I’ve made my living writing about food for decades in the foodie mecca of New York City, but last year I made a big change when I moved to Sarasota and became the executive director of the nonprofit Careers Through the Culinary Arts Program. But that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped dining out. I have happily tasted my way from Venice to St. Petersburg. The good news is the food scene is lively, with an increasing number of chefs adopting my preferred less-is-more food philosophy: Just use good ingredients, then get out of their way.
Two local standouts are Indigenous’ Steve Phelps, with an adherence to sustainable, local ingredients, and Louise Kennedy Converse of Artisan Cheese Company, a specialty food store as good as you’d find in New York or London.
The bad news is there is still too much reliance on fried and blackened everything, and not enough green-centered plates in a place that should be swimming in as many gorgeous salads as fish.
So with all that said, here’s my current list of what to eat where. One caveat: This isn’t an exhaustive tally, since I haven’t made it to some renowned spots like Beach Bistro, Summer House and Maison Blanche, but that’s the fun of living here. There’s always something new to try.
Few things require as much freshness and delicacy as sushi, and many places bungle it with frozen fish or overly creative pairings that mar the singular flavors. If you’re in downtown Sarasota, this city’s version of Nobu is Kojo, which does inventive takes on classic Japanese fare. Farther south near Siesta Key is Kiyoshi’s Sushi, which offers sophisticated rolls and sashimi. One thing not to miss is their Tuna Bonbon with tempura onions inside an avocado shell. One thing to miss is the tropical mango-wrapped sushi. Kojo: 1289 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota, (941) 536-9717, eatkojo.com; Kiyoshi’s Sushi: 6550 Gateway Ave., Sarasota, (941) 924-3781
For the last five years, I have adopted Michael Pollan’s edict of “Eat Real Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.” While there is a surprising dearth of vegetable-centered restaurants here (this is a personal challenge, Sarasota chefs—see Eleven Madison Park in NYC), Lila is out in front, leading the plant-based way locally. You can’t go wrong with most everything on the menu, but my favorite is Lila’s Big Salad—a bowlful of happiness. So, too, is the Med Bowl, packed with almond-meal falafel, quinoa tabouleh, za’atar-spiced tomatoes, chickpeas and more. 1576 Main St., Sarasota, (941) 926-1042, lilasrq.com
I assumed leaving the Northeast meant I’d be consigned to a life bereft of lobster rolls. Thank goodness I was wrong. The Lazy Lobster on Longboat Key comes through; its rendition is loaded with sweet lobster meat, draped in a garlic butter sauce, encased in a buttered grilled roll and served with addictive fries. P.S.: I wouldn’t throw their Lobster Mac & Cheese out of bed. 5350 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key, (941) 383-0440, lazylobsteroflongboat.com; 7602 Lockwood Ridge Road, Sarasota, (941) 351-5515, sarasotalazylobster.com
If you want a good burger, you’ve come to the right town. From Made to Shore to State Street to Indigenous, there are so many great options. But for me, the eight-ounce Black Angus beef on a toasted rosemary Kaiser at super-casual Shakespeare’s is meaty perfection. The best part? You can choose your own adventure, with eight cheeses and nine toppings available, but there is a reason the Brie with caramelized onions is a crowd favorite. While you’re there, try their British comfort food—spicy beef and onion pasties, and a traditional English bread pudding studded with raisins. 3550 S. Osprey Ave., Sarasota, (941) 364-5938, shakespearesenglishpub.com
Unfortunately for me, I am addicted to peanut butter ice cream. Strangely, the perfect version has proved elusive, as often it’s either overwhelmed with chocolate or just a peanut butter cup bomb with no discernible ice cream. Main Street Creamery delivers the goods. The Triple Peanut Butter is a flavorful peanut butter ice cream laced with streams of salty peanut butter using a pure small batch process. Thank goodness the store isn’t open on Sundays, when this girl’s thoughts turn to… peanut butter ice cream. 1359 Main St., Sarasota, (941) 361-2046, themainstreetcreamery.com
There are a surprising number of places that serve up fine examples of pizza, and Lucile Pizza Wine & Bar and Napulè are at the top of my list. Lucile, a sibling to the plant-focused Lila, offers delicious vegan versions with cashew-milk mozzarella as well as more classic sausage and prosciutto varieties with Buffalo mozzarella. Napulè is more authentic Italian: wood-fired, with a thin crust and a panoply of homemade toppings. While I am a purist and like the Margherita best, Napulè shines with its Tartufata, a triple play of prosciutto, porcini and black truffle oil. Pro tip: While there, get a pasta like the fettuccine with speck and pistachio cream to split. Lucile Pizza & Wine Bar: 1660 Main St., Sarasota, (941) 330-0101, lucilesrq.com; Napulè: 7129 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, (941) 556-9639, napulesarasota.com
Since I am originally from England, Indian is my go-to comfort food. I was worried I wouldn’t find a place that could compare to those in the U.K. or N.Y., but Tikka Indian Cuisine makes me rest easy (and full). The crispy onion bhaji, saag paneer (a spinach cheese dish that I could bathe in, if allowed), shrimp korma, rosemary naan and samosa are everything you’ve always dreamed they could be. As is the chicken biryani, the saffron-onion scented basmati, loaded with chunks of chicken, topped with a naan and baked in a terrine. You’ll want to make this drive to northern Venice weekly—and can you give me a ride? 525A U.S. 41 Bypass N., Venice, (941) 303-5073, tikkaindian.com
Practically every restaurant has its version of fish tacos, often with grouper. Star Fish Company in Cortez truly holds its own, winning with a fresh-off-the-dock grilled fish lightly adorned and seasoned to allow the fish to shine. Sitting on the dock of Sarasota Bay, with pelicans as your fellow diners, makes eating here memorable. And the hush puppies will make you whelp with joy. 12306 46th Ave. W., Cortez, (941) 794-1243, starfishcompany.com
Give me a bowl with melted cheese and I’m happy. But give me a cheese toastie from Artisan Cheese Company and I am ecstatic. The brioche-like bread, baked in a local bakery, provides a flavorful foil to the cheese (Gruyere is my favorite), homemade pickle or jam, and cured meat like soppressata. It’s hard to go into Artisan Cheese and also not get the tacos, made with cheese, and the grain bowls. 550 Central Ave., Sarasota, (941) 951-7860, artisancheesecompany.com
Key Lime Pie
It’s a tough thing to find—the perfect balance of a moist graham cracker crust that is medium thick and not too sweet to carry the weight of a tart, Key lime custard-like base. So many go wrong with too sweet a filling, too thin a custard, artificial green coloring or mounds of pointless whipped cream. But Caribbean Pie Company’s rendition, with its true tart lime flavor, enough of a crust without it being intrusive and a creamy finish on the palate, is my favorite Key lime pie. Runner up—Star Fish. 2245 Bee Ridge Road, Sarasota, (941) 882-4589, caribbeanpieco.com
Tanya Steel is an author, food innovator and the executive director of the nonprofit Careers Through the Culinary Arts Program. You can read more about her at tanyasteel.com.