(See also a photo gallery of many of the restaurants that garnered a spot in our 50 Don't Miss list.)
Everybody has a favorite restaurant. Whether it's because of the food, the wine list, the location, service or ambience, some restaurants just resonate with each of us more than others. Recently some food-and-wine writers and editors collaborated on their ideas for some of the don't-miss restaurants in town. From this very unscientific survey, we came up with a list of 50 of our favorites. Some you will agree with; when it comes to others, you will undoubtedly disagree. We hope it encourages you to come up with your own list of favorites that you will share with us in the comments section at the end of this post.
Andrea's has a devoted cadre of regulars entranced by chef/owner Andrea Bozzolo's interesting Italian cuisine. He makes a point of sourcing local produce and seafood when possible to construct exquisite but simple dishes that are always gracefully accomplished, served in the restaurant's cozy atmosphere.
2085 Siesta Drive, Sarasota, 951-9200, andreasristorante.com
Although Thai hasn't been at the forefront of Sarasota's many ethnic offerings, there are plenty of places to eat that cuisine. For years, Bangkok has led the pack with its rich interior and food that draws on the Southeat Asian continuum of sweet, salty, sour and spicy.
4791 Swift Road, Sarasota, 922-0703, bangkoksarasota.com
When it comes to romantic settings, few places can compete with Anna Maria's Beach Bistro. The food matches the view: Beach Bistro was awarded the highest ratings on food and service in Florida by Zagat. Plan your dinner around sunset and you will be aptly rewarded, as the sun slowly dips below the horizon.
6600 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach, 778-6444, beachbistro.com
Since 1986, under the watchful eye of Jean-Pierre Knaggs and his wife, Shay, the Bijou Café has come to be a favorite downtown destination, ideally situated for the business crowd at lunch and opera and theater-goers in the evening.
1287 1st St., Sarasota, 366-8111, bijoucafe.net
In a world of modern Italian restaurants and corner trattorias, Bologna still does everything the old-fashioned way, from making fresh mozzarella to importing specialty ingredients for its rustic dishes that feel home-cooked, but not any home you've ever lived in.
5770 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, 927-9262
With its bright red walls, striking black-and-white photography and gleaming wood floors, the first impression of newcomer Brasserie Belge is that of a sleek and upscale eatery. However the prices are moderate and the food is uniquely Belgian, with a few American bistro flourishes.
1990 Main St., Sarasota, 706-1944, brasseriebelge.com
Epicure, the bright and airy cafe in downtown Sarasota, features sandwiches that start with really good bread and just enough meat, cheese and veg to get the point across without overwhelming the foundation. Epicure also serves seriously Italian pasta and appetizers, from lightly layered lasagna to tender marinated octopus.
1298 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota, 366-5648, cafeepicuresrq.com
Chutney's is one of those places where the owners — husband-and-wife team Ash Shukla and Denise May — really do know their regular clientele by name, greeting them personally and usually remembering their favorite drinks and dishes. The menu includes many Indian and Middle Eastern favorites, always with their personal touch.
1944 Hillview St., Sarasota, 954-4444, chutneysetc.com
Cottage on the Key
This tiny spot just off the main drag in Siesta Key Village is the new home of chef Darwin Santa Maria, the island setting a perfect match with his considerable talent with seafood. At the Cottage, his dishes are mostly small plates, but with big flavor.
153 Avenida Messina, Sarasota, 312-9300
Derek's Culinary Casual
Chef/owner Derek Barnes is passionate about his ingredients, about what he can do to them, and about ways to surprise and delight his customers. The result is a restaurant where the regular menu items are more exciting than many other chefs' specials, and the specials have a chance to blow your culinary mind.
514 Central Ave., Sarasota, 366-6565, dereks-sarasota.com
Beach Bistro's Sean Murphy has made a few forays away from his flagship in recent years, but Eat Here is the best of them. It's a fish shack, Beach Bistro-style, with a menu that ranges from tacos and pizzas to seafood stew and devilled eggs.
5315 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach, 778-0411, eathere-ami.com
Owners Ray and D'Arcy Arpke have made award-winning Longboat Key restaurant Euphemia Haye a romantic destination renowned for its classically prepared foods, intimate dining rooms, extensive wine list and fabulous Haye Loft, where guests can enjoy sumptuous desserts, coffees, spirits and live music.
5540 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key, 383-3633, euphemiahaye.com
Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar
Although some local independent restaurants can cook a mean steak, the Suncoast is lacking in big city steakhouses. That's why Fleming's makes this list. Ignore the fact that this is a chain and concentrate on the luxe interior, devoted service, fantastic meat and decadent side dishes.
2001 Siesta Drive, Sarasota, 358-9463, flemingssteakhouse.com
Gateway to India
Indian cuisine in Sarasota experienced a little renaissance in recent years, but Gateway to India stands out. The rich panoply of Indian spices isn't dumbed down here, and the restaurant's vegetarian dishes are exceptional.
1960 Hillview St., Sarasota, 364-4777, gatewaytoindiasrq.com
Harry's Continental Kitchen
One of Longboat Key's old-guard restaurants, Harry's still has what it takes to compete. Partially that's due to the restaurant's blend of island elegance and casual comfort in both the setting and cuisine.
5600 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key, 383-0777, harryskitchen.com
Chef/co-owner Lan Bradeen serves an incredible dinner, but the late-night menu at Lan — served until 2 a.m. Mon.-Sat. — is loaded with small plates that flirt with brilliance, like luscious pork belly, rabbit tacos, veal sweetbreads and the signature unagi pizza. All are priced around or below $10 and accompanied by the clever sake cocktails and a great beer selection composed by partner Brad Coburn.
1568 Main St., Sarasota, 953-7111, lanrestaurant.com
Hidden in downtown Sarasota's Towles Court arts district, in a converted wooden building with an expansive covered veranda, is Lavanda. The food leans heavily on Continental cuisine, delicate and elegant and constructed with precision by chef/owner Dino Moon.
1938 Adams Lane, Sarasota, 366-0070, lavandarestaurant.com
Libby's Cafe + Bar
Libby's is a beautiful spot to spend an evening or afternoon, from the clubby but open interior to the sidewalk seating on Osprey Avenue. The menu features plenty of small plates at reasonable prices, dishes featuring local ingredients, and a blend of comfort food with Southern influences alongside classic American fine-dining standards.
1917 S. Osprey Ave., Sarasota, 487-7300, libbyscafebar.com
Lucky Star is the guiding light for everyone in the area interested in serious Chinese food. Stick solely to the dim sum menu and the handwritten page appended to the back of the menu and you'll get a taste of Hong Kong cuisine, like delicate pork buns that stick to your teeth as they dissolve to airy bursts of sweet and savory.
4462 Cortez Road W., Bradenton, 794-3198
In a city enamored of all things Italian, especially food, Luna stands out. The servings, from the astonishingly tasty steak sandwich to a wide variety of pasta dishes, are enormous. Prices, reasonable. Ambiance, fascinating — thanks to a remarkable sports memorabilia collection that covers almost every inch of the walls and ceilings.
200 Saint Augustine Ave., Venice, 412-9898, lunapizzavenice.com
Maison Blanche is not only one of our area's best restaurants, it could easily qualify as one of Florida's best dining destinations, largely thanks to the culinary talents of owner/chef Jose Martinez. His modern French cuisine is precise in a way that few chefs can manage, each dish aimed at perfection every time he puts it in the hands of a waiter, from soup to dessert.
2605 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key, 383-8088, maisonblancherestaurants.com
This little taco stand in the Red Barn Flea Market makes the best traditional tacos in the area. The barbacoa is moist and rich, the carnitas crisp and salty, the cactus spicy and bright with tomato sauce. Maria's serves cheap eats that compete with the finest food in town.
Red Barn Flea Market, 1701 1st St., Bradenton
Mattison's City Grille
Of chef Paul Mattison's three restaurants, Mattison's City Grille is many diners' favorite, thanks to its al fresco courtyard location amidst bustling downtown Sarasota and food that is quintessentially Paul Mattison — popular dishes with an Italian flair, including his delicious brick-oven pizzas.
1 N. Lemon Ave., Sarasota, 330-0440, mattisons.com
Mediterraneo's array of Italian pasta and classic meat dishes are well-accomplished, some of the most consistent Italian cuisine in the area. Better, though, are the pizzas made in the wood-burning oven behind the bar. Order a martini, watch the crust blister and the cheese melt while you wait in Mediterraneo's modern and underrated bar area.
1970 Main St., Sarasota, 365-4122, mediterraneorest.com
Michael's On East
Now celebrating its 25th year, Michael's on East proprietors Michael Klauber and Philip Mancini have resisted the temptation to rest on their many laurels. The restaurant continues to break new culinary ground, with inspired service, ambiance and cuisine. It is rare that a day or evening goes by when Michael is not present to personally welcome you at your table.
1212 South East Ave. S., Midtown Plaza, Sarasota, 366-0007, michaelsoneast.com
Chef/owner Dylan Elhajoui weaves Northern African and Mediterranean ingredients and techniques into a menu that still manages to be more eclectic American than ethnic, in a cozy, multi-level interior space that has a distinctly urban feel that's different than most downtown spots. Mozaic's wine program is sharp and loaded with well-priced items by the glass and bottle.
1377 Main St., Sarasota, 951-6272, mozaicsarasota.com
Oh Mamma Mia
When this Gulf Gate Italian restaurant opened a couple years back, both the name and the small shotgun space seemed a bit silly. Until, of course, people had a chance to try chef/owner Giuseppi Urbano's comforting classic Italian food. Now, it's tough to find a seat in the place.
2324 Gulf Gate Drive, Sarasota, 706-2821, ohmammamiarestaurant.com
Through the decades, Ophelia's menu and chefs have changed, but one important thing has stayed the same: some of the best outdoor dining in the area. An expansive patio out the back of the converted Siesta Key house overlooks a placid section of the Intracoastal Waterway, replete with tangles of mangroves and a bounty of bird life.
9105 Midnight Pass Road, Siesta Key, 349-2212, opheliasonthebay.net
Ortygia's quaint converted house fits the homey Sicilian cuisine and casual service perfectly, creating the aura that you're eating in chef/owner Gaetano Cannata's own dining room. His rustic aesthetic infuses the food, from wedges of giant timballo cut straight from a dome of pasta sitting on the foyer counter to big red peppers stuffed with cheese and pine nuts.
1418 13th St. W., Bradenton, 741-8646 or ortygiarestaurant.com
Owen's Fish Camp
The Caragiulo brothers' Owen's Fish Camp is a sensation, thanks to decor that's lively and just shy of kitsch in the converted Burns Court cottage and a menu of seafood and Southern dishes that seem better than the inexpensive price tag would indicate.
516 Burns Lane, Sarasota, 951-6936, owensfishcamp.com
Tommy and Jaymie Klauber's Pattigeorge's on Longboat Key is one of the area's most popular waterfront restaurants. where diners can enjoy views across the bay along with global cuisine that draws its inspiration from locations as far reaching as Italy, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America and the United States.
4120 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key, 383-5111, pattigeorges.com
A menu laced with Eurasian fusion cuisine and a vibrant ambiance have garnered Perfect Caper attention well outside sleepy Punta Gorda. Much of that is due to chef/owner Jeanie Roland, who has been nominated twice for a prestigious James Beard Award.
121 E. Marion Ave., Punta Gorda, 505-9009, theperfectcaper.com
Peruvian Grill is one of the few ethnic cuisines that has made a big impact on Sarasota in recent years. At Peruvian Grill you'll find seafood soup packed with intense flavor, rustic ceviches and meat that's redolent of the salt and spices that make Peruvian cuisine so intriguing, all at prices that make the food a bargain.
5769 Beneva Road, Sarasota, 923-8902, peruviangrillsarasota.com
Of the three Vietnamese restaurants within a seafood pancake's throw of downtown, Pho Cali has been consistently the best for years now. The food is just as you'd hope — fresh and rife with the salty, sour, spicy, sweet continuum of good Southeast Asian cuisine.
1578 Main St., Sarasota, 955-2683, phocalisarasota.com
Polo is the second Tommy Klauber restaurant on this list, thanks to his talent for deflating the aura of fine-dining without reducing its high standards. The wine list is easily one of the best — and best priced — in the area, the food plays on Latin American influences while flirting with American comfort standards and Klauber is devoted to sourcing local ingredients whenever possible.
10670 Boardwalk Loop, Lakewood Ranch, 782-0899, pologrillandbar.com
Pomona Bistro & Wine Bar
Ryan Boeve and Arthur Lopes — formerly of Zoria and Main Street Oyster Bar — have returned with understated grace with Pomona Bistro. The French menu draws on classic dishes presented with a profound elegance, with a calm setting that matches the food.
481 N. Orange Ave., Sarasota, 706-1677, pomonabistroandwine.com
Best New York-style pie in Sarasota. Fold it in half and let it it drip its tasty oil on your hands — you can always wash up afterwards.
1902 Bay Road, Sarasota, 366-8988; 5131 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, 358-9958; ricospizzapie.com
Yes, it's a chain. But few local restaurants — chain or independent — can compete with the way Roy's handles seafood. Here, fish are revered and treated right, from simply grilled filets to complex dishes influenced by the Hawaiian homeland of the chain's founder Roy Yamaguchi.
2001 Siesta Drive, Sarasota, 952-0109, roysrestaurant.com
With a menu and aesthetic that ranges from rustic to refined, Salute! has quickly become one of Sarasota's best Italian restaurants, in a gorgeous setting deep in the heart of downtown.
23 N. Lemon Ave., Sarasota, 365-1020, salutesarasota.com
Selva's long list of interesting takes on classic Peruvian ceviche, succulent fish, South American stir-fries, and excellent grilled meats served in the wide-open downtown space show that the restaurant still has what it takes to be a sensation. And Selva's tight but comfy bar is still the place to go for an excellent mojito.
1345 Main St., Sarasota, 362-4427 or selvagrill.com
Shakespeare's English Pub
Although Sarasota is now loaded with quality beer bars, few serve food at all, let alone food of the quality Shakespeare's dishes out. There's the usual Brit pub fare — crackling fish and chips, various pies and pasties — along with the best burger in town.
3550 S. Osprey Ave., Sarasota, 364-5938
Simon's Coffee House
Few restaurants around the area bother to cater to the more typical culinary fetishes — vegetarianism, veganism, raw — let alone try to include a little something for everyone. Simon's has been doing that for years without compromising on the quality of the food it serves, from bouillabaise to tempeh sloppy joes.
5900 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, 926-7151 or simonstogo.com
SoMa's chef/owner David Shiplett injected a breath of fresh air into downtown Bradenton with a clever menu that plays with both diner and fine-dining standards, at prices that veer more toward the diner side of the equation. Onion rings with homemade ketchup and multiple versions of mac and cheese share space with lobster bisque and baked goat cheese.
616 10th St. E., Bradenton, 748-0002, somadiner.com
Star Fish Company
If you want a real taste of old Florida then you will want to make the trip to Cortez and the Star Fish Company. This 1920s seafood wholesaler added a market and restaurant, which means you can nosh on a grouper sandwich while you watch boats unload their catch. Add some hush puppies, cheese grits and fries, and you have old Florida at its very best.
12306 46th Ave. W., Cortez, 794-1243, starfishcompany.com
Chef/owner Eric Bein shows that serious chefs can do wonders to the usual tropes of breakfast fare if they put their minds to it at Station 400. The converted historic train station building features a wrap-around veranda and a big courtyard out back, a great foil for his interesting takes on oatmeal — packed with infused cream and loads of natural goodies — or french toast layered with perfectly seared foie gras.
400 N. Lemon Ave., Sarasota, 906-1400, station400.com
Taste of Asia
Taste of Asia doesn't Westernize its cuisine as much as most, serving Vietnamese, Thai and Laotian food that doesn't cut corners. The Laotian specialties are especially exciting, and there is a wide array of options for vegetarians and vegans.
5110 Ocean Blvd., Siesta Key, 349-2742, tasteofasiasrq.com
Tony's Chicago Beef Co.
Tony's pairs classic Chicago beef sandwiches dripped in jus with amazing fries hand-cut on the premises, although you can order a dog with neon-green relish and mustard (no ketchup, ya idiot) if you'd rather. It may not be the best food in Sarasota, but it's the kind of food you'll crave after the first visit.
6569 Superior Ave., Sarasota, 922-7979, tonyschicagobeef.com
More than any other restaurant in the area, Vernona in the Ritz-Carlton seeks out local ingredients to build its cuisine. Sometimes that means changing the menu weekly — or even daily — but the well-trained chefs at Vernona can handle that just fine, putting out some of the freshest and best fine-dining fare in the area.
1111 Ritz-Carlton Drive, Sarasota, 309-2000, ritz-carlton.com
Vizen Japanese Cuisine
Few local sushi spots stretch their culinary muscles, but Vizen chef/owner "Matsu" Matsunae fills a chalkboard with daily creations made from some of the best seafood around, from tender, barely smoked scallops to hand rolls tinged with international ingredients rarely seen paired with sushi.
6559 Gateway Ave., Sarasota, 926-0830, vizen-sarasota.com