Dining out doesn’t mean what it used to. Thanks to shifting trends and habits, plus the massive disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic, these days, when we’re hungry, we’re just as likely to place a takeout order as we are to find a table at a full-service sit-down restaurant. In that spirit, we’ve put together a comprehensive guide to where you should be eating right now. Some are traditional establishments, others are takeout and delivery specialists. What do they have in common? They all provide delicious food.

Made

1990 Main St., #112, Sarasota, (941) 953-2900, maderestaurant.com

Fast-food chains like Popeyes and Zaxby’s have been engaged in an extended fried chicken sandwich conflict that threatens to become an unending quagmire. I love a spicy Popeyes chicken sandwich as much as the next guy, but my heart more often craves the Nashville hot chicken sandwich ($15) from Made (pictured at top.) It is titanic in both size and flavor. Made with a generous portion of chicken breast that’s double-dip fried, slathered with hot sauce and topped with bacon, braised collard greens, cheese and pickles, it’s a masterful sandwich that puts the competition to shame.

Shore on Longboat Key.

Image: Gene Pollux

Shore

465 John Ringling Blvd., #200, Sarasota, (941) 296-0301; 800 Broadway St., Longboat Key, (941) 259-4600; dineshore.com

Which Shore location do I like the best? That’s a tough call. On one hand, the newer restaurant, near the northern tip of Longboat Key, is built with tiered seating, which gives every diner a view of the lapping waters of Sarasota Bay, and the space is a swanky, polished, upscale midcentury Florida dreamscape. On the other hand, at the original location, on St. Armands Circle, when the weather’s nice, the roof rolls back, and if you request the right table, you can sit underneath the stars and gaze across an intimate table into the eyes of the person you love the most. Whichever destination you choose, luckily, you can trust that the food will be on point. Chef Dylan Elhajoui has constructed a creative menu that has a little something for everybody. For the die-hard meat eater in your life, there are the St. Louis-style barbecued ribs ($27) coated in a Mongolian glaze and arranged on the plate like a Jenga tower. There’s also a grouper sandwich ($25) that is the ideal of that Florida classic, a hugely indulgent lobster, shrimp and crab Cobb salad ($25), a great burger ($19) and excellent cocktails.

Chicken, beef and pork tacos from The Spot Tacos & More.

The Spot Tacos & More

2303 First St., Bradenton, (941) 741-2011

For years, Laura Betancourt operated a food, juice and smoothie stand outside Bradenton’s Red Barn Flea Market, but she got tired of running an outdoor business on hot and rainy days, so she decided to move indoors. In 2019, she opened The Spot Tacos & More in a small space attached to Robin’s Apartments, an affordable housing complex just down the road from the Red Barn. Betancourt was born in Florida, but grew up in California, and her Mexican cuisine is filtered through that West Coast experience. To perfect her birria tacos, she traveled to California to sample the state’s best and then developed her own, which are made with beef cheeks, and crisped up on a flattop after being dunked in a rich broth. For $10, you can get three tacos and a bowl of that broth to dip them in, or just four tacos. It’s one of the best deals in town. Even the plainer tacos—filled with pork, beef or chicken—are made with fresh tortillas made in house, and gorditas and burritos also benefit from Betancourt’s scrupulous eye.

Tikka Indian Cuisine

525A U.S. Highway 41 Bypass N., Venice, (941) 303-5073, tikkaindian.com

I enjoy spicy food, so when I was presented with the option of mild, medium or hot at Tikka, which opened in Venice in 2018, my first instinct was to go for the spiciest choice, but something made me pull back and order medium instead. I’m glad I did. That middle option retains an impressive heat level—right where I like it. That spice elevates the butter chicken ($15). The meat, simmered in tomato and plenty of spices, is tender and delicate, and the abundance of rich, fragrant sauce gives you something in which to dip your garlic naan ($3). If you’re feeling extra spicy, go for the chili naan ($4), a flaky, puffy bread blasted with hot green chilies. The lamb saag ($17), made with big hunks of lamb and plenty of creamy spinach, is also excellent. At many restaurants, tandoori chicken ($15), which is made by roasting the meat in a super-hot tandoor oven, can become dry and dull, but that’s not a problem at Tikka, where the pieces remain juicy and soft, and are accentuated with onions and lemon. Be sure to ask for plenty of condiments, which let you figure out your own flavor combinations. Pickled lemons ($3) add a sour, pungent counterpoint to the meats, while the yogurt-based raita ($3) provides a cooling touch to counteract some of that spice.

Mélange

1568 Main St., Sarasota, (941) 953-7111, melangesarasota.com

You never know what will take your breath away at Mélange. At one recent dinner, it was the soup—a delicate concoction that combined a flan made with Dry Sack sherry, a tangle of blue crab bits and pebbles of ginger “caviar,” with a hazelnut crumpet on the side. Sipping it was a revelation of the kind that executive chef Lan Bradeen has been delivering to diners regularly since the restaurant opened in 2007.

Indigenous chef Steve Phelps.

Indigenous

239 S. Links Ave., Sarasota, (941) 706-4740, indigenoussarasota.com

Steve Phelps has been one of the area’s top chefs for more than a decade. Now it feels like the rest of the world is paying attention, too. Phelps has become an outspoken advocate for sustainable aquaculture, and his support for environmentally friendly farm-raised seafood has earned him spots on national television and made him a leader in the field. But, of course, it’s what Phelps does with those sustainable products that keeps me coming back. Whether he’s simply searing a hunk of fish and dressing it in a bright sauce, or using that same fish to make a thick, juicy sandwich, the results are always terrific.

Dim Sum King

8194 Tourist Center Drive, Bradenton, (941) 306-5848, dimsumsarasota.com

The food is only part of the joy of a dim sum meal, which is typically organized around a series of small dishes best enjoyed with boisterous friends and loved ones who share your joy in sampling a wide variety of flavors. The genius part is that the plates are often priced low enough that you don’t have to worry too much about ordering something you don’t like. Disappointed in the steamed rice rolls? No worries. They probably didn’t cost you more than $5. Dim Sum King, which opened on University Parkway in 2019, specializes in offering that kind of joyful experience, whether you’re eating there, grabbing takeout or ordering through Grubhub. Go big, order more than you think you’ll need and revel in the results. Pan-fried dumplings stuffed with shrimp and chives ($5.49) are crunchy, but delicate, with bright, floral flavors that pop out from the inside. The shumai (steamed dumplings, $4.99) are thick and meaty, stuffed with both pork and shrimp, while the bao (steamed buns filled with barbecued pork, $4.49) are sweet and smoky. Don’t skip dessert, because the King offers wonderful sweets that are also served up in the small-plate dim sum style. You’ve probably had fried sesame balls ($4.49) before, but here they’re better than you’ve likely experienced, blessed with a thin, crackling shell and a sweet paste on the inside. Baked buns flavored with a pineapple custard ($4.99) are wonderful after a meal, or just as good the next morning with a cup of black coffee. 

Owen’s Fish Camp

516 Burns Court, Sarasota, (941) 951-6936, owensfishcamp.com

A joy to visit, Owen’s prepares some of the area’s best seafood and serves it in a rowdy Old Florida shack where the boisterous conversation is soundtracked by twangy folk standards from a live band in the back yard. We love whatever’s fresh on the “Naked Fish” menu dressed with either the brown butter Hollandaise or lemon-caper butter. A meal isn’t complete without a side of the restaurant’s perfect collard greens, and the succotash is a home run. Don’t miss the chance to snap a pic on the tire swing out back.

Château 13

535 13th St. W., Bradenton, (941) 226-0110, chateau-13.com

The cuisine at this downtown Bradenton fine dining restaurant draws from all over Western Europe, but the star of the menu might be its Belgian-style mussels ($15), which come served in a variety of broths. You can go for classic white wine, butter and garlic, or a spicy chili, tomato and white wine type, or even an anise-scented bowl filled with a mixture of garlic, shallots, fennel, cream and Pernod. Are you going to miss the opportunity to pair those mussels with some exceptional French fries ($4.50)? Don’t be ridiculous. The other star at Château 13 is its cheese and charcuterie selection. In the back of the restaurant, you’ll spy a bright red, hand-cranked meat slicer, which shaves off slices of cured meat so thin they’re nearly translucent. In addition to the restaurant’s à la carte offerings, it offers a three-course prix fixe dinner for $55, with optional upgrades, and Château 13 also boasts an impressive wine list.

Pho Cali’s pho tom merges beef broth with tender shrimp and vegetables.

Image: Tim Robison

Pho Cali

1578 Main St., Sarasota, (941) 955-2683, phocalisarasota.com

Consistency is a must at every great restaurant, but Pho Cali must be the most consistently consistent restaurant in Sarasota. No matter how many times you order your favorite dish, the talented cooks will prepare it correctly every single time. We love the pho. The broth contains a riot of spices, while the fresh flavorings—bean sprouts, basil, lime juice and sliced jalapeños—are bright and herbal. We like to order our soup with all the trimmings (that means three cuts of beef, tendons and tripe), but whatever proteins you choose, rest assured that it will come out just like it did the last time.

Sage

1216 First St., Sarasota, (941) 445-5660, sagesrq.com

You’ll drop ducats at Sage, where a romantic dinner for two recently cost us $250, but you won’t have any complaints about the food. The menu changes often, but we licked our fingers after polishing off executive chef Christopher Covelli’s lamb—a thick double chop marinated in Indian spices—and a Thai bouillabaisse with an intense red curry base. Even the Caesar salad was impeccable, peppery and assertive. Be sure to make a reservation, and arrive early for a cocktail on the roof, one of the best places to spend a sunset in Sarasota.

Selva

1345 Main St., Sarasota, (941) 362-4427; 67 N. Cattlemen Road, Sarasota, (941) 358-6272; selvagrill.com

In recent years, restaurants as varied as Nancy’s Bar-B-Q, Libby’s Neighborhood Brasserie and Owen’s Fish Camp have opened or announced plans to open second locations in the booming Lakewood Ranch and University Town Center area. Selva joined the eastward caravan earlier this year, christening a new location that ably replicates the food and ambiance of the longtime downtown Sarasota favorite. To keep the look similar, Selva CEO Jeremy Osment even hired artist Douglas Higgins to create a 7-foot-tall, 28-foot-wide, Vincent van Gogh-inspired mural that resembles the one that hangs in the original location. The Peruvian food is just as tasty as it is downtown, too, with the same mix of ceviches, small plates and fish and meat entrées. It’s a combination that is exciting for Lakewood Ranch residents eager to have another date night destination, as well as longtime Selva lovers who want to taste what all the fuss is about.

State Street Eating House + Cocktails

1533 State St., Sarasota, (941) 951-1533, statestreetsrq.com

State Street is home to one of the city’s best bars, but it also crafts excellent food. During one recent dinner, the cioppino, made with a spicy tomato and fennel base and stuffed with mussels, shrimp and fresh fish, took our breath away. Not in the mood for soup? The restaurant also makes one of the city’s best burgers and some terrific salads.

Blu Kouzina

25 N. Boulevard of Presidents, St. Armands Circle, Sarasota, (941) 388-2619, blukouzina.com

This St. Armands Circle restaurant is the stateside outpost of a global business that includes restaurants in Singapore; ghost kitchens that make bowls, plant-based foods and souvlaki; and a Greek food retail business. The company has earned that global footprint with its emphasis on using only the best ingredients and presenting them in an unfussy way that lets their natural flavors burst forth. The grilled octopus (market price), for example, is cooked to perfection—charred on the outside, but tender—and dressed with little else but a great Greek olive oil, lemon juice and some greens. The “skillet cheese” ($12) is another simple masterpiece—just creamy sheep’s milk cheese served in a hot iron pan and drizzled with a fig sauce. Don’t ignore the specials, either. A recent one-off, a leg of lamb braised with lemon juice and herbs, was perfection.

Columbia

411 St. Armands Circle, Sarasota, (941) 388-3987, columbiarestaurant.com

One of Sarasota’s oldest restaurants is still one of its best. Columbia, which first opened in Tampa in 1905, expanded to St. Armands Circle in 1959 and has been a staple there ever since. The Cuban restaurant’s “1905” salad, made with iceberg lettuce, ham, Swiss cheese, tomatoes, olives, cheese, Worcestershire sauce and plenty of garlic dressing, is famous, and the ropa vieja and Cuban-style roasted pork will have you dreaming of Havana.

A Margherita pizza from Atmosphere.

Atmosphere

935 N. Beneva Road, Unit 409, Sarasota, (941) 203-8542

Amazing Neapolitan pizza is emerging from this nondescript shop located in a north Beneva strip. The crust is sensational—lightly charred, but still puffy and elastic, with an intoxicating tanginess. I’m in love with the “mortazza.” The pizza is draped with thin slices of pistachio-flecked mortadella—one of the greatest culinary products from one of Italy’s greatest food cities, Bologna—and then anointed with spoonfuls of a thick pistachio pesto. It’s so good it will make you shudder with pleasure.

JPan Sushi & Grill

239 N. Cattlemen Road, Sarasota, (941) 960-3997; 3800 S. Tamiami Trail, #3, Sarasota, (941) 954-5726; jpanrestaurant.com

We love both JPan locations, but lately we’ve found ourselves coming back to the University Town Center spot. The restaurant has an incredible bar area, buttressing its impeccable sushi selection with some of the area’s most innovative cocktails. We like specialty rolls like the “King Cajun,” made with spicy crawfish meat, and the “K-Pop,” topped with Korean seasonings, but don’t hesitate to leave it up to the chef and split a sushi boat with some friends. Killer ramen, too.

Lucky Pelican Bistro

6239 Lake Osprey Drive, Sarasota, (941) 907-0589, luckypelicanbistro.com

One of Lakewood Ranch’s most popular restaurants for a reason, Lucky Pelican delivers outstanding seafood at solid prices. We order from the chalkboard menu, which lists fresh catches that can be either grilled and served with a Chardonnay lemon butter or blackened in a cast-iron skillet and paired with a roasted red pepper sauce. Craving something fried? Consider the buttermilk fried shrimp and oyster plate, a pile of golden crunchiness made for dipping in tartar sauce.

Lila's Burmese noodle bowl.

Lila

1576 Main St., Sarasota, (941) 296-1042, lilasrq.com

Lila’s Burmese noodle bowl ($23.75) is served with chopsticks, but you will definitely be asking for a spoon before the meal is over, because wasting the fragrant, golden-hued coconut and chili broth that forms the base of the dish would be a sin. An old shoe would taste good in that broth, but Lila chef Ryan Boeve instead wisely partners the liquid with springy rice noodles, spinach, cabbage, mushrooms, plenty of thinly sliced red onions, a wedge of lime for spritzing and your choice of roasted tofu, almond falafel or grilled chicken.

Tandoor Fine Indian Cuisine

8453 Cooper Creek Blvd., Bradenton, (941) 926-3077, tandoorsarasota.net

Few in the area do Indian fare as well as Tandoor. We like pretty much everything simmering in the restaurant’s pots, but we go back for seconds for the dense, spinach-based saag bhaji, the braised butter chicken, and the pakora curry. Throw in delicate basmati rice and flaky naan, plus one of the best condiment selections in town.

Bavaro’s

27 Fletcher Ave., Sarasota, (941) 552-9131, bavarospizza.com

The takeout box at Bavaro’s doubles as an educational seminar, with a description of how the pizza is prepared (baked for 90 seconds at 900 degrees Fahrenheit) and how it is supposed to be eaten (with a fork and knife). Whether you follow that rule or not, you’ll love the pizza. The center is soft and floppy, with a raised ring around the edge that’s lightly blackened and wonderfully yeasty. I love the burrata pizza, coated with creamy burrata cheese and decorated with slices of cherry tomatoes, a bit of arugula, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and slices of prosciutto and drizzled with olive oil.

Bushido Izayaki

3688 Webber St., Sarasota, (941) 217-5635, bushidosushisrq.com

It’s not easy to stand out in Sarasota’s crowded sushi marketplace, but Bushido Izayaki has made a name for itself since it opened in 2018. Owner and chef Jon Woo plates up some of the best rolls in town. We recommend the “Fast & Furious” roll, which includes tuna, avocado, seaweed, roe, jalapeños and cilantro. Simpler traditional dishes, like a spider roll, have been given new life by Woo’s attention to detail. Bonus points for the screens that divide the tables from one another, giving you an intimate, private experience.

Libby’s Neighborhood Brasserie

1917 S. Osprey Ave., Sarasota, (941) 487-7300; 8445 Lorraine Road, Sarasota, (941) 357-1570; tableseide.com

Libby’s opened more than a decade ago, but the Libby’s you knew is no more. In its place stands a brasserie, a casual but stylish hangout that seems destined to serve as a neighborhood gathering place for another decade at least. The food is mostly classic French, with expertly constructed salads, satisfying roasted meats and quality steaks, priced so that you can visit regularly. It also boasts one of the most fetching dining rooms in town.

Goichi’s

4563 Bee Ridge Road, Sarasota, (941) 342-7711, goichisushicafe.com

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, Goichi’s thrived on takeout business. These days, the restaurant warns takeout customers that it may take as much as an hour or two to fulfill a request or to provide delivery (which it does through Uber Eats). For Goichi’s ramen, I’ll endure the wait. The restaurant makes five different types of broth fortified with different types of meats, fish and vegetables, then plops in plenty of slurpable noodles, flavorings like mushrooms, scallions, hard-boiled eggs, seaweed and pork, seafood, chicken… whatever. For takeout or delivery customers, the restaurant wisely packages the elements of the ramen separately, ensuring that your noodles don’t lose their texture. Just microwave the noodles and protein together for two minutes, submerge them in the hot broth and you’re in business. Goichi’s makes sushi, too, but it’s the ramen that keeps those takeout orders rolling in. 

Marcello Ristorante Italiano

4155 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, (941) 921-6794, marcellosarasota.com

The food is just part of the experience at Marcello, where owner and chef Marcello Aquino loves to put on a show for the small cluster of guests that his tiny restaurant can accommodate. Call early and ask for a seat near the open kitchen so you can watch Aquino cook. The menu changes frequently, but there’s an emphasis on Gulf fish like pompano and snapper, prepared according to the one great rule of great Italian seafood: Leave it alone. Other frequent specialties include big veal chops and exceptional fresh pastas.

Michael’s on East

1212 S. East Ave., Sarasota, (941) 366-0007, bestfood.com

Michael’s has been a mainstay on lists of the best restaurants in Sarasota for decades now. The restaurant is constantly rolling out new menu items, often with an international theme that lets you explore cuisines you might not be familiar with. We fondly remember a recent Portuguese-themed lunch and a menu celebrating Baltimore, timed to coincide with the Orioles’ spring training season. Michael’s doesn’t stand still, which is why we keep returning.

The Capital Grille excels at huge steaks and traditional sides like green beans, mashed potatoes and an iceberg wedge salad.

Image: Tim Robison

The Capital Grille

180 University Town Center Drive, Sarasota, (941) 256-3647, thecapitalgrille.com

There’s something comforting about the old-school high-end steakhouse experience. The tranquil mood lighting, the starched white tablecloths, the Flintstonian-sized hunks of beef—at this point, they’re almost a throwback to an earlier era of dining, when servers all wore ties and your seat was so comfortable you could fall asleep in it. The Capital Grille does this kind of evening out perfectly, with colossal steaks cooked to temp and sides like mashed potatoes and green beans, salads like a classic iceberg wedge and even a killer steak sandwich.

RomanSQ

6670 Superior Ave., Sarasota, (941) 237-8742, romansq.com

Crafting the perfect Roman-style crust takes a full 96 hours at this Gulf Gate shop, where the pies are rectangular and served in either “half trays” that feed four or “full trays” that serve eight. The crust has a crisp, crackly bottom, but above that, it’s airy and delicate, and the toppings are elevated and unique. A pesto pizza features thinly shaved potatoes, while the “fra diavolo” highlights guanciale, a cured pork jowl.

Shakespeare’s

3550 S. Osprey Ave., Sarasota, (941) 364-5938, shakespearesenglishpub.com

It’s not easy cranking out a single impeccable dish year after year, but Shakespeare’s makes it look simple by delivering an iconic burger every time we’ve been. And we’ve been many, many times. The caramelized onion and Brie burger gets most of the plaudits, but the truth is that the entire burger menu is golden. We’ve enjoyed the burger with Cajun spices and blue cheese, the burger with spicy Thai peanut sauce and several others and never felt let down. The spicy beer cheese dip is also legendary. Wash it down with a draft from one of the city’s best beer menus.

Sharing a beer at Siegfried's

Siegfried’s

1869 Fruitville Road, Sarasota, (941) 330-9330, siegfrieds-restaurant.com

With the weather on the verge of cooling, Siegfried’s backyard beer garden is the perfect setting for your next hangout. The green space and picnic tables go great with the restaurant’s German menu, which starts with huge pretzels and takes in multiple types of sausage, fried pork and chicken, steaks and tasty sides. I love the assertive mustard that comes with many dishes, the pungent sauerkraut that brightens up some of the heavier flavors and the fun beer menu, which will likely introduce you to something you haven’t tried before.

Walt’s Fish Market

4144 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, (941) 921-4605, waltsfishmarketrestaurant.com

Walt’s has been frying up the catch of the day since the 1940s, proof that sometimes good things do last. The combination restaurant, Chickee bar and take-home seafood market offers all of the best fish and shellfish to be found in the Gulf, with a light touch that lets the bright, briny flavors of our local waters shine. The grouper sandwich is perfect, the fried shrimp irresistible and the fried okra divine. Walt’s will still be here in the 2040s, and surely beyond then, too.

Yummy House

1737 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, (941) 351-1688, yummyhouseflorida.com

Yummy House has been bustling since it opened in 2012. We like the dishes with XO sauce, anything Szechuan and the salt and pepper tofu and eggplant. If you’re lucky enough to live nearby, Yummy House provides great takeout, perfect for a rainy night when you’d rather snuggle on the couch and watch a movie than go out to eat.

Ophelia’s on the Bay

9105 Midnight Pass Road, Siesta Key, Sarasota, (941) 349-2212, opheliasonthebay.net

In the first scene of the first episode of the MTV reality show Siesta Key, we met our main protagonist, Alex, while on a date at Ophelia’s. We don’t remember how that evening concluded, but we can’t fault Alex for his choice of a restaurant, because Ophelia’s is one of the most romantic eateries imaginable, particularly when the weather is at its nicest and you can sit on the deck. The menu is heavy on fine dining standards like caramelized scallops, roasted fish and rack of lamb, all of it just as intoxicating as the glimmering waters of the Intracoastal.

Summer House

149 Avenida Messina, Siesta Key, Sarasota, (941) 260-2675, summerhousesiestakey.com

Summer House’s name nods to Summerhouse, a long-gone Siesta Key restaurant institution, but chef Evan Gastman’s food stands on its own. His roasted chicken has been a staple of the menu since it opened in 2018 and is already famous. Using his grandmother’s recipe as a model, Gastman adds a high-tech twist by cooking the half-chicken in a sous vide and then torching the skin until it’s golden-brown all over. Anyone who can breathe new life into roasted chicken is a saint. The steaks are terrific, too. 

Bitia’s Taqueria

3436 17th St., Sarasota, (941) 366-8081

You can get one of the best lunches in Sarasota for $4-$5, which is all you need to order a pair of pupusas at Bitia’s, a small Salvadoran restaurant in a 17th Street strip mall. A pupusa is made by mixing a cornmeal dough with a variety of fixings and then griddling it on a flattop until it’s toasted on both sides. The result is a thick pancake about the size of a side plate with a crispy exterior and a gooey interior. We love the vegetarian pupusas, particularly ones that highlight loroco, an herb-scented flower that appears often in Salvadoran cuisine. Curtido, a crunchy pickled condiment, takes the whole package to the next level.

Star Thai and Sushi’s “Ultimate Omakase” experience includes a huge array of fish, both raw and cooked.

Image: Tim Robison

Star Thai and Sushi

240 Avenida Madera, Siesta Key, Sarasota, (941) 217-6758; 533 U.S. Highway 41 Bypass N., Venice, (941) 485-3981; starthaiandsushi.com

There is nothing else in the area like Star Thai and Sushi’s “Ultimate Omakase” experience, an expensive sushi binge that will leave you reeling. The menu includes up to 20 different small plates, prepared by chef Mike Castro right before your eyes. One recent dinner included grilled octopus, barely torched scallops, raw shrimp, miso soup, baked king crab, fatty Wagyu beef, bluefin tuna, sea bream and some other dishes that, quite frankly, we forgot about in our full-belly stupor. If you’re not looking for that level of indulgence, Star is a great destination for basic rolls and Thai food, too.

Alpine Steakhouse

4520 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, (941) 922-3797, alpinesteak.com

This longtime Sarasota meatery draws in plenty of visitors thanks to its appearance on the Food Network many years ago, when Guy Fieri highlighted its turducken (a chicken stuffed inside a duck stuffed inside a turkey). We’ve found the turducken to be a bit dry, but that hasn’t stopped us from eating around the rest of the menu, and if you stick to beef, you can’t go wrong. The burger, topped with smoked pork jowl, is unimpeachable, and the aged steaks deliver pure beefy goodness. Be sure to grab a cut to go from the meat counter after dinner’s over.

Pizza from Napulè.

Image: Tim Robison

Napulè

7129 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, (941) 556-9639, napulesarasota.com

The Napulè buzz was so deafening when it opened that it took weeks before we could even get a reservation. The wait was worth it. Owners Alessandro Di Ferdinando and Giuseppe Del Sole have earned a strong reputation for their Southern Italian cuisine. The pizzas are a perennial favorite, and it’s a fun experience to sit at the restaurant’s marble bar to watch the pizza and calzone maker work. Pastas, of course, are a specialty, and we drool over the classic carbonara tossed with fresh noodles made with a chitarra, a wooden tool with strings like a guitar.

Spice Station

1438 Boulevard of the Arts, Sarasota, (941) 343-2894, spicestationsrq.com

There’s a kind of gory fun that comes with devouring a whole soft-shell crab, which, when prepared correctly, is one of my favorite seafood items. For one of the best dishes at Spice Station, the restaurant deep-fries two crabs ($20) and plates them in a shallow pool of herbaceous green curry sauce strewn with peas and carrots and other vegetables, with plenty of white rice on the side to sop it all up. Outstanding.

Phillippi Creek Village Restaurant & Oyster Bar

5353 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, (941) 925-4444, creekseafood.com

This Sarasota institution has been delivering plates of quality seafood in a charming Old Florida waterfront cottage for decades, but it’s the kitchen’s surprising inventiveness that keeps us coming back. The restaurant recently added a number of seafood salads to its mneu—a feast for your taste buds and your Instagram followers.

Sardinia

5770 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, (941) 702-8582, sardiniasrq.com

The food of Sardinia, a sizable Italian island that sits to the west of the mainland, is unlike any other regional Italian cuisine. The mountainous interior is famed for its hearty peasant food, dishes that feature unusual cuts of meat and offal, while the coasts highlight the bounty of the Mediterranean, much of it flavored with unique items like saffron, bottarga and sheep’s milk cheese. Chef Dino Carta celebrates all of that at Sardinia, his South Trail restaurant, which will do the unthinkable: reintroduce you to Italian food.

Screaming Goat Taqueria

6606 Superior Ave., Sarasota, (941) 210-3992, screaming-goat.com

Chef Malin Parker’s life took a detour when he left a gig as the executive catering chef at Morton’s Gourmet Market to open a Gulf Gate taqueria, and we’re thankful. Parker uses the basics of the fast-casual taqueria style. Create your own tacos, bowls and salads with an infinite number of global mashups that include a mix of proteins and a colorful condiment bar offering staples from Latin America like radishes and queso fresco, as well as add-ins from farther abroad like kimchi.

Casey Key Fish House

801 Blackburn Point Road, Osprey, (941) 966-1901, caseykeyfishhouse.com

Steer your vessel to Marker 32, where you’ll discover this Old Florida hangout with charm to burn. Covered and uncovered patios jut out over the Intracoastal, making for one of the best outdoor dining adventures around, while the tiki bar whips up tropical favorites that keep everyone in a good mood. The food fits the nautical environment, with great grouper and snapper sandwiches, plus pricier entrées like almond-crusted fish and a basil-scented seafood pasta. This place is popular, so plan to hang at the bar before sitting down during the busy season.

A crab cake from Whitney's.

Whitney’s

6690 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key, (941) 383-4606, whitneylbk.com

It’s all about the vibes at Whitney’s, an old Longboat Key gas station reborn as a stylish-yet-casual restaurant and hangout. I love the restaurant’s seamless indoor-outdoor flow, which keeps the area breezy and comfortable even on a hot day, and the detailed tropical landscaping makes you feel like you’re on vacation, even if you have to go to work in the morning. The food will also put you at ease. When it first opened, in 2020, Whitney’s served a mix of fast-casual dishes from behind a counter. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the restaurant switched up its approach, offering traditional table service and beefing up its menu with fancier entrées like steak frites ($25) and sautéed snapper ($24). But you’ll still find a great burger ($14), a fresh-catch sandwich ($23) and fish tacos ($16), which happen to be the restaurant’s top seller. Order anything, sip one of the restaurant’s terrific cocktails and soak up the good feelings. It’s easy to spend way more time here than you intended.

Star Fish Co.

12306 46th Ave. W., Cortez, (941) 794-1243, starfishcompany.com

A meal on the dock at Star Fish is a bucket list item for anyone who lives or visits here. Order anything that was recently swimming in the Gulf and you won’t be disappointed. The grilled grouper platter and smoked mullet have never treated us wrong, and we leave room for the Key lime pie, made daily by captain Kathe Fannon, whose boat tours depart from the same dock where you’ll be scarfing down your food. Some caveats apply: Star Fish only accepts cash, so stop by an ATM first, and be prepared to wait in line to order. 

Sandbar’s  little-neck clams and shrimp are steamed with kale and heirloom tomatoes.

Image: Tim Robison

Sandbar

100 Spring Ave., Anna Maria, (941) 778-0444, sandbardining.com

Kick off your flip-flops and dip your bare feet into the cool white sand at this longtime Anna Maria fixture, where the vibe is as friendly and blissful as if you were hanging out at a friend’s house. We can’t not order the steamed clams and shrimp appetizer, which features shellfish farmed in Tampa Bay, and while the seafood and grits entrée, made with shrimp, scallops, fish and ham, is a predictable winner, we also go for the surprisingly tasty buttermilk fried chicken and waffle. A great place to host a special event, too.

Euphemia Haye

5540 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key, (941) 383-3633, euphemiahaye.com

Owned and operated by chef Raymond Arpke and his wife, D’Arcy, since 1980, Euphemia Haye has served as a backdrop for countless date night rendezvous. With its dark, hushed, dreamy atmosphere, it’s a space where you can drop your worries at the door. The food is a greatest hits of fine dining favorites: crispy roasted duck; a spicy pepper steak with an orange, brandy and butter sauce; sautéed veal sweetbreads; and the like. If you’re looking for a less formal evening, head upstairs to The Haye Loft, where no reservations are required.

Maison Blanche

2605 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key, (941) 383-8088, themaisonblanche.com

You might drive past Maison Blanche 100 times before you notice it, but once you’ve stepped inside, you’ll never forget it. The restaurant is a temple of French cuisine, where everything from the baguettes that start your meal to the truffles and house-made marshmallows served with the coffee have been perfected. Chef José Martinez, who once worked at a Joël Robuchon restaurant, has made some concessions to popular taste over the years (he admits he’s reduced the sugar and fat in some dishes), but the core of his menu remains unchanged: impeccable soups, flawless fish and meat entrées, and some of the best desserts anywhere.

Chayhana Vostok's shurpa, a lamb soup.

Chayhana Vostok

4242 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, (941) 923-5919

I doubt I could find Uzbekistan on a blank map, but, thanks to Chayhana Vostok, which opened in Sarasota last year, I am learning a lot about Uzbek cuisine. Uzbekistan sits between Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and its food blends the flavors of central Asia with elements borrowed from nearby China and Russia, which dominated the nation for decades. That means you’ll find shashlik (basically a shish kebab, $13-$17), a lamb pilaf ($14) and shurpa (a hearty lamb soup, $10), alongside Russian mainstays like pelmeni (dumplings served with sour cream, $10), herring ($9) and borscht ($7). In my ongoing education, my favorite so far has been the manty ($15): delicate dumplings stuffed with chopped lamb, sprinkled with herbs and served with sour cream. The grilled meats in the shashlik are also toothsome, particularly the lamb, which is a Chayhana Vostok specialty. A cheburek ($5), a swath of dough filled with meat and spices and then fried, makes for an excellent start to any meal.

Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant and Pub

760 Broadway St., Longboat Key, (941) 383-2391, marvistadining.com

Mar Vista was reborn this year after a $2 million makeover and, luckily, the food tastes just as great as it did before. Like all the restaurants in The Chiles Restaurant Group, the eatery emphasizes sustainable Gulf seafood, as well as vegetables grown on Gamble Creek Farm in Parrish. Don’t miss the smoked fish appetizer, which comes with a wedge of crispy fried fish skin, and the baked scallops are divine. If it’s not raining, sit out back underneath the buttonwood trees.

The Waterfront Restaurant & Craft Bar

111 S. Bay Blvd., Anna Maria, (941) 778-1515, thewaterfrontrestaurant.net

Wherever you sit at The Waterfront, you’ll find a bit of eye candy. On the large porch, you can gaze out toward the Rod & Reel Pier and the lapping waters of Tampa Bay. Sit inside and you’ll be mesmerized by the glowing fish tank near the bar. We like the food, but we’re just as nuts about the cocktails: The smoked margarita is made with mezcal, while the Mai Tai is a throwback to the drink’s original recipe. The Waterfront offers a tasty twist on fried calamari by tossing the crispy squid with onion, feta, banana peppers and a sweet chili sauce.

Beach Bistro.

Beach Bistro

6600 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach, (941) 778-6444, beachbistro.com

At a time when many people (myself included) remain wary about eating indoors in a public space, Beach Bistro has done almost everything a restaurant can to put diners at ease. After the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, restaurant owner Sean Murphy installed a state-of-the-art ventilation system he says filters and purifies the air and replaces all of the air inside the restaurant with fresh air every three to five minutes. The restaurant’s staff has also been fully vaccinated, and while Murphy can’t require a proof of vaccination from guests who dine there, he has specifically requested that only those who have gotten a Covid vaccine eat at the Bistro. Is it a perfect system? There’s no such thing. But the new equipment and processes help put you at ease when you sit down and tuck into the restaurant’s extravagant tasting menu ($100-$200), stocked with indulgent old-school icons like grilled double chops of lamb, seared foie gras and a lobster tail poached in butter.

El Tio Carlos

Inside the Red Barn Flea Market, 1707 First St. E., Bradenton, (941) 201-4610

For years known as Maria’s Restaurant, the taco stand at the Red Barn Flea Market makes an outrageous pick of tacos, tostadas, sopes, gorditas and burritos. We always go for the tacos with pork al pastor, but the beef barbacoa is great, too, and the cactus tacos make for a satisfying vegetarian option. The bustling flea market setting makes for some of the best people-watching in the area, too.

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