Bet you didn’t know that the five Columbia restaurants in Florida, including the bustling St. Armands Circle branch, together are the largest users of Worcestershire sauce in the U.S.
That’s just one of the delicious nuggets of history, pop culture, circus lore and just plain fun facts we learned when we signed up for Key Culinary Tour’s flagship St. Armands Lunch Tour. It’s the brainchild of Sarasota’s Susan Robinson, owner of the property management company, Key Concierge, who—like any smart entrepreneur—saw a void (What? No Sarasota food tours in a town that’s renowned for its restaurants?) and filled it. The lunchtime culinary tours she started a year ago have blossomed into other specialty tours: a St. Armands happy hour tour, a Lido Key culinary tour by bicycle, a taste of downtown Sarasota tour and a chef-led downtown farmer’s market tour.
The Columbia was one of six stops on our lunch excursion. As our waiter splashed the Columbia’s famed 1905 salad with a dash of Worcestershire, manager John Monetti told us that, on any given day in-season, the restaurant serves an average 750-plus of the garlicky dish, named for the date the original restaurant in Tampa’s Ybor City was founded. (Now you know why the company uses so much Worcestershire sauce.) We each got a generous portion, along with half a Cuban sandwich.
At Shore Diner, we enjoyed the bright flavors of its signature lobster, crab and shrimp Cobb salad along with the calamari and Asian slaw salad and a big helping of Shore’s popular truffle fries with Parmesan and chives. Restaurant owner Mark Caragiulo welcomed us to the trendy eatery, which he describes as “midcentury Florida in spirit, with an elevated take on American comfort food.”
At Blu Kouzina, we sampled the flavors of Greece: deep fried meatballs with tzatziki; zucchini patties with herbs, feta cheese “and a lot of love,” according to our waiter, a chicken kabob with roasted potato, and a piece of not-too-sweet baklava. And at Tommy Bahama, dessert awaited us in the form of three beautifully composed miniature desserts: a Key lime cake, triple chocolate malted cake and peanut butter pie.
Robinson also took us to the Spice and Tea Exchange, where we absorbed the fabulously fragrant scents of the spices, and to the Savory Palate, where we tried a refreshing glass of seltzer water flavored with white peach balsamic vinegar. (Sounds crazy, but it was perhaps the hit of the afternoon.)
All along, Robinson regaled us with stories about St. Armands Circle founder John Ringling. We learned just who Charles St. Amand was and how that “r” accidentally got in his last name. We visited the Circus Ring of Fame medallions of Gunther Gebel Williams, Cecil B. DeMille and Jumbo the elephant. And she pointed out John Ringling’s very own original real estate office, now occupied by Café L’Europe.
Robinson says half the people who’ve taken her tours in this inaugural year have been out-of-towners and the other half locals, half of whom have never been to one or more of the restaurants on her tour. “It’s a marvelous way to see a neighborhood,” she says.