The upstairs bar dates back to the 1920s.

Image: Daniel Perales 

Umbrellas 1296 is the latest in a trend I’d like to see go on forever: new restaurants and bars revitalizing historic addresses. Sage opened in the old Sarasota Times building in January, just a month before Umbrellas dusted off the gorgeous vine-covered edifice next to the Sarasota Opera House on First Street. 

General manager Paul James fell in love with the building—which has been home to a number of restaurants in recent decades—when he arrived in Sarasota two years ago. “Like a lover,” he says, “I couldn’t get it out of my mind.” He and Umbrellas owner William Ellsworth, an old friend from high school, together plotted its rebirth, updating the fixtures and the flooring, applying a pink, gray and reflex blue color palette and striving to preserve historic touches, like the sharp, gleaming woodwork on the 1920s bar on the second floor. “We put a lot of money into resurrecting this old beauty,” James says.

Umbrellas’ skirt steak bánh mì and salad.

James is the driving force behind the restaurant, eager to crack a joke when a guest walks in the door and a font of energy in the kitchen. He’s worked in the food industry for decades, with a series of stints at restaurants, hotels and resorts in Las Vegas and beyond. He calls Umbrellas “fine casual,” an eatery that serves high-quality food at reasonable prices with a joie de vivre you won’t find at pricier spots.

The name of the restaurant has three distinct meanings. For starters, it rained a lot when James first moved to Florida. Secondly, the restaurant is committed to serving as a comfortable, sheltering space for any and all comers—regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. The third connotation is the restaurant’s menu, a selection that covers the globe.

A must-order: tasty and tender Brussels sprouts. 

The food is the work of chef Ethan Steiner, who first moved to Sarasota for a job as the sous chef at the Art Ovation Hotel. He designed the menu with “no handcuffs,” according to James. “We took flavors from everywhere,” says Steiner. The appetizer selection alone includes everything from tortilla chips and guacamole ($10) to escargots ($14) and fried Brussels sprouts flavored with Sriracha, agave and lime ($12). The lunch menu is similarly eclectic, with a skirt steak bánh mì ($16) and a mint-scented shredded lamb sandwich ($16), while the dinner menu includes old warhorses like filet mignon ($30) and duck confit ($19).

That wide reach leads to some misfires. The guacamole lacks salt and spice, while the steak in the bánh mì may work with a fork and a knife, but is tough when consumed as a handheld. Steiner has a nice touch with vegetables, though. After Brussels sprouts were shunned for decades, they’re trendy now, and Steiner’s are tender and flavorful. His fish tacos ($17), meanwhile, come with a side of “refried chickpeas,” a tasty mashup that’s half hummus and half Old El Paso.

Umbrellas' outdoor dining.

Image: Daniel Perales 

It’s rare to find a restaurant that employs an entertainment director and house DJ, but that’s the title for DJ Don Pablo, who has crafted a musical lineup that takes advantage of Umbrellas’ sumptuous environs. The patio hosts karaoke every Monday night, while live jazz swings in the upstairs lounge on the weekends.

UMBRELLAS 1296 | 1296 First St., Sarasota, (941) 500-4810, umbrellas1296.com

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