Mr. Chatterbox

Mr. Chatterbox Goes Bar Hopping

Our humor columnist on the pleasures of hotel bars.

By Robert Plunket June 27, 2018 Published in the July 2018 issue of Sarasota Magazine

The Westin's rooftop bar

“I love bars in hotels,” I told a friend the other day.

“You love bars anywhere,” he replied, and though that may be true, bars in hotels are still my favorite. I’m talking about that secluded space off the lobby, subdued and discreet and sometimes even padded, where you meet your mistress, discuss important business deals, and impress an out-of-towner. A good hotel bar functions as a sort of civic space, where the town meets and greets and celebrates small victories. And don’t forget it can also be a pickup joint. Vacation and romance are very compatible, particularly if there’s a bedroom right upstairs.

Sarasota has a bunch of new hotels—the Westin, the Aloft, and the Art Ovation—and while they are bringing to town a bunch of badly needed new bars, something has been lost. Gone is the tucked-away intimacy of the classic hotel bar. It’s been replaced by something more frantic. Now it’s smack in the middle of the lobby, with people and luggage rolling by, and a general atmosphere of a lot—maybe too much—going on.

I blame Google. These new bars remind me of one of those “campus” places where everybody works in one room, hanging out while waiting for inspiration to strike, playing pool and petting their dogs.

WXYZ Bar at Aloft Sarasota

Which is exactly what they’re doing at the Aloft Sarasota, on Ringling Boulevard behind Church of the Redeemer. There’s a pool table in the bar/lounge/lobby/breakfast room/gift shop, with the occasional crack of ball hitting ball echoing through the room like a gunshot. Yes, the hotel allows dogs and even lets them hang out in public.

The humans accompanying them were of a type increasingly seen in Sarasota: young, entrepreneurial, hipster-looking, and in the throes of starting up their new start-up. That’s the market the hotel is clearly aimed at. Older folks will still feel at home if they’re reasonably up to date and appreciate the industrial décor and polished concrete and have the right clothes.

The lobby bar, actually the lobby itself, is called the W XYZ Bar, and they often have live music at night. There are signature cocktails ($12 to $15) and there’s some rudimentary food. On my visit, the cheese platter was strictly from Publix, and when I ordered a grilled cheese sandwich the bartender came back later and told me they ran out of bread—yesterday. There’s another bar attached to the pool upstairs, but you have to be a hotel guest to get anywhere near it.

The lobby bar at Art Ovation

This is not the case at the Art Ovation Hotel, several blocks away on Palm Avenue. There’s a very nice rooftop pool with a peek-a-boo view of the bay, and anybody can go up there. On weekends everybody does, and there’s live music and people salsa dancing like mad. You can hear it blocks away.

I prefer the bar down in the lobby. Once again, it’s right in the middle of things, but a little more refined and elegant than the Aloft. The décor is more marble and gilt—in a very contemporary way—and the food (you can order a full meal) is good and more glamorous than the Aloft. Oddly enough, the hotel’s main restaurant, just a few feet away, always seems to be empty. Perhaps they’re out of bread as well.

The gimmick behind the Art Ovation is the Sarasota arts scene, and they carry it out so well I practically expected to see Ringling College president Larry Thompson grinning behind the reception desk. There is art everywhere and it’s by the cream of local artists. My old neighbor, Sally Pettibon, has her photographs displayed right across from the elevator, and there’s even an artist-in-residence, who you can watch create as you sip your drink ($12 to $18). Last time I was there it was Jason Goodfriend, who does sensational small-scale drawings in pastels and pencil. You can talk to Jason about his work, buy a drawing or two, or even make your own at a special work space reserved for bar patrons. And just in case music is more your bag, each room comes with its own ukulele.

But no time to linger at the Art Ovation. Let’s hurry over to the Westin, if we can find our way in. It’s famous for its hidden entrance. You have to know where to look. Hint: You enter from the driveway of the Ritz-Carlton. If you’re on foot it’s like storming a castle. Uber drivers are always in a snit about it.

It’s so difficult to find your way in that once you finally do, you will definitely need a drink. You have two choices. Once again, the lobby bar is actually the lobby. It’s rather grand and elegant, two stories high and overlooking the traffic of the busiest corner in town, yet so cleverly designed that you get no sense of all the cars and trucks roaring by.

As befits a Westin, there’s a corporate air to the place, and the bar is well set up to conduct business. Last time I was there, two different job interviews were going on. But nice as it is, forget about it. Head instead for the elevator and go up to the 19th floor, to the awkwardly named Roof Bar and Eats. It’s the town’s latest “must visit” tourist attraction.

I find it a little terrifying. If you’re afraid of heights you may be too on edge to actually relax, but thank God they have excellent cocktails (again, around $15) that may do the trick. The view is the best in town, extraordinary, in fact, particularly if you know Sarasota. The nearby Hyatt looks like a little toy building. The view is endlessly fascinating, and you will want to study it from all four sides.

It’s a place of many moods. Sun-baked pool area by day, romantic night spot when the evening rolls around. It’s hard to say if it has found its niche yet: Everybody goes, old, young, families, singles, party animals, tourists. The food is OK—basic poolside stuff, with plenty of items under $20.

Roof Bar and Eats fills a niche left empty when the Ritz shut down its Ca’ d’Zan bar several years ago and opened the Jack Dusty restaurant. (The space still exists, but it’s used as a private dining room.) Now, when you want to meet somebody at the Ritz for a drink you have to do so in the lounge of Jack Dusty, and I’m sorry, it’s just not the same.

Oh, the drinks are great—all sorts of “signature” cocktails ($15 to $25)—and a bar menu that you can easily make a meal out of. It’s head and shoulders above the other bars, food-wise. But the atmosphere doesn’t quite work. It’s an afterthought—some sofas near the entrance, with the bar itself some distance away. When it gets crowded this means you have to share a sofa.

Which is what happened just the other night. Three slightly tipsy women joined me, and I immediately smelled trouble. They were a talkative trio, and there was much banter and high-pitched laughter. But if the #MeToo movement has taught me anything, it’s “watch out.” I’m not really that much of a catch—pushing 79, blind in one eye, walking with a noticeable limp, and gay—but still they were relentless.

I kept thinking of Tom Brokaw. The country’s most beloved journalist, and his retirement ruined because that woman accused him of tickling her in a hotel. Well, that wasn’t going to happen to me. I asked for my check and got out of there. The night was still young, but I have my reputation to protect. I remembered that line from the old Greta Garbo movie Grand Hotel: “People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.”

These days it’s best to keep it that way. 

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