I love Sarasota, especially for a bite to eat. In the past, the little town to the south had more culinary creativity per capita than Tampa or St. Pete, perhaps because of the density of wealthy retirees and the thriving arts community driving money into dining. That's changed in recent years, mostly because the Bay area has turned up the heat when it comes to innovative cooking and exciting young chefs. But that doesn't mean an occasional day trip to the sleepy south isn't warranted.
Instead of high-end cuisine, however, why not try a few places that nail the mid-range, places that are beloved by Sarasota locals for food you can afford to eat on a regular basis? Here's a short list of some of those hidden (or not-so-hidden) gems, ready to whip up a good meal the next time you crave a change of scenery.
1888 Main St., Sarasota, 778-0411; 5315 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach, 778-0411, eathereannamaria.com.
Sean Murphy has made a name for himself that extends outside his home of Anna Maria Island, thanks to his ever-popular, award-winning Beach Bistro. He's branched out over the past decade, opening and closing a few secondary spots, but with Eat Here he seems to have nailed it.
The formula is simple: distinctly Floridian casual fare blessed with a few high-end techniques and ingredients, in an atmosphere of gilded casualness.
That means tempura local fish served with fries and aioli, a bacon-wrapped hot dog tricked out with truffle butter and bearnaise, poutine, deep-fried beets, lobster tacos and more. It sounds fun, and tastes great.
Murphy recently opened a second location — this one away from Anna Maria in downtown Sarasota — and has secret plans to keep expanding the concept. The Bay area might be next.
36251 S.R. 70 E, Myakka City, 322-9722.
Suzy Q's is housed in a spare white square of a building, and its parking lot is unmarked. But it's worth a little trouble to seek out this palace to simple country cooking. The french fries are fresh cut, crisp and creamy and great plain, or you can order a french fry sandwich complete with mayo and fluffy white bread. (Pro tip: It's better with a side of gravy.) The sandwiches and salads are mostly what you'd expect, which is why you don't order them here. Concentrate instead on the soulful Southern entrees, like country-fried steak that tastes of crisp batter and buttery beef topped by decadent sawmill gravy; or boneless breaded pork chops encased in a fried crust of cornmeal, the meat oozing juice with every stroke of your knife.
The Table Creekside
5365 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, 921-9465, tablesrq.com.
Remember The Table? Originally a Sarasota restaurant, it expanded a few years back to St. Petersburg, then suffered from a financial collapse that left owners Rafael Manzano and Pedro Flores at loose ends. Oddly enough, they both ended up working at a fish shack in Sarasota called Phillippi Creek Oyster Bar.
Well, it has paid off, for them and for us.
Phillippi Creek Oyster Bar owner Roy Lalone has bankrolled a new version of their restaurant called The Table Creekside. It still features Rafael Manzano in the front of the house and Pedro Flores in the kitchen, cooking the signature melange of world cuisine he used to call "Atlantic Rim." His oyster po' boy comes with kimchi, short rib pot roast is accompanied by Caribbean gnocchi and vidalia onion froth, and cassoulet is made with calamari, edamame and chorizo. He makes it work, almost every time.
Owen's Fish Camp
516 Burns Lane, Sarasota, 951-6936, owensfishcamp.com.
The Caragiulo brothers have built a successful name for themselves in the Sarasota restaurant scene, with plenty of restaurants under their belt over the past two decades, anchored by their family Italian restaurant Caragiulos. When they opened a little fish restaurant in a small house in an historic downtown Sarasota neighborhood last year, however, nobody could have predicted the crowds lined up outside the door.
Why? It's simple. The brothers hit a perfect formula, serving affordable fare that's almost always better than its price point in an atmosphere that pushes historical decor almost (but not quite) into kitsch.
Expect incredible grits, edamame succotash, fried fish, tart lemonade, dill-infused lobster rolls and homemade pimento cheese. And a wait, since they don't take reservations.
4520 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, 922-3797, alpinesteak.com.
It's not much to look at and, unless you want a basic bit of cooked meat, it's not much to eat at. But if you want a special treat for your next holiday meal, then the Alpine Steakhouse is where you go. These guys have built a brand around their world famous Turducken — their particular version gaining celebrity status thanks to numerous appearances on Food Network shows like Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives with Guy Fieri.
Alpine's version comes with the usual chicken stuffed inside a duck stuffed inside a turkey, but between each bird are three different layers of stuffing: one based on cornbread, one on spinach and one an almost solid layer of andouille sausage. Just be sure you grab the cooking instructions on your way out.
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