Sarasota is a lovely city with a lot of things to see and do, but it’s a place I am still, after one and one-half years, getting used to. It’s not easy being 1,189.2 miles from The World’s Most Convenient City, where pretty much everything I wanted was close by. I didn’t have to order L’Occitane products from Drugstore.com because one of their stores was a 15-minute walk from my apartment. I didn’t have to be a member of Netflix because my mom-and-pop video store had all the foreign films I wanted…and they delivered. I passed 2 Barnes & Nobles on my way to the subway, 3 movie theaters, and some genuine dives with some great food.
Every time I meet someone from New York or Philadelphia or Boston (and there are a lot more of each here now than there were when I came down to visit my grandparents in the 1960s and 1970s), the first topic of conversation is how hard it is to find decent food at a decent price. You can eat well here — it just costs an arm and a leg — but we’re all used to being able to find holes in the wall with great food. It’s definitely culture shock.
So, in order to help out any new Sarasotans (or anyone planning on being a tourist here), here are some of the best places to eat well for not a whole lot of money. One former New Yorker owns Bonni Bakes; she is searching for a recipe that will allow her to produce a good knish (I don’t know if she has good bagels, because I haven’t found one yet). I would love to visit her restaurant in Bradenton’s Village of the Arts, but she’s not open often enough hours for someone who works down in Sarasota, so I have not yet been there. Il Panificio, on Main Street in Sarasota, has the best pizza in the vicinity (the owners are from New Jersey). “Soprano’s of NY” on SR70 in Lakewood Ranch has melt-in-your-mouth garlic knots (the owners are from north of NYC) and very good pizza. Next door, the Big City Grille (owned by a native Philadelphian) offers up incredible chicken wings and a variety of “signture sandwiches” from around the country. “South Philly” on 34th Street West has excellent cheesesteaks, and you can drink Yuengling or Rolling Rock while you eat. It’s enough to make a transplant weep. You can call me a snob, but let’s face it — Northeasterners know food.
Honorable mention goes to TooJays, a deli/diner with several locations around Florida. Sarasota’s is in the Westfield Southgate Mall along the Trail. I don’t know who owns them, but they serve up all sorts of comfort food: bagels, corned beef and roast beef sandwiches as tall as the ones in New York, rugelach, chicken soup, black-and-white cookies (no, they’re not nearly as good as those at Glaser’s on First Avenue in Manhattan, but they’re better than anything else you’ll get down here), whitefish salad, shrimp salad… It’s well worth the visit.