The Best of the Best - 2002

By staff January 1, 2002

Food and Drink


Best Waterfront Restaurant




Finalists: Beach Bistro, Marina Jack


The experts say we eat with our eyes. That must be why we want that aqua-view when we dine. From the serene and sublime deck overlooking Little Sarasota Bay at Ophelia's to Anna Maria Island's rustic charm at Beach Bistro to the glistening vistas of Sarasota Bay from Marina Jack, we definitely adore the water's edge.


Best Meal Under $8




Finalists: Mel's Diner, Mi Pueblo


Locals and seasonal visitors know that the Amish kitchen at Yoder's knows how to feed our inner yearnings for pot roast, meatloaf and apple pie. Mel's hits the spot for fast food the way it used to be; and Mi Pueblo, though small, offers ethnic fun and big, rib-sticking platters. And the background music is great.


Best Steakhouse


Ruth's Chris Steakhouse


Finalists: Longhorn Steakhouse, Outback Steakhouse


We luxuriate in the sophisticated supper-club atmosphere at the Ruth's Chris world-famous beef emporium; yet we also cozy up to the cowboy casual decor at Longhorn. And no one can resist the Down Under friendliness of the Outback, with a bloomin' onion that perfectly suits that juicy slab of beef. Guess we're just beef people at heart.


Best Brunch


The Colony Beach & Tennis Resort


Finalists: First Watch, University Park Country Club


It's a funny meal, not quite one thing, not entirely another. Makes you want to graze and choose from both meals, especially if you're a late riser. The Colony understands vacation mentality and puts out a panoply to please and amaze anyone, anytime. First Watch slides from crepes to salads and sandwiches with expert ease, and the UP Country Club has creative brunch specials to entice those coming off the links or just revving up.


Best Bar




Finalists: Fred's, Gecko's Grill & Pub


It's the place where everybody knows your name, right? Well, at least the bartender should. This trio of friendly, efficient watering holes gets high marks for generous drinks, comfortable ambience, and a crowd that's just your kind of folk. Bottoms up.


Best Place to Eat Outdoors


Old Salty Dog


Finalists: Alley Cat Cafe, Ophelia's


It's not brain surgery, folks-it's Florida. We love to catch a water breeze and bronze our legs while we enjoy a burger and a brew. Our winner has recently been refurbished, but the glorious view remains unchanged. At Alley Cat, you can sit in the garden while nibbling among the flowers and ferns. Ophelia's is a bit pricier, but, oh, my, that view, and the gourmet food is wonderful.


Best Early Bird Specials


Cafe Baci


Finalists: Stockyard Steakhouse, Yoder's


Economy-minded diners never have to compromise on gourmet quality just because their dinner comes at about the same time that real Italians are just finishing up with lunch. Cafe Baci can operate on early-bird standard time just fine. Stockyard gets plenty crowded at night so an early meal saves a possible wait. And at Yoder's, even the Amish chefs are early to bed and early to rise.


Best Non-chain Pizza


Demetrio's Restaurant and Pizza


Finalists: Caragiulo's, Rico's Pizzeria & Deli


Over the years, Sarasota has come to appreciate pizza from a Greek oven. Order a salad to accompany the pie for sure. The big salad served in a family-style bowl pairs well with the perfect pizza at Palm Avenue's Caragiulo's. Rico's is all-purpose and can satisfy a wide range of Italian cravings.


Best Bagels


Manhattan Bagel


Finalists: Better Bagels, Einstein Brothers Bagels


Fresh bagel: a Jewish yeast roll cooked in boiling water and then baked until it's got a shiny glaze and chewy texture. Two-day-old bagel: a lethal weapon. So, what's to love? Still, some days it wouldn't be worth getting up without knowing that a bagel with cream cheese and a cup of coffee is waiting at one of these life-saving emporiums.


Best Place for Dessert


Euphemia Haye


Finalists: Sugar & Spice, Yoder's


The Haye Loft at Euphemia Haye has been a gourmet dessert destination for several years and rightly so. Climb the stairway to paradise and indulge in fancy tortes, creme brulée, flavored coffees. You can even listen to live music while you munch. Both Sugar & Spice and Yoder's are definitely more down-home in menu offerings and ambience. Traditional berry and fruit pies are sliced in generous slabs and slathered with ice cream. Like eating at Grandma's on Sunday-if Granny were a scratch Amish baker!


Best Place for Salad


Sweet Tomatoes


Finalists: Chart House, 1905 salad at the Columbia


Greens are good for us, but nobody at our trio of winners claims salads are necessarily low-cal. There is just too much to select from at the buffets of Sweet Tomatoes (budget-minded) and Chart House (more upscale). The famous 1905 Columbia salad needs no additional praise. Anyone who has ever ordered one will come back for another. Garlicky and grand. Pass the Cuban bread.


Best Burger




Finalists: Chili's, Steak & Shake


Americans know a great burger, whatever style and shape it comes to us in. At Patrick's the burger is bold and juicy, and the bun has exactly the right sturdiness to hold everything together. Many a diner at Chili's cannot finish the big, messy burger with the Latin touch. Steak & Shake is a vintage fast-food favorite. The burgers are thin and just greasy enough.


Best Ice Cream/Yogurt




Finalists: Ben & Jerry's, Big Olaf Creamery, TCBY


It's a St. Armands test. Can you walk past the big glass windows at Kilwin's and not go in? If the fudge doesn't get you, the ice cream will. A heaping cone is what you need to stroll the Circle and window shop. Our finalists all have their house flavors that bring loyalists back time and again. From waffle cones to hand-cut chocolate chips as big as dimes, these places know what we admire in ice cream and yogurt.


Best Italian Restaurant


Cafe Baci


Finalists: Cuoco Matto, Mediterraneo


There are probably more Italian restaurants in Sarasota than any other ethnic variety. Sarasota people love to eat Italian, and they especially love the Northern Italian specials at Cafe Baci. Mediterraneo's salads, pastas, and meats are also amazing. At Cuoco Matto, we crave the Tuscan wood-burning oven pizzas and soups. When in'll think you never left Sarasota.


Best Chinese Restaurant


Le Chang & Midori Restaurant


Finalists: Mrs. Chen's, Oriental Buffet


The fast-rising star on the Oriental horizon is both a Chinese and a Japanese restaurant in one building tucked away from traffic on Palm Avenue. The place called Le Chang & Midori is as pretty and spacious as it is authentic. Mrs. Chen's and Oriental Buffet excel in Chinese home cooking with an emphasis on American-sized portions and minimal attention to ambience.


Best Japanese Restaurant




Finalists: Jo-To Japanese Steakhouse, Saga Japanese Steakhouse


Is it the fancy drinks, the drama of watching those knife-wielding chefs or knowing that when we enter the doors, we are truly in an exotic world? Well, yes, all of that. But it's definitely the food, too, from sushi to tempura to steak you can eat with chopsticks.


Best Thai Restaurant




Finalists: Siam Orchid, Tropical Thai Restaurant and Sushi Bar


Bring on the lemongrass, coconut milk and green eggplant. We owe our new-found knowledge to the fine cooks from Thailand who have added exotic elegant flavors and beautiful presentations to the local cuisine scene.


Best French Restaurant


Cafe of the Arts


Finalists: Cafe L'Europe, C'est La Vie


Mais oui, le chef from Catalan wins again. A kiss on both cheeks to long-running legend Alain Taulere. And even though the menu is not strictly French, a tip of our toque to those suave pros at Cafe L'Europe, who triumph over the lunch and dinner crowds with such Continental savoir faire. And how about that petite bakery-cafe on Main Street? C'est La Vie has raised this community's joie de vivre with scrumptious croissants, crusty baguettes and delicious quiches and crêpes.


Best Other Ethnic Restaurant


El Greco Cafe


Finalists: Chutney's, Mi Pueblo


Sarasota is getting to be the cuisine crossroads of the South! Greek specialties, Indian and Arabic fare and plenty of Mexican, too. Thank goodness they all take American money and the menus are printed in English.


Best Romantic Restaurant




Finalists: Michael's On East, Ophelia's


Scheduling a private tête-a-tête? The lush foliage at The Summerhouse provides seclusion, and the servers are ever-so discreet. At Michael's, a late-night supper in one of those banquettes in the bar can get downright naughty. And the romantic deck at Ophelia's on the bay is definitely the place to propose. What you propose is your own affair.


Best Restaurant for Seafood


Barnacle Bill's


Finalists: Captain Brian's Seafood Market & Restaurant, Fish Tales Fresh Seafood, Phillippi Creek Village Oyster Bar


The ambience at all of these seafood eateries is laid-back casual. Portions are generous, the side dishes are varied, the chatter is lively. Phillippi Creek has the water view-if you can look up from your plate of crab claws long enough to enjoy it. Captain Brian and Fish Tales have delectable cases of sea life to admire. At Barnacle Bill's, locals see everyone they know.


Best New Restaurant (opened in 2000)




Finalists: Mi Pueblo, Ruth's Chris Steakhouse,


Silver Cricket


This quartet of eateries has captured the fancy of the young and upwardly mobile diners who rush to the new and trendy. What do they find intoxicating about each of these newcomers? They adore the bar, the food, the decor, and the exciting mix of locals and out-of-towners who have all come together to be part of the buzz. Smart, good-looking people hang out at these places. You belong there, too.


Best Arts, Entertainment & Sports


Best Performing Arts Group


Sarasota Ballet


Finalists: Asolo, Florida Studio Theatre


The ballet trekked from Transylvania ("Dracula") to Japan ("Madame Butterfly") to ancient Persia ("Zal & Rudabeh") this past season, so they've earned their win with vigor and variety. The Asolo pleases with plays both classic and contemporary, and Florida Studio's loyal subscribers love that off-off-Broadway feel-along Palm Avenue.


Best Place to Watch a Performance


Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall


Finalists: Asolo, Sarasota Opera House


Even sitting through tent performances during its recent renovation couldn't deter loyal performance lovers from voting for the Van Wezel, which is now bedecked with a fresh shade of lavender and hosting full-sized Broadway shows. We love the vintage charm and ample parking of the Asolo, and we thank God for the history and onstage histrionics at the Opera House.


Best Nightclub


Down Under Jazz Club


Finalists: Anthony's After Dark, In Extremis


Yes, there is a difference between the Down Under and Anthony's, a point fervently made by several of our staffers who frequent both clubs. Every weekend, all three of these Quay denizens are packed with crowds grooving to their throbbing rock, disco and techno beats. Not bad for a town with "no young people."


Best Place to Play Tennis


Bath & Racquet Club


Finalists: The Colony Beach & Tennis Resort, University Park Country Club


Tennis is a blood sport in this town, a place that many world-class pros and their coaches call home. No one will ever agree on the absolute perfect court, but we're ready to rally for these choices.


Best Place to Play Golf


University Park Country Club


Finalists: Laurel Oak Country Club, Longboat Key Club, The Meadows


The best place to play golf is in the sunshine on a day of 75-degree weather with three partners who are more pathetic than you and who intend to pay for lunch. But we raise a nine-iron to these choices, too.


Best Museum


The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art


Finalists: G.WIZ, Mote Marine Laboratory, Selby Gardens


Visit all four and you'll have a pretty comprehensive overview of the cultural evolution of Sarasota. Not a bad way to acquire an education, either.


Best Attraction for Kids




Finalists: Jungle Gardens, Mote Marine Laboratory


Who says these joints are just for kids? We've seen lots of adults giggling mischievously through the exhibits at G.WIZ. Every parent gets their hands wet at Mote's touch tank, and Jungle Gardens has gloriously tacky souvenirs.


Best Goods And Services


Best Hair Salon


Alternatives Hair Salon & More


Finalists: Nuovo Salon & Spa, Yellow Strawberry


Personally, we go to salons for the deliciously relaxing hair wash, but the cut's important, too. Trust your precious tresses to the creative clippers at Alternatives, Nuovo and Yellow Strawberry.


Best Department Store




Finalists: Dillard's, Saks Fifth Avenue


Burdines has the hometown advantage of knowing what Florida shoppers will wear. Dillard's gives us top-of-the-line department store wares (and middle-of-the-road prices); and Saks Fifth Avenue stays popular for its up, up, upscale designer clothes and straight-from-the-heart community involvement.


Best Mall


Southgate Plaza


Finalists: Sarasota Pavilion, Sarasota Square Mall


Shoppers (and tourists) flock to Southgate because of stylish tenants like Saks Fifth Avenue, Ann Taylor and Banana Republic. Sarasota Square is a big hit with every price point and age; and after years of decline, the mall formerly known as Gulf Gate has roared back into business with a new assortment of shops (even the Hooters is bigger and better than before).


Best Bookstore


Barnes & Noble


Finalists: Main Bookshop, Sarasota News & Books


We adore the yummy coffee and deli at Barnes & Noble, and we're thrilled that two independents came in so close behind. Mass-market selection and literary discounts aside, we still crave the charm of Cosmo's free roaming cats and the close, casual atmosphere of Sarasota News & Books.


Best Consignment Store


Woman's Exchange


Finalists: Designer Consigner, Encore & More!


We've known forever that new isn't always better. These consigner stores reinforce that fact every time we spy an immaculate Ann Taylor blouse for only $5. Woman's Exchange is the grandmother of them all, with a warehouse chock-full of snowbird cast-offs, and Designer Consigner and Encore & More have been outfitting Sarasota's elite for years.


Best Gift Shop


Persnickity Cat


Finalists: Artisans' World Market Place, Mary's


On Main


Perennial fave Persnickity Cat takes this award nearly every year. And why not, when its showroom of eclectic knickknacks takes up a quarter of a city block? Not to be outdone are Artisans and Mary's on Main, which have both made a name with their unique accessories and gifts.


Best Swimsuits


Swim Mart


Finalists: Burdines, Swim City


It says something about the quality of a city's swimsuit selection when tourists from all over the country get their bathing suits here. Swim Mart, Swim City and Burdines all boast fabulous collections of designer suits that suit any frame (or bump, or bulge).


Best Spa


The Met


Finalists: The Colony Beach & Tennis Resort, John Carl Spa & Salon


The name has changed, but the service stayed the same, guaranteeing the spa at The Met a grand prize in the rub-me, soothe-me, make-me-get-reckless-with-the-plastic category. John Carl brings some metropolitan sizzle to self-indulgence, and The Colony keeps people coming back not only for its service but also for its spectacular Gulf-front setting.


Best Hotspots & Highlights


Best Sarasota Souvenir




Finalists: Shells, Tan


We wouldn't want to be the folks back home taking care of your dog while you're in Florida. You're cheap! But at least you know the best things in life are free. (Not even a T-shirt?)


Best Place to Take Visitors


The Beach


Finalists: The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Mote Marine Laboratory, St. Armands Circle


Visitors can't wait to sink their toes into our baby-powder sand. They don't even seem to mind that it takes a week to get the stuff off. When they do tear themselves away, they can do lunch and shop at St. Armands, watch the manatees barrel-roll at Mote and bask in the Baroque artwork of the Ringling Museum.


Best Street


Main Street


Finalists: Osprey Avenue, Palm Avenue


Readers were roundly impressed by Main Street's continuing makeover. Palm Avenue remains our elegant street of artful creations, and Osprey is brimming with wonderful surprises as residents reclaim precious little bungalows and send property values in the surrounding areas soaring.


Best Free Fun


The Beach


Finalists: City Island Park, Sunsets


The best things in life are free, and so is Happy Hour for the folks who break open a picnic basket of wine and cheese at the beach or City Island Park for sunset.


Best Part of Living Here


The Weather


Finalists: Arts and culture, the Beach


It's why we all moved here, isn't it?

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