s “White Castle” version—tenderloin topped with fois gras with demi glace and Bearnaise ($12). Or the wonderfully juicy ones that come with onion rings at Michael’s On East ($5). Wow and triple wow! Hyde Park, 35 S. Lemon Ave., Sarasota, 366-7788; Beach Bistro, 6600 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach, 778-6444; Michael’s On East, 1212 S. East Ave., Sarasota, 366-0007.
Best rustic comfort food: Caragiulo’s has a new special we’re clamoring to get on the everyday menu—polenta made from a recipe created by the five brothers’ Italian grandma. It’s classic, creamy, warm and wonderful, and it comes with your choice of three sauces—Bolognese, wild mushroom ragu or Gorgonzola. 69 S. Palm Ave., Sarasota, 951-0866.
Best cheesemonger: We’re blessed with a number of excellent specialty cheese shops, but for an enormous selection, impeccable quality and eager, uber-informed service, you just can’t beat Whole Foods Market. Ask Kelly for his personal selections. That’s how we discovered Humboldt Fog, a California goat cheese that’s now on our list of favorites. 1451 First St., Sarasota, 955-8500.
Best new sandwich: The new sweet heat fried chicken sandwich at Lee Roy Selmon’s has already earned a spot in our Sandwich Hall of Fame, with a frenzy of contrasting but complementary flavors—the softness of the bread and the plump, juicy breast with crispy crust within, topped with garlic horseradish sauce with the perfect hit of heat. $6.49. 8253 Cooper Creek Blvd., Sarasota, 360-3287.
Best new dessert: At Derek’s Culinary Casual, the owner and James Beard-nominated chef serves a pear poached in delicate lavender and honey and serves it with super-smooth homemade goat cheese ice cream and black-pepper caramel sauce. It’s ethereal and earthy all at the same time. $8, 514 Central Ave., Sarasota, 366-6565,
Best international produce: Impeccable fruits and veggies from all around the planet entice shoppers at Fresh Market, whether they’re looking for Chinese Buddha hands, South American kiwano melons or fresh Oregon truffles. 5251 University Parkway, Sarasota, 355-0417.
Best creative cook-off: At the Girl Scout Cookie-off, some of the town’s top chefs rise to the challenge of creating an out-of-the box dessert made entirely of Girl Scout cookies. How about dark chocolate strawberry Samoa “sushi”? It’s different, fun and a great way of supporting this often under-the-radar cause.
Best place for Hollywood-worthy baby clothes: We haven’t seen Katie Holmes or Tori Spelling shopping there yet, but the hip designers they love, including Ella Moss and Splendid, are creating baby and kids' lines now at L. Kids. 556 S. Pineapple Ave., Sarasota, 951-5560.
Best French fashions: You don’t need to spring for a ticket to visit the famous boutiques on Paris’ Left Bank. Proprietor France Engels at the new L’Atelier F. in Burns Square worked for Yves St. Laurent and Lanvin, and Francophile fashionistas will swoon for the sophisticated French styles she’s assembled here. 538 S. Pineapple Ave., Sarasota, 366-1000.
Best lingerie: Lotus on Main Street is our favorite new haunt for body-flattering lingerie and sleepwear that fits every mood from seductive to sophisticated to chi-chi couch potato. You can shop in the store or browse their online store, Knickers, for brands like Spanx, Yummie Tummie, Bedhead pajamas and much more. 1451 Main St., Sarasota, 906-7080.
Best shopping with a conscience: At 10,000 Villages, hand-crafted gifts and home and fashion accessories provide wages and hope for villagers in Third World countries. Bring the kids and give them a lesson in socially conscious shopping. 45 S. Palm Ave., Sarasota, 316-0120.
Best vintage finds: Treasures is the flagship store in Sarasota’s Fruitville Road antique district and may be the best source in the entire state for bargains on high-end vintage chandeliers and antique jewelry. You’ll always find something you want, and the prices are pretty old-fashioned, too. 1466 Fruitville Road, Sarasota, 366-7704.
Best place to nab a status watch. Swiss-born Ron Moser has the contacts and reputation in the world’s watch-making capital to get McCarver & Moser clients the timepieces everyone wants but most can’t purchase without languishing on a waiting list forever. And that includes the most sought-after collectible watch in the world, Patek Philippe’s 5960 in platinum with annual calendar chronograph. 482 John Ringling Blvd., Sarasota, 388-3666.
Best green couture: Juno & Jove on First Street proves that fashion can be socially responsible and chic at the same time. No hippies here. The clothes are innovative, upscale fashion that’s high-quality, high-style and environmentally as well as politically correct. Unit 1026, 100 Central Ave., Sarasota, 957-0000.