Alley Cat Cafe is near downtown Sarasota but so tucked away that first-timers can get frustrated finding it. It's worth the hunt. This is a place where you can make a garden party out of a meal. The setting is both lovely and calming, and the pace of service is Southern leisurely.
Under rambling trellises and pergolas near delicately scented blooming vines, guests sit at vintage round and square tables on mix-and-match chairs and sip iced tea while deciding what to order. If people still wore hats, you'd expect to see women in broad-brimmed straw chapeaux and white cotton lacy gloves leaning in towards one another over their menus to hear the latest gossip. Alley Cat, just by virtue of its setting in one of the city's antique districts, certainly evokes an earlier, gentler time when lunch out promised a pretty place and socially useful information as well as delicious food. But not only ladies who lunch love this place. Men with long lunch hours or tourists with time to spare track down the Alley Cat because the food is anything but dainty.
Lunch is an enticing balance of salads (sweet chili-glazed chicken, cold poached salmon) or sandwiches (grilled eggplant, grouper, brie and sliced apples) and entrées such as shrimp basil fettuccini, quiche, fresh fish, and a fragrant and satisfying Mediterranean stew scented with cumin and served on couscous. Lunch averages about $9.
At night, Alley Cat Cafe gets downright romantic. Couples and foursomes nestle into a corner for wine, good conversation and a long, slow meal. Tiny white lights roped through the vines and posts and lattices and the starry canopy above make everyone appear at least a decade younger than they really are. Alley Cat seating is outdoors, but a ceiling above keeps you from getting wet in case of drizzle. If you want even more privacy, a little cottage on the property offers intimate dining niches.
The dinner menu is comforting American bistro food with French, Mediterranean and Floribbean influences. The pecan-encrusted catfish (mild and firm) sits atop a mound of sweet corn pudding and is topped with seasonal fruit chutney. Little ribbons of lightly sautéed carrot and red cabbage add color and additional textures. The crayfish etouffée is tomato rich and retains its mud-bug shells. The flavor is magical, but if you don't want the mess of peel 'n' eat, order ginger-soy-marinated tuna steak or the fire-grilled New Zealand lamb chops. Entrées average about $24.
The wines are even more eclectic than the cuisine. Owner Joan Marie Condon is offering about 125 selections at present, but she is constantly adding new labels. Wine by the glass is available from $5-8.25 and bottles go from the $18-20 range on up. Our choice was a Mezzacorona pinot grigio 2000 for about $20.
Condon developed the restaurant in 1993, sold it a few years later and then got it back in March of 2000. Recently, she added an upstairs bar-Cat on a Hot Tin Roof-that seats 60 and has been wildly successful with couples waiting for a table or young people who come just for flavored martinis and live music.
When you're seated, you'll be immediately served fresh bread and butter. Servers are formally dressed in white shirt and necktie, and all are expert. Artlessly arranged fresh flowers occupy antique crocks, pewter pitchers and little teapots. Bread and butter plates are mix-and-match old-fashioned china patterns, but your important entrée comes from chef John Schaal's kitchen in a deep, no-nonsense white bistro plate. This combination of culinary professionalism and romantic whimsy is characteristic of the whole Alley Cat dining experience. What a civilized place to enjoy the pleasures of the table.
Alley Cat Cafe
1558 Fourth St., Sarasota
Lunch: Monday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-2:20 p.m.
Dinner: Tuesday-Thursday, 6-9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6-10 p.m.
Comeback kid: The deck of Coasters at the Southbridge has long been a favorite spot to enjoy a nibble and a beer or a full course fish-camp meal, because the waterside ambience is so pleasant. The kitchen, though, has always been erratic. But now George Perreault, owner of the Summerhouse and Sarasota Bread, promises to whip the place into ship-shape order with the help of operations director Michael Caldwell and Coasters manager Ronda Boucher.
Chef Matthew Brigham arrived at Coasters last July and decided the mostly seafood menu needed a few more "fine dining" selections as well as some meat-lovers' favorites such as steak and spare ribs. He's kept the prices moderate but has added some signature dishes worth trying. One is the potato-crusted grouper with a lemon beurre blanc sauce-although I'd prefer the sauce on the bottom rather than the top ($18.99). The mild Sanibel rock shrimp ($14.99) is a light linguine preparation laced with asparagus and asiago cheese. And the Chesapeake Bay crab cakes ($17.99) are a pride of the kitchen. The generous patties have good flavor, but they could use some more lump crab.
Brigham has also added a vegetarian platter to the menu. Grilled items such as eggplant and peppers come to the table drizzled in a tarragon Dijon vinaigrette. Entrées average $16. The menu includes a nice selection of kid-friendly meals for $5.99 each.
Inside, there are two bars (where you can smoke) and a main dining room of booths and tables. Or dine outside, either on the covered part of the deck or in the open area, under market umbrellas at patio tables covered in plastic. This is the place as far as I'm concerned. You have a view of mangroves and jumping fish and sea birds traveling the Intracoastal.
On a quiet night out there on the old wooden deck under the stars with your seafood platter and an icy cold beverage, you understand exactly why people move to Southwest Florida. Off in the distance, I thought I heard the mysterious, guttural sounds of whales talking to one another under water. Then my smart-alec companion informed me that the tonal dialogue was actually cars rumbling over the metal grid of the Stickney Point drawbridge to Siesta Key. Oh. Well, sometimes, you just have to fabricate your own 19th- century waterside dining myth. I say those cars sound like whales gossiping.
Coasters at the Southbridge
1500 Stickney Point Road, Sarasota
Open daily. Lunch 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Dinner 4-10 p.m.
If coming by boat, dock at Marker #62
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Picnic time: Remember the prettiest picnic you ever enjoyed. Now add to that scene a view of Sarasota Bay, the shade of an ancient banyan tree and inviting paths flanked by rare and beautiful orchids. Oh, yes, and the food is gourmet. That's what you can now enjoy at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. In cooperation with Michael's On East, the gardens now have takeout cafe in the sunroom of the Selby residence.
Select a meal from one cooler, a drink from another and for dessert, choose a fresh cookie from the basket near the cash register. The cookie might be oatmeal, chocolate chip, macadamia nut with white chocolate, Heath bar or peanut butter. It's as big as a saucer and can easily be shared.
The entrées include selections that you'll find on the luncheon menu at Michael's On East downtown-Chinese chicken salad, turkey wrap, Caesar salad, vegetarian salad and the like. Average price is $6. Everything is composed fresh in the morning and brought over to the gardens by an MOE staffer who is the on-site picnic master. Available libations include wine, beer, coffee, the usual sodas and iced tea.
There are no tables inside the sunroom. You take your packaged picnic outside and eat at bayside tables or wooden benches scattered through the area. You might even spread a towel, take off your shoes and stretch out on the grass while tucking into your lunch.
If you aren't a member of Selby Gardens, you pay an admission fee to get in-and maybe that should encourage you to consider joining. It's a great place to take visitors for all sorts of reasons other than lunch. If a gourmet picnic amid orchids and banyans is just the inducement you've been waiting for, then now is the time to locate your pen and tell yourself "bon appétit" as you write a check for your membership.
Michael's in the Garden
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
811 Palm Ave., Sarasota
Open daily from 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Admission: $8 for adults, $4 for children (under 5, free). Members, free.