$15 an hour. That’s the going rate for babysitting these days. I don’t know about you, but if I’m paying that kind of money to go out to dinner with my husband, I don’t want to eat somewhere mediocre. I want to eat at a place where I can throw my head back and groan with delight after every bite. Okay, maybe that’s a little too When Harry Met Sally, but I do want to be blown away.
I want flavors I can’t cook at home. I want fresh ingredients, innovative flavor combinations and the perfect blend of textures. For me, that means eating somewhere local and unique. Not Chili’s. Not Cheesecake Factory. Not Longhorn Steakhouse. And I know we’re in retirement city, but I don’t want to eat somewhere that looks like my grandma’s house. The music, environment and clientele have to be hip enough to make me forget I have a kid for the night.
After living in Sarasota for 7 years, I’ve nibbled my way through all the nooks and crannies of the local eating scene. And I’m confident that the 5 restaurants below are well worth booking a sitter for a date night out. They represent cuisines you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see in Florida, from French to Cuban to Peruvian, but that’s what makes them so extraordinary.
Indigenous has the best food in Sarasota. Hands down. No contest. If you want a meal that’s simply superb from beginning to end, call and make a reservation today. You’ll need it. Their chef, Steve Phelps, was classically trained in France and Germany and has earned two James Beard Semifinalist Nominations for Best Chef in the South in 2014 and 2015. If that’s not enough to entice you, their ever-changing menu of local, seasonal and sustainable ingredients will. We typically opt for their Hook to Fork or Plentiful and Abundant specials, as they’re the freshest, most avant-garde options on the menu. We recently went for my birthday, and the Short Rib appetizer with tomato jam and horseradish sauce with white cheddar cornbread was phenomenal. The Arctic Char with butternut squash puree, brussels sprouts and caramelized pecans was equally delectable. Indigenous, 239 South Links Ave, 941-706-4740. Must Try: Parmesan Beignets.
State Street Eating House + Cocktails
State Street looks less like it belongs in Sarasota, than in a chic New York neighborhood. The mid-century industrial interior with exposed brick, naked light bulbs and repurposed wood is effortlessly cool. And their upscale twist on classic American comfort foods like Baked Lobster Mac ‘n’ Cheese, Fresh Ground Burgers and Chicken for Two will have you loosening your belt a notch and being #sorrynotsorry. They also have a swanky speakeasy lounge next door that transports you back to the prohibition era. They don’t take reservations for parties under 6, but you can and should call ahead to put your name on their waiting list. State Street Eating House + Cocktails, 1533 State Street, 941-951-1533, Must Try: Chopped Butter Lettuce Salad, Baked Lobster Mac ‘n’ Cheese, Bramble Cocktail.
This Nuevo Latino joint takes such care with the presentation of their food that you feel like you’re eating little works of art. From Lobster Ceviche served in a martini glass, to Truffle Parmesan Fries stacked like Jenga blocks, it’s almost too pretty to eat. Except then you eat it. And you have to remind yourself you’re in public and you can’t just bare hand the stuff into your face. Or at least I do. This Peruvian/Asian fusion cuisine masters the combination of sweet, salty and umami flavors like no one else in town. They’ve also got a cushy lounge with comfy couches, a late night menu, custom cocktails and a DJ spinning till 1am on weekends. Yes, I’m a mom and I just said “spinning.” Selva Grill, 1345 Main Street, 941-362-4427. Must Try: Tuna Tiradito, Selva’s Famous Skirt Steak, Truffle Parmesan Fries.
Walking into this hip, beachy cafe on St. Armand’s Circle above the Shore clothing store might give you the urge to wax up a surfboard. The food has a decidedly coastal focus, although it’s not exclusively Floridian, with options like Key West Shrimp and Scallops sharing the menu with Maryland Lump Crab Cakes and Thai Curry Mussels. Although, my favorite thing on the menu isn’t seafood – it’s their fried chicken. Perfectly crispy on the outside and moist on the inside, served with spicy/sweet Crystal hot sauce honey and a side of ooey-gooey mac and cheese, it’s the consummate guilty pleasure food. And when the weather’s nice, the roof opens up in the back so you can dine under the stars. Shore Diner, 465 John Ringling Blvd, #200, 941-296-0301. Must Try: Free Range Organic Fried Chicken
Okay, so Columbia is more of a regional restaurant, as it now has 6 Florida locations since opening its flagship restaurant in Tampa’s Ybor City. But I still consider it a local favorite. Founded in 1905 by Cuban immigrant, Casimiro Hernandez, Sr., Columbia is the oldest restaurant in Florida and the largest Spanish restaurant in the world. They opened their St. Armand’s location in 1959, which makes it Sarasota’s oldest restaurant. The restaurant remains in the family today with the 4th and 5th generations now at the helm. And it shows in the cooking. From traditional Tapas like Empanadas and Gambas “Al Ajillo” to four different kinds of Paella, it really feels like you’re eating old family recipes. Columbia Restaurant, 411 St. Armand’s Circle, 941-388-3987. Must Try: 1905 Salad, Steak Salteado and a pitcher of Mojitos or Sangria de Cava.