JUST south of Tampa, in south west Florida, is a delightful gem of a city famous for its love of the arts and a place that really does live up to its billing as a jewel of what's known as the 'Cultural Coast' on the Gulf of Mexico.
Sarasota’s 'arty' highlights include the astonishing Venetian Gothic mansion built for circus king John Ringling, the Ringling Museum of Art, a recently-renovated opera house, performing arts hall, a ballet company, theatre companies and groups, an orchestra, galleries of all kinds, and more festivals and concerts than you could get to.
Yet Sarasota’s also a place so lavish with its food offerings it could also be tagged the “Gulp Coast”. On our visit we lived off the fast of the land, indeed were in danger of becoming the fat of the land.
There’s a bewildering choice of fresh, delicious food of the highest quality. The trouble is, it's also piled pretty high – and it almost feels rude to keep turning down mountains of great food from concerned and attentive staff, whether grabbing a snack in a fast food outlet or when relishing the finest of fine dining.
There are smaller portions available as early bird specials, along with all manner of other deals like two-for-one offers at times seemingly deemed suitable for dodderers, from 4pm, say, to around 6pm, but outside that time slot, you have to shop around or negotiate to find a minimum-sized steak under 10 or 12oz, or a fish portion that isn't the size of a whale's behind, both with enough 'sides' to sink a ship.
On the plus side, no one turns a hair if you ask to share a main course between two of you, with possibly a token couple of dollars extra charge – although you do run the risk of an extra-large helping to compensate.
In theory, one solution is to just order a starter as a main course, but I still ran into trouble at places like the popular Salty Dog watering holes, near the Mote Aquarium or in Siesta Key Village, where a 'lite bite' starter turned out to be no less than 15 coconut shrimp, which, to you and me, are big, butterflied king prawns. As a main course, it seems, you get about 32.
It's a similar tale at most other quality eating places in and around Sarasota, and there's certainly no shortage of them, with the Ivy Steak House, Bonefish Grill and Stonewood looking after the carnivore in particular; and Red Lobster, Captain Brian's and Barnacle Bill's more than taking care of the fishy side, especially if you're in for a cracking time with a helping of delicious king crab legs.
Foodies shouldn't forget the Daiquiri Deck Raw Bar, either, in Siesta Key Village, on St Armands Circle or in Venice, for as well as hitting the spot with their daiquiris (and seductive, happy hour frozen margaritas), these casual, cool meeting places also have a surprisingly varied food menu, from oysters, lobster and crab to 'gator tail chunks, pork, chicken, 16oz strip steak and, oh yes, coconut shrimp.
For an upmarket mingle with medics and city movers and shakers in late afternoon, try Libby's Café and Bar in the Southside Village area, right next to Sarasota Memorial Hospital, or pop over the road to Sam Snead's Tavern to natter about golf, perhaps weighing up the relative merits of more than 100 courses (golf, not grub!) in the immediate area.
As a hello and goodbye to the area, pop over to Crabby Bill's, a handy stop-off if you're flying in and out of Tampa, where the service is anything but crabby. It's part of the Best Western Bay Harbor Hotel, only a few minute from the airport terminals and ideal for a supper after you land, and a breakfast before you leave, with personable staff to bargain with over how many blueberry pancakes constitute a 'stack' with bacon and maple syrup.
Service throughout the Sarasota region is paramount and there is really no problem in justifying the expected tip level of around 15 per cent (20, if you're well impressed) for the mainly-student workforce, because even with that on top, you're paying a lot less than you'd have to fork out back home for anything near a similar quality of food or experience.
David Graham (on the team of SilverTravelAdvisor.com) and his wife travelled with United Airlines from Manchester to Tampa, via Newark; www.united.com or call 0845 6076760. They stayed at the Best Western Midtown in Sarasota and overnighted at the Best Western Bay Harbor Hotel in Tampa. Visit www.bestwestern.co.uk or call 0845 7660418.
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