The quest for a great restaurant is endless. And in Sarasota and Manatee, where the restaurant scene changes constantly (only 27 of our Top Restaurants two years ago made this list), we’re always scouring the landscape for the new, the better, the fantastic redo. Here are our favorites right now, from white tablecloth five-star winners to the best BBQ joints. Feeling hungry? Good. There’s plenty for everyone.
(Note: Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, some of the restaurants listed below may have changed their offerings and operations.)
239 S. Links Ave., Sarasota, (941) 706-4740, indigenoussarasota.com
We’re running out of adjectives to describe chef Steve Phelps’ Towles Court cottage, where the tiny kitchen continues to deliver one-of-a-kind plates with an emphasis on sustainability. Phelps has a magical touch with Gulf fish, and whatever the seafood special on the menu is, we recommend it. But Indigenous isn’t just a special occasion spot. Last summer, the restaurant’s casual Sandwich Nights offered one of the best dining deals in town—a creative handheld, a side and a glass of wine or a beer for just $18. It was a great excuse to go to Indigenous more often, as if we needed one.
Inside The Ritz-Carlton, 1111 Ritz-Carlton Drive, Sarasota, (941) 309-2266, ritzcarlton.com
Hotel restaurants are a tough go. You have to please travelers from morning to night, while also plating up food that’s unique and delicious enough to reel in locals. Jack Dusty does it all. Start with extensive raw seafood options, a well-curated pick of meats and seafood entrées that change regularly, then throw in blissful water views and topnotch cocktails. That’s a winning formula.
1990 Main St., #112, Sarasota, (941) 953-2900, maderestaurant.com
The name Made is an acronym for “Modern American Delicious Eats,” a perfect encapsulation of chef Mark Woodruff’s mission, which is to present soulful comfort food with lux flourishes. His menu is a blend of high and low, containing everything from street food like grilled corn dogs and Nashville hot chicken to fancier fare like scallops seared in a cast-iron skillet or house-cured salmon. It’s all fantastic.
1435 Main St., Sarasota, (941) 312-4001, duvalsfreshlocalseafood.com
If you spend any time at all downtown, you can’t miss the Duval’s shuttle—an aquamarine van that circles the area, conveying passengers for free to one of the city’s best seafood outposts. Duval’s chef Nils Tarantik rotates his selection of fresh fish throughout the year, meaning you can go each month and still not taste the same filet twice, and he’s just as adept with shellfish. Mussels stewed with onion, garlic, ham, potatoes and a mustard sauce make for a perfect appetizer, and the restaurant’s lunchtime po’ boys, stuffed with fried shrimp or oysters, are fantastic. If you see that van passing by, hop in.
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.
14475 E. State Road 70, Lakewood Ranch, (941) 999-2390; nancysbarbq.com
Nancy Krohngold has a special relationship with the pig, an intuitive bond that results in exceptional Western North Carolina- style smoked pork. Krohngold’s base recipe includes salt, three types of pepper, two types of sugar, dry mustard and cinnamon, plus the patience to let the meat cook slowly. The result would taste good anywhere, but it helps that Nancy’s is also one of the most fun places to gather in the area.
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.
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.
On the back page: One lesser-known gem on the menu is No. 87, pan-fried white fish served on a sizzling platter.
Bubble up: For $4.95, you can get a bubble tea flavored with everything from taro to lychee.
Don’t let the line intimidate you: Pho Cali has some of the most efficient servers in the business, and they’ll free up a table for you in no time.
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.
1345 Main St., Sarasota, (941) 362-4427, selvagrill.com
With its extensive ceviche menu and cavalcade of small plates meant for splitting with friends, Selva helped kick off Sarasota’s mania for Peruvian food early in the century, and the restaurant is still going strong. It boasts one of the area’s coolest environments: a dim dining room pulsing with colorful lights and a lush lounge with one of the best happy hour menus in town. The restaurant is also a rarity in that it offers a late-night menu, stuffed with satisfying bites like ceviche and a juicy skirt steak.
1533 State St., Sarasota, (941) 951-1533, statestreetsrq.com
We already loved State Street, home to one of the city’s best bars, but when the eatery added ramen to its menu in 2017, we fell head over heels all over again. The restaurant makes the noodles by hand and then dunks them in a variety of broths that changes often. Not in the mood for noodles? The restaurant also makes one of the city’s best burgers and some terrific salads.
25 N. Boulevard of Presidents, St. Armands Circle, Sarasota, (941) 388-2619, blukouzina.com
Effie and Dennis Tsakiris took Sarasota Greek cuisine to a new level when they opened Blu Kouzina in 2015. The couple sources many of their ingredients directly from Greece, including the olive oil produced on their Greek estate. By focusing on simple, satisfying ingredients of the highest quality possible, the couple has mastered dishes like stuffed grape leaves, beef kabobs and grilled prawns. If you’ve got time, consider the whole grilled fish, which can take 30 minutes to an hour to prepare. When the food’s this good, there’s no reason to hurry.
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.
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 added an incredible new bar area to its space, 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.
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.
1576 Main St., Sarasota, (941) 296-1042, lilasrq.com
More than any other restaurant in recent years, Lila has changed the face of Sarasota dining. While the city had been home to a handful of vegetarian, vegan and even raw restaurants before the restaurant opened in 2016, it was Lila’s Ryan Boeve and Arthur Lopes who pushed vegetables to the forefront of Sarasota menus. The restaurant’s zingy Burmese bowl will leave you slurping up the dregs of its curry-coconut broth, while the macro bowl’s tahini-turmeric dressing should come by the barrel. Lila proved that Sarasota was finally ready to embrace meat-free cuisine.
The buzz: Lila doesn’t offer a full bar, but it serves excellent aperitifs made with low-proof liqueurs and vermouths.
Wakeup call: In addition to lunch and dinner, Lila serves a killer breakfast with creative pastries.
Best of the best: OpenTable named Lila one of the 50 best restaurants for vegetarians in America last year.
8453 Cooper Creek Blvd., Bradenton, (941) 926-3077, tandoorsarasota.net
No one in the area does Indian fare as well as Tandoor, where the lunch buffet ropes in nearby office workers and sets them loose again once they’re stuffed to the gills. 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 bars in town.
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 last December. 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.
3501 S. Tamiami Trail, Suite 1165, Sarasota, (941) 260-3232, connorsrestaurant.com
A steakhouse that doesn’t feel like a steakhouse, Connors distinguishes itself from other beef purveyors with its emphasis on small plates perfect for splitting with buddies. We dig the grilled pork belly, a lobster dip served with airy prawn “chips” and deviled eggs flavored with truffle oil. Of course, the meat is also on point. You can’t miss with the filet mignon, particularly when it’s topped with a house-made Boursin cheese and crispy onions.
4141 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, (941) 260-5964, chefdarwin.com
Chef Darwin Santa Maria has worked at a number of restaurants over the years, but it seems as if he’s finally made a home for himself at his eponymous midtown eatery. The menu runs through some of his smash hits from previous restaurants—ceviches, tiraditos that feature raw fish, and delectable cuts of beef. Santa Maria’s food is sharp and high in acid, and the chef approaches each dish with an eye for mashing together contrasting textures and ingredients. Great for either a casual dinner with the kids or a fun date night.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Got a big group? Consider booking a private dining room for extra attention.
For a splurge: A 20-ounce steak with fatty Wagyu beef will run you $85.
Where to sit: In the back, so you can watch the brightly lit stage that is the open kitchen.
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.
1830 S. Osprey Ave., Sarasota, (941) 366-1342, veronicafishandoyster.com
It’s tough to think of a Sarasota restaurant that looks better than Veronica. Gleaming fixed barstools, the cushy velour sofas, the white and blue subway tile accents and colorful paintings make this restaurant a showcase. Luckily, the beauty here is more than skin deep, since the menu lives up to the swanky ambiance. The focus here is on seafood, of course, and we’re devotees of the whole fried fish, particularly the “Thai Crispy” preparation. Don’t pass on the outstanding Brussels sprouts or the rotating specials, like crunchy fried chicken on Mondays.
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.
1737 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, (941) 351-1688, yummyhouseflorida.com
The best Chinese restaurant in Sarasota, Yummy House has been bustling since it opened in 2012, and the crowds haven’t died down since it moved to its current location opposite Sarasota Memorial Hospital last year. 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 some of the best takeout around, perfect for a rainy night when you’d rather snuggle on the couch and watch a movie than go out to eat.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What to drink:
Japanese whisky, which tastes great in a fizzy highball.
Noodling around: In addition to sushi, Star offers solid noodle dishes like pad Thai and pad woon sen.
That’s show biz: Star often hosts musicians who perform everything from singer-songwriter fare to Bill Evans-style jazz.
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.
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.
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 Caribbean chopped salad topped with skewers of perfectly grilled shrimp. The Hawaiian lobster cocktail, also new, features lobster tossed with green onions, a jalapeño relish, soy sauce and lime, and comes served in a cracked-open coconut shell—a feast for your taste buds and your Instagram followers.
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.
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.
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.
1600 Harbor Drive S., Venice, (941) 999-3467, finsatsharkys.com
The views alone justify making a reservation at this Venice landmark, an upscale dining room connected to the more laid-back Jimmy Buffett vibe of its sister restaurant Sharky’s. As its fishy name implies, Fins is known for its seafood, particularly for its quality sushi. The lobster nachos—made with potato chips, Gouda, prosciutto, arugula and lobster—make for great sharing, and we also like the grilled octopus. Go around sunset time, snap a selfie and make all your friends who don’t live in Florida green with envy.
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.
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.
In a previous life: Before Sandbar existed, people would hang out on the property at a place they called “The Pavilion.”
Recycling program: The restaurant collects discarded oyster and clam shells and gives them to an organization that uses them to restore local marine environments.
New boss: Longtime Sandbar owner Ed Chiles announced last year that he was stepping back from managing Sandbar and his other restaurants. Chuck Wolfe is the company’s new chief executive officer.
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.
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.
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.
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.
6600 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach, (941) 778-6444, beachbistro.com
It was front page news when Beach Bistro owner Sean Murphy announced that he plans to open a second location in downtown Sarasota next year. For now, we still have to drive out to Anna Maria Island to visit the original, where the seared foie gras, the extravagant bouillabaisse and the tender rack of lamb all taste as great as they have for decades. The restaurant has an excellent selection of wines by the glass, direct views of the beach and servers who are formal but never chilly.
5315 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach, (941) 778-0411, eathereflorida.com
The rambunctious younger brother to the Beach Bistro, Eat Here opened in the midst of the Great Recession, a time when restaurants were scrambling to attract diners with lower prices and a less uptight ambiance. But while Eat Here might be a whimsical hangout, the food is no slouch. The fish tacos, made with whatever’s been biting lately, plus sharp, spicy, crunchy toppings that elevate the fish flesh, are the region’s best. We also recommend the veal meatloaf and the pot roast. Offers a great pick of Florida beers and affordable wines, too.
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 changed names in the last couple years, but everything else is the same. You’ll still get 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.