Happily, Sarasota boasts as many excellent pre-theater dining options as it does excellent theater productions. Clustered downtown, within shouting distance of the Sarasota Opera House, Florida Studio Theatre, Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and The Players playhouse, are an even dozen of superb choices, supplemented by an almost in-house restaurant for patrons of the three Asolo stages in the Ringling complex on the North Trail.
Let’s start downtown just around the corner from the Sarasota Opera with Bijou Café (1287 First St. at Pineapple Avenue, 941-366-8111). This arts and theater district stalwart’s enduring appeal can be summed up in two short phrases: “understated sophistication” and “old school done right.” The wine list is superb, and the menu is a nicely balanced mashup of New Orleans style (an authentic jambalaya) and classic Continental dishes (appetizer trio of housemade patés). Service and ambiance are quietly perfect, and the bar is lively.
Across the little park at Five Points from the opera is Pino’s (100 Central Ave., 941-955-3739), a treasure named for its chef, who hails from Ischia, an island in the Bay of Naples not far from Capri. Everything here is good and served with panache in a cozy traditional setting. Appetizers (an unbeatable flash-fried calamari), pastas (mushroom-stuffed tortelloni), main dishes (superbly sauced roast duck) and desserts (limoncello ice cream) all sing. Good wine list, too.
A couple of blocks west is Zak’s Steak-house (1213 N. Palm Ave., 941-906-7300), another old-school knockout. As at Bijou, patio dining is available on fine evenings, and the dining rooms are studies in reserved elegance leavened with whimsy.
Steaks (Chateaubriand carved tableside for two) rule here, of course, but the seafood (scallops Isabelle) is also first-rate. The extensive wine list is varied and offers something for every taste and pocketbook.
Now we come to the Main Street divas, a chorus of diverse culinary voices strung from Pineapple Avenue on the west to Washington Boulevard on the east. We’ll work our way east to west, beginning with Mediterraneo (1970 Main, 941-365-4122), our favorite place for excellent pizzas from the wood-burning oven (we especially like the rustica) and waiters attired in cutting-edge Italian eyewear. The fare is Northern Italian, delightfully fresh and delicious. A salad of fennel and oranges was the first thing we ever tasted here, and it continues to knock our socks off. The dining room is sophisticated but comfy, and the sidewalk tables offer first-rate people watching. Excellent wine list, too.
If fish is your dish, Barnacle Bill’s (1526 Main, 941-365-6800) is your kind of place. The menu at this Wine Spectator Award winner is fabulously huge, with fresh fish and shellfish hailing from the waters off Sarasota to Alaska. There’s an admirable standing list, and every day brings an impressive number of off-the-boat specials. For those who prefer land-based fare, there are plenty of steak and pasta options, too. A handful of sidewalk tables go fast on a nice evening, and the bar is a good place for a yummy crab cake sandwich if you’re running late.
A short block south of Main you’ll find Hyde Park Prime Steakhouse (35 S. Lemon Ave., 941-366-3036), a plush palace for carnivores where the kitchen also knows just what to do with oysters, lobster and fresh fish. The house style is of the gilded lily variety and the menu, while pricey, delivers consistently excellent quality for the money. For those in search of a good deal before or after the theater, the bar offers not one but two happy hours, early from 4 to 6:30 p.m. and late from 9 p.m. until closing. The draw? First-rate house martinis for $4 a pop and a selection of $5 small plates (sliders!).
The new kid on restaurant row is chef Dylan Elhajoui's MoZaic (1377 Main, 941-951-6272), a stylish double-decker restaurant serving an incredibly subtle, supremely harmonious blend of Mediterranean cuisines executed with French flair, reflecting the chef’s French Moroccan roots. The wine bar downstairs, stocked with a delightfully eclectic mix of bottles grand and humble but all just right, is a great place to start or finish an evening. At table expect everything from the day’s complimentary amuse bouche to dessert to deliver diamond-bright flavors. The couscous here has won a hardcore following, and on Wednesdays the dish stars in half a dozen sublime variations on a special menu. Our personal favorite from the standing list is a trio of lamb chops, sliced duck breast and a gleaming white dome of blue crab flan.
In the same block you’ll find chef Darwin Santa Maria’s Selva Grill and Pisco Bar & Lounge (1345 Main, 941-362-4427), a fine choice for pre-theater dining and cocktails. In a stylish setting the proprietors think of as a little bit South Beach and a little bit Sex And The City, chef Darwin serves ceviches to die for as well as a beautifully constructed menu
of Peruvian specialties, some traditional and others with a decided postmodern twist. Choose from sheltered outdoor tables, a jazzy dining room or a très chic bar that’s open late on Fridays and Saturdays.
Before we jump to the west side of the Trail, let’s visit the Rosemary District on downtown’s north flank, where chef Derek Barnes, a contender for a 2009 James Beard Award, presides over Derek’s Culinary Casual (514 Central Ave., 941-366-6565). Chef Derek calls his adventurous style of cooking progressive American cuisine and serves it in a charmingly quirky redesigned storefront. What does he mean by progressive? Well, from the standing menu one might choose an appetizer of yellowfin tuna tartare with fennel, apple, coriander, turmeric, caviar and cauliflower blinis, then follow that jewel with a weekly special like “study of rabbit,” featuring a chocolate-braised rabbit leg, rabbit cassoulet and pistachio-crusted rabbit loin! Cap the meal with pear poached in lavender and honey with goat cheese ice cream, if you dare. An outstanding list of wines by the glass allows you to design your own pairings or follow the chef’s suggestions. Seating is at tables in one of two rooms or at the food bar with a fine view of the kitchen.
Fabulously luxe and at the same time on the culinary cutting edge in its commitment to locally grown and organic foods, Vernona at the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota (1111 Ritz-Carlton Drive, 941-309-2008) offers a delicious, elegant, Mediterranean-inflected menu at dinner and a Sunday brunch before the matinee that is nothing short of opulent.
In addition to à la carte offerings, changing multi-course tasting menus feature the season’s best and brightest flavors. Expect your crispy squash blossoms to come from a farm 15 minutes from chef Greg Howe’s kitchen, your tomatoes to be heirloom, your olive oil to be organic and your king salmon wild caught. Seating is in a posh but comfortable formal dining room or on the fan-cooled terrace. The wine list has no trouble keeping up with Vernona’s cuisine and setting.
Decidedly more casual is Currents Restaurant and Bar at the Hyatt Regency Sarasota (1000 Boulevard of the Arts, 941-952-1234), across the street from the Van Wezel. Because it’s open for dinner until midnight, this is a good option for those who prefer to dine late. The decor is spare and modern with a Caribbean beat, and the same may be said of the streamlined dinner menu. Half a dozen small plates (try the succulent, lightly blackened “tropical Cajun” scallops spiked with cucumber, mango and red pepper), a couple of soups and salads and a half dozen or so main dishes (the grilled mojo-marinated chicken with tomato, corn and avocado salad, black bean coulis and cilantro crème fraiche served with thin sweet potato fries is yummy) make for quick decisions, a good thing if your curtain is about to go up or the babysitter is working by the hour.
And if you’re really serious about convenience when taking in a show at the city’s purple bayfront arts palace, Michael’s At The Van Wezel (777 N. Tamiami Trail; Michael’s On East phone 941-366-0700) offers a buffet dinner ($31.50) to patrons on performance evenings.
At FSU Center for the Performing Arts, home of Asolo Repertory Theatre, nothing could be handier for dinner or cocktails and a nosh than Treviso on the grounds of the Ringling Museums (5401 Bay Shore Road, 941-360-7390). The high-ceilinged dining room is pleasingly spare, the zinc bar is comfortable, and terrace tables overlooking the manicured grounds are perfect in fine weather. Both the decor and the menu are pared down to stylish basics to keep things moving, with half a dozen or so options under each of three menu headings: beginnings, small plates and main. The bruschetta with three toppings is a good starter or companion to a glass of bubbly, the grilled scallops a good small plate choice, and the pesto-crusted mahi mahi on roasted pepper cream a nice main dish. Because Treviso closes at 8 p.m., pre-theater is your only option here.
An editor, writer and online publisher, John Bancroft has reviewed restaurants, books, movies and music for many magazines, Web sites and newspapers, most recently for the St. Petersburg Times.