It’s an exciting time for downtown Sarasota’s iconic Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.
The purple palace overlooking Sarasota Bay, which has hosted everyone from Bette Davis to Dave Chappelle, celebrated its 50th anniversary in early 2020 – and then remained almost entirely closed for the following year. Now, the famed waterfront theater is finally ready to return to business with a show by Brian Regan on April 15 (read our interview with him). The star comedian’s performance will be the first event on the Van Wezel’s main stage since last March.
But even if you have not procured a ticket it’s still worth visiting the surrounding area, which will soon be home to The Bay. A $10 million redevelopment of 53 acres of city-owned land south of the Van Wezel into parkland, the project starts this month, with the Mangrove Walkway already completed.
To celebrate, we’ve assembled a list featuring the best restaurants, bars and hotels located less than a mile, with easy walking access, from the Van Wezel. One of these places is nearly as old as the purple palace while others have opened in the past few years. All are great spots to visit before or perhaps after a performance, or just while exploring Sarasota’s beautiful bayfront.
Presented in alphabetical order, here are the seven best spots to eat, drink and stay near the Van Wezel and The Bay. Also, keep in mind, that while Mattison’s pre-show dining inside the hall’s Grand Foyer will not be available April 15, there will be full-liquor bars open outside, with the on-site food service expected to return at a later date.
By the way:
Bridges at Embassy Suites
202 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota; 941-256-0190; bridgessarasota.com
Before spending a couple hours inside a crowded auditorium, consider dining and drinking in a spacious setting with one of the best views in the city. Located on the eighth floor of the Embassy Suites that opened in 2018, just about a half mile from the Van Wezel on the opposite side of North Tamiami Trail, Bridges places guests in a chic, high-ceiling room of floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking the bayfront. Plus, if you visit during the prime pre-show time of 4:30 to 7:30 p.m., you can enjoy winning happy hour deals such as $4 premium cocktails (Tito’s, Tanqueray, Maker’s Mark and more).
The menu includes smart takes on traditional seafood, chicken and steak dishes as well as the highly recommended Sol’s NY Deli Corner menu by Chef Solomon Shenker. His authentic New York City deli offerings, which debuted in downtown Sarasota in 2015, include one of the best corned beef brisket and Reuben sandwiches you will find in the region as well as top-shelf pastrami and oven roasted turkey offerings, all served on rye bread with coleslaw and a half pickle on the side. Oh, and save room for dessert. Sol’s cheesecake is amazing.
Embassy Suites’ Bridgesprovides another scenic view of downtown Sarasota
Currents Restaurant at Hyatt
1000 Boulevard of the Arts, Sarasota; 941-953-1234; hyatt.com
The closest hotel to the Van Wezel, the Hyatt Regency, is now connected to the performing arts hall by the charmingly tropical Mangrove Walkway, which winds around the coastal wetlands in the newly begun Bay project. The half-mile, 10-foot-wide sidewalk officially opens to the public April 10, giving folks visiting the Van Wezel one more reason to patronize the Hyatt, which has welcomed the hall’s stars and attendees since the mid-’70s.
A convenient place to visit right before or after shows while waiting for the parking lot to thin out, the Currents bar overlooking the harbor offers happy hour deals from 4 to 6 p.m. and serves food until 10 p.m. There are a bunch of handhelds available including a Cuban sandwich, fish tacos and veggie wrap as well as Cobb salad, vegetable pasta primavera and a couple dessert options. A cold beer and side of truffle fries with maple-chipotle aioli always makes for a fun pairing after a concert, too.
The Currents restaurant, open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner typically from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., serves handhelds similar to the bar’s along with many more dinner entrees including blackened grouper, crispy red snapper and a Niman Ranch boneless ribeye. There are also additional salads such as the warm brussels sprouts and quinoa offering, a Gulf clam chowder and sides including pepper-seared ahi tuna and a local cheese plate. Planning on staying at the Hyatt? Be sure to visit the poolside bar dubbed the Hurricane Hut.
More:Sarasota Hyatt sold to Tampa investment group
Bar Tab:Currents at Hyatt Regency
Evoq at Westin
100 Marina View Drive, Sarasota; 941-260-8255; evoqsarasota.com
An instantly impressive hotel that opened four years ago and can be seen towering over the bayfront when you visit downtown via the John Ringling Causeway, Westin features two outstanding dining and drinking destinations with Evoq located in the first floor lobby. Offering indoor and patio seating, the restaurant specializes in a globally inspired mix of comfort foods.
Also serving breakfast and lunch, popular dinner items include handhelds like the grouper sandwich, house-made burger and grilled vegetable flatbread. Enticing dinner entrees include the bulgogi beef tenderloin, teriyaki salmon and chimichurri skirt steak. There are also bowls featuring rice noodles, bibimbap, and grits, with various protein options including char siu pork, shrimp and steak. Of course, no visit to Westin is complete without enjoying a libation or two at the rooftop bar (continue reading).
Photos:Sneak peek inside the new Westin Sarasota
And:Westin Sarasota opens
H2O Bistro at Hotel Indigo
1223 Boulevard of the Arts, Sarasota; 941-487-3800; hotelindigosarasota.com/dining
Right across the street from Van Wezel’s entrance, Hotel Indigo is a four-story boutique accommodation that has been welcoming the hall’s stars and guests since opening in 2006. Its restaurant and bar H20 Bistro, right in the lobby, serves breakfast, lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch with an emphasis on locally sourced seafood, meats, dairy and eggs. H2O also serves inspired martinis and craft cocktails with names such as “Life’s a Circus,” “Siesta on the Beach” and “Palm Avenue.”
The dinner menu features starters such as mussels in a white wine garlic sauce, charcuterie and a shrimp cocktail gussied up with a house-made citrus infused cocktail sauce. The five salad options include the Siesta Key, containing Gulf crab and shrimp. For entrees, there are burger and pizza selections, along with traditional dinner plates such as the stuffed fresh catch, New York strip, pan-seared salmon and shrimp scampi. Save time for dessert and enjoy the cheesecake, Key lime pie or the signature bread pudding.
Did you know?Florida company buys Hotel Indigo for $16.77 million
Jack Dusty at Ritz-Carlton
1111 Ritz Carlton Drive, Sarasota; 941-309-2266; ritzcarlton.com
The most famous hotel in Sarasota, the Ritz-Carlton has been welcoming Van Wezel stars and attendees since opening in late 2001. Its nautical-themed restaurant Jack Dusty overlooks the harbor leading to Sarasota Bay with sun-washed indoor seating, a trendy bar and lots of covered outdoor tables.
Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner, popular dishes include the Sarasota cioppino (shrimp, bay scallops, middleneck clams, mussels, Gulf fish, orange peel, tomato broth, grilled baguette), Jack’s Original Shrimp & Grits (smoked shrimp, andouille sausage, white cheddar grits), and roasted grouper (sweet potato puree, coconut jasmine rice, locally-made Siesta Key Rum and golden raisin sauce).
For drinks, Jack Dusty has expert mixologists working with a massive selection of tequila, mezcal, rum, whiskey and bourbon. Signature cocktails include the Smoking Jacket containing Jack Dusty’s own Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon, Demerara syrup, Angostura bitters, and mineral saline served in a smoked glass. Yeah, it’s pricey ($25), but well worth experiencing at least once.
Did you know?Ritz-Carlton Sarasota sold for $171 million to Dallas-based firm
Bar Tab:Jack Dusty for Smoking Jacket craft cocktail and more at Ritz-Carlton
Joey D’s Chicago Style Eatery & Pizzeria
211 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota; 941-364-9900; joeydspizzasarasota.com
If you’re craving a casual Windy City-style sports bar experience before the big show, here’s your spot. The locally owned Joey D’s, which has multiple Sarasota-Manatee locations with this one open since 2014, serves the famous deep-dish Chicago pizza – but be prepared to wait at least 25 minutes for it to cook. There are also plenty of thin crust and Sicilian-style pizza options with specialty pizza selections, stromboli, calzone, and a long list of toppings from which to choose.
The extensive menu also includes the popular Philly steaks, burgers, parmesan subs, salads, pastas and wings. Finally, there’s “The Streets of Chicago” side of the menu. That’s where you will find goodies like the Original “Chicago Style” Hot Dog, Italian beef sandwich and the Chicago Combo, also known as “Da Chief.” It’s a two hander of thinly-sliced beef piled high on top of Italian sausage, with sweet or hot peppers, served dry, juicy or wet.
First look:Joey D’s new Bradenton location on Manatee Ave.
The Roof Bar and Eats at Westin
100 Marina View Drive, Sarasota; 941-217-4777; marriott.com
Sarasota and Bradenton offer several outstanding rooftop bars but none are nearly as fabulously tall as the one perched atop the Westin. Overlooking downtown and Sarasota Bay, the 19th-story Roof Bar and Eats is one of the top drinking destinations in the region, a bucket list kind of place that’s also positively trendy. Roof Bar specializes in craft cocktails with a menu ranging from innovative specialties to smartly constructed classics. There’s also wine including some luxury bubbly and a decent smattering of domestic, import and craft beers.
The fun food menu features handhelds like the build-your-own burger, a surf and turf skewer, Cuban sandwich, mahi tacos, quesadilla, street corn dog, and a wrap (veggie, grilled chicken or blackened grouper). For starters, consider the coconut shrimp, crispy chickpeas, or perhaps the grouper bites, tuna tostada or the very sharable nacho-totchos built on your choice of tri-color chips or tater tots. There are salads, too. And, once again, think about saving room for dessert. Roof Bar and Eats serves an ice cream sandwich of house-made chocolate cookies and fresh vanilla ice cream.
More:Westin Sarasota’s The Roof Bar and Eats dazzles with view
Who lives here?20 celebrities with homes in Sarasota-Manatee
Wade Tatangelo, the Herald-Tribune’s entertainment editor, may be reached by email at [email protected]. Support local journalism by subscribing.