As one of the charter members of the Sarasota Originals, Cafe Baci has been a power player in the restaurant game for nearly three decades. And it shows, with multiple top dining and wine awards from heavy hitters such as Wine Spectator, Open Table and Trip Advisor. Owner Roberto Mei's family brings a taste of the old country to Sarasota, having opened their first restaurant in Rome and in 1952, the first Northern Italian restaurant in Manhattan.
"We will do anything for anybody," said Manager and Head Server Suzanne Lisi. "Our service is top-notch and we treat everyone like a guest in their home. And on top of that, we'll do special things for our Open Table guests." Chef Eldis Rodriguez, who worked his way up from dishwasher 20 years ago, is one of several long-time employees at Cafe Baci. The Osso Buco and the Vitella Di Abondanza, comprised of three veal dishes are the top two items on the menu. "Although we do have many regulars, who our staff greets by name and they like that," said Lisi. "We also know that people read online where and what people ate and that brings us new business all the time."
At the other end of the spectrum, in many ways, is Indigenous. Located in a cool, hip, refurbished bungalow-style home with brick pavers and surrounded by an herb garden with a wood fence adorned with colorful flowers, Indigenous lives up to its name. Ditto for Owner/Chef Stephen Phelps, a James Beard Foundation semi-finalist for Best Chef, South in 2014-15. Since opening in 2011, the restaurant has made its mark by being a Florida Trend Golden Spoon Award winner along with being a Seafood Watch Program Partner, committing to serve only seafood caught or farmed in ocean-friendly ways.
"Our concern is being able to source food, have sustainability issues," said Phelps, who fell in love with cooking after learning at the feet of his uncle, a former military chef. "We save food for use in compost programs and make sure we don't leave a carbon footprint behind. We reduce single-use plastics and have been doing it since day one. We want to be a leader in environmental issues." However, it's not just about the feel-good moments for Indigenous. The food makes its own mark with dishes such as Smoked Fish Sea Saltine "Nachos" and Shrimp Wafu Garlic Noodles. "Sometimes I spy on people when they take that first bite," said Phelps. "You peek, you see the nod. The guest across the table nods, like the Seinfeld episode. That's an accomplishment for me every day - to see that look and make them happy."
"It's a lively, fast, contemporary restaurant that truly embodies the Ritz-Carlton culture for enlivening a variety of senses," said restaurant General Manager Anthony Aviles. Thomas Borrelli is the new Chef de Cuisine and Aviles says the menu often tells a story of what they call "Jack's Journeys." "For example, one of our new items, the grouper entree," said Aviles. "Chef came up with the idea while he was traveling down to Ecuador. He was on a tour given by people who lived off the land. The way they cooked the grouper was wrapped in a banana leaf with seasoning and parts of palm. Even though 60 percent of our clientele is local, we're always on the cutting edge and never really say no."
With a daily rotating selection of globally inspired cuisine that includes fresh fish flown in daily for Owner/Chef Dan Olson, who also uses exotic proteins in his creations, (case in point, the Rack of Lamb with Candied Walnut Chevre Crust, Black Truffle Demi-Glace, Port Wine Syrup, Merguez Sausage and Potato Gratin Dauphinoise - whew!) Opheila's is about much more than the views, even if diners are occasionally distracted by dolphins or manatees swimming by. According to Restaurant Manager Don Mitchell, the Sunday Brunch Buffet is outstanding. "We have great music with our Jazz Brunch," said Mitchell. "In addition, our Crab Cakes Egg Benedict gets a lot of attention and our signature dish are the Eggplant Crepes, made with pasta and vegetables."
As we reach the final restaurant on our list, one thing they ALL have in common is that more than one national publication, magazine or website thinks they belong on a "Best Of" list. And that's no different with The Waterfront Restaurant & Craft Bar. Bona fides include the 2016 Certificate of Excellence by Trip Advisor and a spot as one of the 100 Best Al Fresco Dining Restaurants in America in 2016 by Open Table. With open-air patio views of Tampa Bay and the proverbial long walks on the beach at sunset beckoning after a great meal and a glass (bottle?) of wine, The Waterfront checks multiple boxes for inclusion.
Chef Billy Hermenau has been given a lot of room to roll in the kitchen by owner Jason Suzor. "We are an upscale, casual American-style restaurant with the best and freshest ingredients as far as fish and meat," said Hermenau. "My inspiration has a Spanish-French fusion mode with an Asian twist. And we're doing some things I know no one else is doing, such as the Marinated Mahi-Mahi, where it's char-grilled and paired with a warm lobster salad with chili vinaigrette dressing. Or the mint chimicurri crust of lamb or the Black Garlic Peppercorn-Seared Filet Mignon with Aioli. Our staff is close-knit and goes far beyond our expectations to deliver for our customers."
And that wraps up our list of what we feel are the Top 10 restaurants in Bradenton and Sarasota. What are yours? Do you agree with the list? Feel free to weigh in and send us your picks. By the way, here's four more that were strongly considered for inclusion: Anna Maria Oyster Bar (4 locations), Fins at Sharky's in Venice, Owen's Fish Camp in Sarasota and Speaks Clam Bar (2 locations).
Feature image provided by Crab and Fin, Louie's Modern, The Waterfront and Selva Grill photos are from the restaurant Facebook pages, all other photos were taken by the author or provided by the restaurant.