We spend a lot of time at the Herald-Tribune, and Ticket in particular, writing about restaurant openings in Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte counties. But what about the classics? What about the dining establishments that have stood the test of time? The ones that not only have survived this damned coronavirus pandemic, but countless other calamities, and continue to prosper.
Basically, what are the oldest restaurants here that folks should visit? It’s a story I’ve been meaning to write for years. A few months ago I started searching the Herald-Tribune archives. Started making phone calls. And, my favorite part, started revisiting some classic dining destinations.
I ended up compiling what I hope serves as a useful dining guide, one with fun, historical facts and menu recommendations for each place. Information has been culled from Herald-Tribune stories dating back decades as well as my own Herald-Tribune reporting, which first appeared here in 2003, and, for this story, continued with a final phone interview conducted last Friday evening.
I stuck to Sarasota County restaurants, places that specialize in dinner and/or lunch. I’ll most likely do a similar story about the 10 oldest Manatee County restaurants in the near future. You’ll notice I did not write about places such as the Gator Club, which celebrated its 100th anniversary back in 2013. I’m saving that one and others for a story on the oldest bars in the area.
For now, beginning with the newest restaurants first, here are 10 of the most historic dining destinations in Sarasota. These are places to eat everything from escargot and caviar to burgers and hot dogs. They’re located everywhere from downtown Sarasota and St. Armands Circle to Osprey and Nokomis.
Perhaps most importantly, these are all places I recommend visiting, and not just for their historic or nostalgic charms. These are restaurants that have attained landmark and icon status and continue to serve quality cuisine.
431 St. Armands Circle, Sarasota; 941-388-4415; cafeleurope.net
It was a Sunday in the middle of tourist season. The day after Richard Nixon was inaugurated for his second term. Jan. 21, 1973, to be exact, when Sarasota foodies first embraced a new destination for classic Continental cuisine, one brought to St. Armands Circle by a Netherlands native with an extensive background in the hospitality industry.
“I remember opening the front door on our opening night, and I was floored to see my mother and older brother standing there,” recalled Cafe L’Europe founder Titus Letschert in a 2008 Herald-Tribune interview. “They had come over from Holland to surprise me. I also remember that Norbert (Goldner), my partner at the time, and I were so overwhelmed that we decided to close the next day and reopen the following day. We have been open since then.”
During the same interview, Letschert mentioned how “people have kidded that Café L’Europe has been a Sarasota Cooking University.” He then went on to list former employees: an impressive roster that includes Ray Arpke of Euphemia Haye, J.P. Knaggs of the Bijou Café and Harry Christensen of Harry’s Continental Kitchens.
Asked about a signature menu item that has stood the test of time, Letschert responded, “The Café L’Europe duckling with bing cherry sauce was a smash from the start and is still on our menu today.”
Alas, Letschert would pass away only a few years later, at age 67 in 2011, after a long bout with cancer. However, Cafe L’Europe continues to thrive in its original location – John Ringling’s real estate office, with a great historic photo found just inside the entrance – still serving classic Continental cuisine including, yes, the Brandied Duckling L’Europe. (It’s highly recommended, and if you go for lunch, let me suggest the Lido-Style Corned Beef potato pancake sandwich. For beverages, seriously consider the Cafe French “75” cocktail and their jalapeno margarita, which is also pretty amazing.)
Betsie Coolidge, who joined Cafe L’Europe after marrying Letschert in 1995, ran the place until 2016, when she sold it to Ron and Julie Milton, who at the time owned Scene Magazine. “We have frequented the restaurant for 20 years, and it’s been very special to me and Julie,” Milton told the Herald-Tribune in 2016. “We’re already in the hospitality business, and I’ve always had a thing for restaurants.”
2 Marina Plaza, Sarasota; 941-365-4232; marinajacks.com
One of Sarasota’s more colorful characters, Marina Jack founder Jack Graham reportedly required just three things to maintain his health. Aspirin for headaches, lotion – he called it grease – for chafed skin, and for everything else, Chivas Regal.
“He said that would cure anything that ailed you,” his daughter Judy Graham told the Herald-Tribune in 2002, shortly after he died at age 82.
Jack Graham took over the city’s ramshackle marina on Sarasota Bay in 1968, transformed it into the multimillion-dollar business that still bears his name and for years even managed to avoid paying property taxes because his place was deemed a public good for the city.
Months after being named 2015 “National Marina of the Year” by “Marina Dock Age” magazine, Marina Jack’s parent company merged with Dallas-based Suntex Marinas. The company continues to maintain all three waterfront restaurants – The Marina Jack Dining Room, Blue Sunshine Patio, and Deep Six Lounge & Patio Bar – as well as 316 wet and dry slips, full service fuel dock, on-site yacht services department and sunset dinner cruises aboard the Marina Jack II.
Main dining room specialties include the filet mignon center cut, the jumbo prawn cocktail and the half Maine lobster stuffed with crab, baked and topped with bearnaise sauce. The patio menu features various appetizers, salads, soups and sandwiches. The lounge offers favorites such as fresh oysters on the half shell, calamari served with marinara sauce, and beef tenderloin sliders served with portobello mushrooms.
All three restaurants offer waterfront seating for watching spectacular sunsets, perhaps while sipping some Chivas Regal in honor of old “Marina Jack.”
411 St. Armands Circle, Sarasota; 941-388-3987; columbiarestaurant.com
Recently honored for the best sandwich in Florida by Food & Wine magazine, Columbia restaurant has been serving its famed Cuban and much more on St. Armands Circle for more than 60 years.
“My dad opened a second Columbia Restaurant on St. Armands Circle in 1959,” Richard Gonzmart, fourth-generation “caretaker” of Columbia Restaurant Group, told me in 2017. “He loved Sarasota and Longboat Key.”
Founded in 1905 by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez Sr., the original Columbia in Tampa’s Ybor City has been recognized as Florida’s oldest restaurant, remaining in the Hernandez and now Gonzmart family through five generations. (Casimiro Jr. and his wife, Carmen, had one child, Adela Hernandez Gonzmart.)
Offering lots of al fresco seating, the Columbia on St. Armands’ long list of must-try Cuban and Spanish cuisine (with Italian influences) includes, of course, the Cuban sandwich, the “Columbia Original 1905 Salad,” the paella, and the roast pork “a la Cubana.” For appetizers, be sure to try the Ybor City Devil Crab Croquettes and the empanadas de picadillo. Oh, and the sangria. It’s truly a wasted opportunity to visit Columbia and not have your table adorned with a freshly made pitcher of sangria, one of the many comforts the restaurant has been offering now for well over a century.
“Our flagship restaurant in Tampa’s Ybor City celebrates 115 years in 2020, and our family and the restaurant have survived two world wars, the Great Depression, the Spanish flu, Prohibition, the closing of most cigar factories and urban renewal,” Gonzmart said in April while his restaurants were temporarily closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. “We’ll get through this.”
Columbia Restaurant Group, which also includes the 30-year-old Cha Cha Coconuts on St. Armands Circle, successfully reopened all of its locations a few weeks later.
Main Bar Sandwich Shop
1944 Main St., Sarasota; 941-955-8733; themainbar.com
Sarasota’s best sandwich shop also happens to be its most historic. Occupying a long, rather narrow space in the heart of downtown, Main Bar Sandwich Shop was opened in 1958 by a couple of stars from The Greatest Show on Earth.
Charlie Borza and his wife, Thea, both were retired from the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Charlie had been a trampoline artist and Thea rode bareback before creating Main Bar’s most popular sandwich, Our Famous Italian. Their son Peppi Borza added the photos of circus celebrities that still adorn the wood-paneled walls.
“There’s a signed Emmett Kelly back over there,” Chip Beeman said, pointing to a photo hanging above a booth, when interviewed by the Herald-Tribune in 2018. “There’s a signed Karl Wallenda right here, so many people that meant so much to this town.”
Chip Beeman and his wife, Kate, purchased the Main Bar about 15 years ago. To celebrate the restaurant’s 60th anniversary, he and I came up with a Top 10 sandwich list based on sales and our personal taste. “Our Famous Italian” easily ranked No. 1, followed by “The Mayan,” which features thinly sliced smoked turkey breast and provolone cheese covered in their highly addictive jalapeno dressing.
“This place is like a long algebraic formula. If you just change one thing, you get a different outcome,” Beeman said for the 2018 story. “It’s something that needs to be protected and preserved. We just do our best to do that. Whatever we’ve got, it’s working really well.”
135 Bayview Drive, Osprey; 941-218-6114; eviesonline.com
When Steve and Mike Evanoff, the father-and-son team behind the local Evie’s restaurant and entertainment empire, purchased Spanish Pointe Restaurant and Marina in 2015, they added a waterfront location to their portfolio with history dating back to 1957.
Spanish Point Marina’s original building, which now serves as a kitchen, operated as a fishing village with a small bar and marina. “Fishermen used to offload their catch from the Gulf of Mexico by sailing through then-open Midnight Pass and into Little Sarasota Bay,” reads the history page on the website, which the Evanoffs have sourced through the likes of Jon Thaxton, a multigenerational Sarasotan, former county commissioner and lifelong conservation advocate.
The history page notes that from 1960 to ’78, the bar and marina were called Detroiter Fishing Camp and were flanked on both sides by mobile homes occupied by seasonal residents from Michigan. “Food was self-serve, and patrons could make their own peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches on white bread at the bar to take with them on the water or enjoy when they came back ashore.”
After operating as Madden-Bar Fishing Camp, the Bob White Fishing Camp and also as Marker 39 Fish Camp, it became Spanish Point Marina in the mid-1980s and then in the 2000s the Spanish Point Pub and Marina, featuring the waterfront chickee similar to what would become Evie’s at Spanish Point Restaurant & Tiki in 2016.
In 2020, on the same Spanish Point property and just steps from the still bustling tiki bar, the Evanoffs opened The Point, a more traditional restaurant that places guests on Little Sarasota Bay with multiple dining areas.
Featuring a mix of Florida and New England seafood favorites, popular menu items include the Hot Baltimore Crab Pretzel, North Atlantic lobster roll, blackened grouper pizza, jumbo lump crab cakes, seared sea scallops, and the surf and turf tower featuring filet mignon, crab cake and jumbo shrimp. The ground floor offers seating with two fire pits while there’s a second floor ideal for a sit-down meal and then the third floor designed for sipping and sunset viewing.
“The whole place faces the west, and unless there are clouds, you can’t miss it,” Steve Evanoff told me, not long after purchasing the property. “It’s the best sunset in Sarasota.”
1701 N. Washington Blvd., Sarasota; 941-955-5001; hobnobdrivein.com
Billed as “Sarasota’s oldest outside dining experience,” Hob Nob Drive-In continues to serve one of the city’s best burgers. The classic diner-style patty arrives thin and salty, well done yet with plenty of juice bursting out from under a blanket of American cheese topped with mayo, mustard, iceberg lettuce, a thick tomato slice, raw white onions and pickles. And the fluffy white bun, like the ones you recall from backyard cookouts as a kid, is ideal for soaking up the flavor. The cheeseburger basket comes with a small side of coleslaw and a pile of those comforting crinkle fries. For a slight upcharge, you can replace the fries with onion rings.
People have been eating those cheeseburgers, which have been making our best-of lists for years now, since March 12, 1957. To mark Hob Nob’s 40th anniversary, the Herald-Tribune ran an article noting “in the period of time after World War II, when Sarasota’s Hob-Nob Drive-In restaurant opened, the appeal of drive-in restaurants was growing.”
“As the speeds of cars increased, the design of drive-in restaurants had to become more eye-catching,” Lorrie Muldowney wrote in 1997. “This had the result of buildings so distinctive that they served as their own advertising, often in combination with large neon signs, which could not be avoided. The much-coveted corner lot location added still more to their curbside visibility. Sarasota’s Hob-Nob Drive-In restaurant still has its original neon sign and rectangular building design, allowing parking on all sides.”
The Spicuzza family has owned Hob Nob since 1991, adding chicken, fish, vegetables and salads to the menu, which also includes staples such as hot dogs and handmade shakes. A cold beer is also a popular beverage choice. In 2013, the Spicuzzas renovated the restaurant with a new roof, new awnings, tables and countertops, plus a wall separating the open-air dining area from the traffic on Washington Boulevard. In 2017, a white cargo van slammed into the concrete barrier.
“Thank God we built that new wall about four or five years ago,” restaurant manager (and now co-owner) Annette Gargett told the Herald-Tribune. “That’s why we put that wall there, in case a car did come through here. I’m glad nobody got hurt; the building can be replaced.”
The restaurant, serving burgers since the Eisenhower Administration, reopened the same day for dinner.
5000 E. Venice Ave., Venice; 941-485-7221; snookhaven.com
Take a seat at a picnic table under the canopy of oak branches and Spanish moss. Order a plate of barbecue and a cold one. And just let the history of Old Florida classic wash over you.
A backwoods beauty located on the officially designated “wild and scenic” Myakka River, and, the story goes, discovered by smugglers during Prohibition, Snook Haven became a location for the 1930s Hollywood films “Prestige” and “Tarzan’s Revenge” before opening as a fish camp and restaurant in 1948.
After changing ownership multiple times and becoming home to a junked school bus and an alligator who liked to eat leftover fries, Snook Haven was sold to Sarasota County for $2.6 million in 2006.
In 2012, the owner of Sharky’s on the Pier in Venice submitted the winning proposal to manage Snook Haven’s restaurant, live music, gift shop, boat tours and rentals.
“One of our slogans at Sharky’s was ‘Smack dab on the beach,’” owner Justin Pachota told the Herald-Tribune in 2013. “We’re calling this ‘Smack dab on the river.’”
In addition to serving popular dishes such as the smoked chicken wings, smoked pulled pork, beef brisket and ribs, Snook Haven hosts various local and national music acts as well as the annual Myakka River Blues Festival that began about a decade ago. What folks like most about the place, though, is its ability to transport them back to a bygone era.
“It looks about the same, I like that,” Barbara Portz of Venice told the Herald-Tribune. “I don’t want it to change. It’s a great place back here. I like Old Florida.”
New Pass Grill and Bait Shop
1505 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota; 941-388-3050; newpassgrill.com
Occupying a prime spot of city of Sarasota-owned land at the south end of New Pass Bridge on City Island, New Pass Grill and Bait Shop dates back nearly a century. “A local landmark since 1929,” reads the website. However, it didn’t become a restaurant until decades later, with one local media outlet reporting that the famed burgers were served starting in 1950, back when the place was known as “Dan Byrd’s Fish Camp.”
Sarasota historian Jeff LaHurd shared his memories of the “Birdie Burger” with this publication in 2006. “The hamburger stand that was mentioned hung precariously over the water near the bridge to Longboat Key,” he recalled. “It was owned by Dan Byrd, and his hamburger was the Birdie Burger.”
Mollie Cardamone, former Sarasota mayor, shared fond memories of New Pass for the same Herald-Tribune story.
“It was owned and operated by Dan and Daisy Byrd and was the source of the best hamburgers, especially as many of their customers arrived by boat and were famished from being on the water fishing, swimming, skiing and whatever,” Cardamone said. “I do not believe there was a dock, so we would pull the bow up on the small beach, which is still there, and grab up the kids and with very sandy feet run in for a burger. The Byrds were always glad to see us; they sold bait from under the building and tackle inside along with food.”
The Sarasota-based Wallace family owned and operated the grill and bait shop from the 1990s until just last summer, selling the business to Jonathan and Janean Sisler.
“New Pass Grill and Bait Shop and the Wallace family ask the Sarasota community to please extend a warm welcome to local residents Jonathan and Janean Sisler,” Don Wallace said in a statement to the Herald-Tribune.
Jonathan Sisler, CEO of Chicago-based Coyote Logistics, was a New Pass Grill enthusiast before buying the place. “Both my wife and I have been big fans of the area and certainly New Pass for a long time,” he told me. “We want to keep its charm and what makes it so special.”
Sisler added, “Beer, burger, watch the boats go by, it’s just such a cool spot.”
New Pass serves breakfast (egg sandwiches, hash browns and French toast sticks are among the favorites) with popular lunch selections including the grouper sandwich, the clam basket and sandwiches such as the New Pass Sub. But nothing on the menu is nearly as popular as the “New Pass Burgers,” which are served along with the rest of the food only until about 5 or 6 p.m.
Asked if he would continue to serve the beloved burgers, Sisler responded, “Absolutely. I share the same admiration for the burgers and the views and the whole nine yards just like the rest of the customers.”
Walt’s Fish Market, Restaurant & Tiki Bar
4144 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota; 941-921-4605; waltsfishmarketrestaurant.com
Before stone crab season starts every year on Oct. 15, there’s a very well-known fisherman in Sarasota who receives a call from the Herald-Tribune.
“We’ll have them opening day,” Brett Wallin, the fourth-generation owner of Sarasota’s Walt’s Fish Market, Restaurant & Tiki Bar, told me this past October. “I’ll personally be running my own traps.”
While Wallin also contracts with local commercial fishermen, he proudly takes a hands-on approach to harvesting stone crab claws. That means the claws he procures are often cooked right at his Siesta Key home and then brought to his restaurant and market on South Tamiami Trail.
“When I’m steaming my crabs they’re still moving, the claws, that’s how fresh they are,” Wallin said. “It’s an eight-minute drive from my house, so you’re eating them within 15 minutes of me leaving my house.”
As I’ve noted before, when it comes to fresh, locally sourced seafood, Walt’s Fish Market remains the best spot in Sarasota. Regularly featuring grouper, red snapper, flounder, cobia, mahi, tripletail, shrimp and mullet, the menu reads “the fish we sell today, slept in the gulf last night.”
In addition to the fresh fish being served at the restaurant, its market and the tiki bar that opened about five years ago, there’s the history. Walt’s celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2018, with the century date tied to when Claus Wallin followed a circus train to Sarasota and became a commercial fisherman.
Claus and Irene’s child Walter Sr. then went into the family business, operated a fish market on Whitaker Bayou and, following periods serving in World War II and living in Indiana, returned to open the first Walt’s Fish Market on downtown Sarasota’s Fourth Street. The current Walt’s location on South Tamiami Trail opened in 1998.
The Walt’s 100th anniversary event also served as a benefit for the Tom Wallin Memorial Reef, found about six miles offshore of Longboat Key and named after the late longtime Walt’s Fish Market owner, who’s the father of current owner Brett Wallin.
“I love my life,” Wallin told the Herald-Tribune in 2018. “I go out to my dad’s reef, I catch a fish, I’m sitting down here eating it, you’re telling me ‘thank you’ after you’re purchasing it from me. There’s a lot of cool places all over the world to eat and (have) fish markets, but there’s very few people like us that are still left.”
1009 Albee Road W., Nokomis; 941-786-3616; pelican-alley.com
The owners of Pelican Alley, on the Intracoastal Waterway at the Albee Road Bridge connecting Casey Key to Nokomis, can trace the place’s history all the way back to when the U.S. government was giving land away to attract more people to Florida.
“We are one of the oldest restaurants in Florida dating back to 1903 as a fish camp built by the Chadwick brothers,” Pelican Alley co-owner Renee Adorna said in a recent interview. “We are a historical waterfront restaurant all remodeled since Hurricane Irma did us in and we were closed for 18 months.”
In addition to running the restaurant and singing there while accompanied by her husband, Tommy, Renee Adorna also serves as Pelican Alley’s unofficial historian.
“Sometime in the early 1900s, the Chadwick family acquired the property and constructed a fish house for their booming mullet business,” she writes on the restaurant’s website. “They also constructed the ‘swing’ bridge that connected Casey Key – then called Treasure Island – to the mainland.”
She notes that Fred and Alice Sanders ran the business beginning in the 1940s as the Gulf-n-Bay Fishing Resort with a prominent sign on the side of the building reading: “Boats, Bait, Beer.” The Sanders hosted fishing charters and ran a small restaurant with a big, ol’ horseshoe-shaped bar inside. When the Sanders retired, they sold the property to the Arbuckle family, and it became The Admiral’s Wardroom, most likely in the 1970s.
The Admiral’s regulars included Siesta Key resident John D. MacDonald, the acclaimed author of the Travis McGee series and numerous other bestselling novels including “The Executioners,” which was filmed twice as “Cape Fear.” MacDonald liked the place and its owners so much, he even wrote a humorous foreword, featuring a cameo by McGee, for their self-published restaurant cookbook.
“In 1981, the Arbuckles sold the restaurant to Robin Sweeney, and, after extensive renovations, it became Pelican Alley,” Adorna writes. “For 36 years, the building survived a number of floods, tropical storms and hurricanes. It was Hurricane Irma in 2017 that caused irreparable damage, forcing a rebuild of the facility.”
Tommy and Renee Adorna became business partners with Robin and Charlotte Sweeney in the late ’90s, and the Adornas now handle all the day-to-day operations. Pelican Alley is a popular spot for seafood and other dishes made from scratch (gotta try the chowder, and the Key lime pie). The bar, boasting one of the oldest liquor licenses in the land, is also quite the destination for potent libations.
And then there’s the live music. The Adornas perform as Take 2 every Friday from 7 to 10 p.m. Chances are, you’ll hear at least a song or two dating back to when the place specialized in “Boats, Bait, Beer,” when MacDonald sat at the bar sipping on Boodles Gin and contemplating the next McGee adventure or in the days just before Irma’s storm surge wreaked havoc.
“We do every era, from Lady Gaga to Patsy Cline,” Adorna said, after a day running the restaurant, and less than an hour before taking the stage.
Wade Tatangelo is the Herald-Tribune’s entertainment editor. Email him at [email protected]