By Kara Chalmers

One of the best things about living in Sarasota is its Florida dining. And since I’m always asked for local recommendations, I thought I'd list my top five best restaurants in Sarasota.

Paring down my list of favorite places was difficult. So I established these criteria: not included are restaurants that I’ve written about already (you can see my links below for posts about those), and I picked the places that draw me back again and again, the places I tend to bring visitors from out of town.

These restaurants won’t be for everyone – they reflect my own personal tastes in cuisine and atmosphere. But they’re pretty sure bets, as I've never been disappointed by a meal at any of them.  

That said, in no particular order, here are my top five:

1. Café Epicure

I’ve actually lived in Italy, and this place – honestly – is the closest I’ve ever come to truly authentic Italian cuisine. Most if not all of the servers, as well as the chef and pizza chef, are Italian, and owner Giovanni Migliorini (originally from Genoa in Italy) imports lots of his ingredients, including cheeses, meats and tomatoes, from Italy. You can taste that the ingredients are really high quality (a bonus is that the prices are really reasonable). My favorites? Spaghetti alla Carbonara, the Insalata Tropicale (with arugula, avocado, hearts of palm and parmesan cheese shavings), any gelato… and any pizza…and even the bread and the olive tapenade that you get before your meal.

Migliorini also owns two other Italian restaurants in town – Mediterraneo and Café Americano. These places are wonderful, but there’s something about the more casual Café Epicure, home also to a martini bar and a gelato and pastry shop attached, that keeps me coming back. It's probably because when I’m there, I feel like I’m back at a trattoria in Rome.

2. Chutney’s Etc.

Indian cuisine is one of my favorite cuisines and Chutney’s Etc. has spoiled me on all other Indian restaurants. Something about the food here makes me crave it to the point that I will go far out of my way to get it (Chutney’s is on Hillview Street in Sarasota’s “Southside Village” – not the most convenient location from my house). I love the Samosa, Chicken Korma and Chicken Makhani, and my husband loves the fiery Lamb Vindaloo. But I need to note that Chutney’s is more than an Indian restaurant – half of the menu features Middle Eastern specialties, and the signature Greek Salad and handmade pita bread is the best I’ve ever tasted outside of Greece. I find that usually when restaurants try to combine two different types of cuisines, it doesn’t work. But at the intimate and casual Chutney’s, it works perfectly.

3. Selva Grill

This favorite of mine specializes in Nuevo Latino cuisine, defined as “the marriage of exotic flavors from Latin America and the U.S.,” with an emphasis on Peruvian dishes. I love ceviche, so for me, a great choice is the Triologia,which is a ceviche sampler. My favorite entrée is Selva’s Famous Skirt Steak, served over sweet plantains with Selva’s chimichurri. Oh, and don’t miss the Truffle Parmesan Fries. (Another cool thing about this restaurant is that every plate of food looks like a beautiful work of art.) Besides the food, one of the major draws for me is Selva’s energy and vibe. Also home to Selva Lounge, Selva Grill makes me feel like I’m in South Beach or New York City, which is how I want to feel sometimes. Also, its signature cocktail list is great.

4. Owen’s Fish Camp

Of all the restaurants in this list, Owen’s has been around for the least amount of time. When it opened in the space previously occupied by 5-One-6 Burns – one of my all-time favorite restaurants before Chef Derek Barnes left it to open his own restaurant (also wonderful, called Derek’s Culinary Casual) – I was hesitant. But then I tried it, and I have been back too many times to count since then. The Shrimp and Grits with Smoked Sausage is phenomenal, as is the Fried Green Tomato Salad with goat cheese, country ham crisps and buttermilk dressing. If you have room, try the Bourbon Pecan Pie with fresh cream. I love the fish camp feel here, and the emphasis on “downhome southern seafood fare.” More importantly, I love that while the placemats are paper and the wine is categorized by “cheap,” “decent” and “good,” the food is excellent quality and inventive. And the setting, under a majestic banyan tree, is spectacular.

5. Crab & Fin (on St. Armand’s Circle)

OK, so this place is technically not on mainland Sarasota, but it’s close enough. I included it because this is the upscale restaurant that my husband and I tend to always take our parents when we want to show them a really nice night out. The menu has so many types of fin fish and shellfish (both local and flown in daily from around the world) that it always takes us ages to choose (there’s a full-on glossary of all of its seafood on the restaurant’s website). The restaurant is lovely inside, but it’s the outdoor tables surrounded by lush vegetation that add a tropical feel I really love. My favorites here are the Florida Stone Crab Claws as well as the Nantucket Bay Scallops (my husband often gets the Icelandic Arctic Char).

So there you have it. Please let me know what you think if you ever try any of my top five best restaurants in Sarasota!