Best Restaurants 2017

How We Chose the Best Restaurants in Sarasota

Pam Daniel on the delectable process of choosing our 62 must-eat locations.

By Pam Daniel February 1, 2017 Published in the February 2017 issue of Sarasota Magazine

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I’ve learned not to schedule meetings with our dining critics and food bloggers before lunch. Passionate and insatiable, they are the very definition of human beings who live to eat, and as they rattle off the names of the restaurants they’ve visited in just the last few weeks (do any of them ever eat at home? I wonder) and describe their favorite dishes in vivid, sensual detail, I’m seized with desperate, gnawing hunger. By the end of the meeting, all I can think about is lunch, and I always leave with a scribbled list of dishes and places I’m determined to immediately try.

I hope you’ll have a similar reaction to our cover story, which highlights the restaurants our food experts chose (in a series of after-lunch meetings) as Sarasota’s best. In our research and discussions, we focused on restaurants that consistently deliver an outstanding experience. For some, that means magnificent food that reflects an individual chef’s genius; for others, the waterfront setting or hip urban atmosphere may be as satisfying as the menu; still others have mastered a regional or ethnic cuisine.

In all, we chose 62 restaurants, ranging from long-running local landmarks and neighborhood bistros to fashionable new farm-to-table spots.

We also came away with some observations on our restaurant scene.

First and foremost: There’s a reason Conde Naste Traveler named Sarasota one of the 15 Best Restaurant Cities. For a small city, we have an amazing variety of good restaurants. True, there’s nary a sign of the Scandinavian or New World Chinese or contemporary Indian cuisines making headlines in New York City, but we do have Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, French, Mediterranean, Peruvian, Brazilian and more. That reflects both the sophistication of local diners and our population growth, as newcomers arrive from around the globe and open restaurants like those they ran at home. 

Restaurants are famously short-lived, but at least five of our very best—Michael’s On East, the Columbia, Euphemia Haye, Beach Bistro and The Bijou—have lasted for multiple decades, weathering changing tastes and rising competition. Credit smart owners who understand the commitment to excellence this city demands.

Everybody, from billionaires in flip-flops to visiting Midwestern families, loves a funky fish shack. And while tiki bars and a view of sailboats didn’t always come with good food, many of our Old-Florida spots, from the Phillippi Creek Oyster Bar to Star Fish in Cortez, have elevated their menus, serving ultra-fresh seafood and creative spins on simple fare. 

We have a raging addiction to Italian cuisine, with a ridiculous number of excellent Italian places and new ones opening all the time. Diners can—and do—enjoy specialties from a different region of Italy, from the islands of Ischia and Sardinia to the northern city of Bologna, every night of the week. I thought this was just a Sarasota thing, but our restaurant reviewer Marsha Fottler tells me it’s a national obsession, with Italian ranking as America’s No. 1 ethnic cuisine.

The fresh-and-local movement has moved into the mainstream. A few years ago, it was the province of a few tony places—the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, downtown’s chef-driven Indigenous—but now everyone from tourists at The Sandbar to diners at the new Lila and Boca (where there’s even a grow wall of fresh herbs) are feasting on sustainable seafood and vegetable-centric creations.

We’re in the grip of pizzapalooza, with wood-burning ovens and artisanal chefs cranking out designer disks of every variety. (Make mine the one with Cedar Key clams, roasted garlic, bacon and oregano at the convivial new Oak and Stone, please.) Such pizza has become the calling card of many neighborhood bistros, gastropubs and rustic-chic taverns.

Sarasota is known for wealth, but many fortunes here were self-made; folks know the value of a dollar. You’ll see 1 percenters along with young families enjoying moderately priced neighborhood hangouts, and when they shell out for a lavish dinner, they expect full return on their investment. Restaurants who ignore that reality don’t last long.

And be sure to download our new free Gastronaut app, which includes our editors’ picks and more, offers multiple ways to search for local restaurants and allows you to post your own reviews and create a list of places you want to try.  

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