When you write a column dedicated to inexpensive dishes, it's easy to fall into a rut just covering lunch and breakfast spots, and I have definitely careened into just such a rut. It makes too much sense: Breakfast and lunch are just plain cheaper than a dinner out on the town. How many restaurants serve a full evening meal for less than $10? I can't think of many.
So I'm mixing it up this week, and going for a late-night joint: Rooftop, the newly renovated second-story bar attached to downtown Sarasota's Eat Here. I've been excited about the spot since hearing about it, particularly after an evening when friends and I emerged from a screening of "Machete Kills" across the street, seeking booze with which to digest the cinematic genius we had just witnessed. But where to go? We ended up at Eat Here, but the restaurant was in the middle of closing up, and we barely had time to delve into Danny Trejo's complex psychology before we were presented with our check.
Rooftop solves that drink-after-movie conundrum. The bar stays open till 1 or 2 most nights, and Eat Here owner Sean Murphy has simplified the entry process by installing a bright red spiral staircase that lets you climb up directly to the drinks without having to wade through the tables in the first-floor restaurant.
The vibe upstairs is chilled-out and comfortable. If you've been to one of the space's many past iterations — Esca, for instance — the feel won't be too different, but there have been some improvements. A row of tall chairs now lines the edge of the deck looking out over Main Street, while a pianist seated in the middle of the indoor space provides subtle background plinks.
What has changed is the array of excellent cocktails on offer. Rooftop's Sazerac is out of this world, with a strong dose of rye and a wash of absinthe that stings and then numbs your lips. So many "craft cocktail" places these days simply water down their liquor with sugary flavorings; Rooftop allows the core alcohols to shine through.
OK, the booze is great, but what about the food? Rooftop has its own menu, distinct from Eat Here, with nothing that runs above $10. The bar's smoked salmon pizza is small but filling at $9, the biggest surprise being that every inch of the small football-shaped dough is covered with fish instead of being huddled into the center. The salmon sits atop a generous smear of crème fraîche, with julienned basil decorating its flesh. The small pizza is a hit, with the aggressive smoke and salt of the fish mellowed out by the lactose below. The crust isn't cracker-crisp à la Il Panificio, but it's thin enough that the 'za doesn't taste like a hunk of bread with stuff thrown on it. It's a hit.
"We're all out of crack," the bartender announces, likely the first time I've heard that phrase in my life. My friend, Veronica, and I had asked for a $3 order of the bar's "Rooftop crack," a bacon-caramel-popcorn concoction that sounds just beyond good. We'll have to come back for crack.
We settle for the bar's roasted and salted nuts, also $3, and I'm more than happy with our second choice. Blisteringly hot when they first hit the bartop, once they settle down, they make for an addictive snack, the salt and spice a perfect counterpoint to the restrained chill of the cocktails.
Can you make a meal out of the stuff at Rooftop? Probably not, unless you're just not that hungry. But who cares? The next time I leave the movies, I know where I'm headed, and if Rooftop can solve that problem, it doesn't need to do anything more to win my love.
1888 Main St., Sarasota
365-8700 or eathereflorida.com
This is the umpteenth entry in a weekly column dedicated to eats that are cheap. If you have an idea for a place to feature in Cheap Eats, comment below, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or hit me up on Twitter:@LeveyBaker.