If the design of restaurants can be taken as a valid indicator of a city's maturity, Sarasota is growing up quite nicely.
Our town has always had a large number of places to eat, but many of them have been undistinguished in visual (and culinary!) appeal. Recently, however, as if their owners had decided that a market for innovative dining experiences has finally appeared, new establishments have sprung up everywhere. Many of them seem to have paid nearly as much attention to architecture and design as to the kitchen. Not all of these new places succeed on both fronts, but the result is a welcome choice of surroundings in which to eat, drink and socialize.
At the forefront of the trend stands the Bijou Café, which has been renovated and expanded after a fire a year or so ago. The Bijou was always charming, one of the best converted filling stations anywhere, but the former place never looked like this. Walking into the new version, rising from the ashes of the former incarnation, is an uptown experience. Thanks to the suave and functional design by Seibert Architects, one could be on Madison Avenue or in Knightsbridge. A palette of soft beige and ivory, flattering lighting, a mix of intimate and larger spaces: It all works together flawlessly. The place murmurs good things. The exterior, evoking the shape of the original, is subtly expanded and well proportioned.
At the other end of our extended "downtown" lies the complex of restaurants and shops around the intersection of Hillview and South Osprey avenues. The newest addition to this trendy zone is Sam Snead's Tavern, a mixture of casual comfort and sporty elegance, full of fascinating golf memorabilia.
The bar opens to Hillview, while the dining area fronts on Osprey. The interior design has achieved something that eludes many architects: It looks as if it has always been there, has always been the meeting place of its customers, is the neighborhood place of choice. Warm earth tones, acres of exposed ceiling rafters and wood paneling and snaking air conditioning ducts painted terra-cotta surround the diner with a soothing space.
Snead's is part of a recycled building (something of a Sarasota specialty) that used to house, among other things, a medical supply store. The trusses and crutches are gone from the windows, and a "Mediterranean" skin has been applied to the structure quite successfully. The ubiquitous fat columns are not as silly as those that front Morton's Market down the street, but the general spirit is similar, albeit less obviously theatrical.
Far from Sarasota's downtown, but still part of the local dining circuit for those of adventurous spirit, lies the Island's End Bistro on Anna Maria. The building itself is unremarkable, looking as if it had been a bank in a previous incarnation, but the atmosphere it radiates gives it great appeal.
The open porch facing the street beckons the visitor and leads the eye through the large windows to the hospitable spaces within. The interior is charmingly eccentric, broken into spaces of various dimensions and on several levels. The impression is that of a restaurant that has grown over many years, yet this is actually a recent addition to Anna Maria Island's expanding inventory of interesting places for a meal. At night, the building seems magical; by day, ordinary.
Speaking of evening magic: Look at the new Main Street Bistro, where a nondescript space has been zapped into an appetizing environment for dining. Under the guidance of the ADP Group, the long interior wall leading from open street front to open kitchen in the rear is a constantly changing Van Gogh-like mural. Whorls of color gradually morph from dark and mysterious to space-travel brilliant. The waterfall at the front is both unrelated and unnecessary, but the tinkle it makes is an effective foil for street noise.
As the metropolitan area expands inexorably to the east, restaurants follow. For the most part, the new buildings housing these are the standard chain-dictated boxes, identified and remembered only for their logos and monster signs. An exception to this, Don Pablo''s Mexican Restaurant, just off Fruitville Road at I-75, looks as if it might be a converted power station. An imposing brick block, punctured by large institutional windows, this is an odd choice for an informal dining spot, but somehow appealing in its nervy strength. Quite a few old industrial sites have been recycled as entertainment centers around the world; this is one of few built "old" for that purpose. Is it too much to hope that someone will find a similar use for our real power station, a fine building on North Orange Avenue?
Don Pablo would not be called "fine dining," nor does it aim for that style, but the design is fun and enterprising. And the same could be said for some other fast food architecture around town.
The new Checkers, on Ringling Boulevard next door to the jail, is wonderfully cheerful. Its fat red columns, perky red umbrellas and bright neon accents truly enliven the corner where a grim bail bondsman used to hold forth. An army of workers put the structure up in record time, and it has been busy day and night ever since. It's almost as bracing is the zany Sonic drive-in, on U.S. 41 in Manatee County just south of 60th Street. Spiky columns, red again, support an enormous canopy roof, under which dozens of picnic tables are clustered.
A meal with friends or family, sitting together around a table, is a primary ingredient of civilization. Anything from damask to paper towels, from crystal to plastic, from reverential quiet to bustling bonhomie, from trendy to silly can fit the bill. A note to restaurateurs and architects: Just keep on giving us more choices, please, and make them as unpredictable and satisfying as these.