Beach-centric towns like Nokomis, Osprey, Venice, Casey Key and Englewood draw visitors and residents eager to relax and enjoy meals out. As a result, South Sarasota County has become a flavor mecca, with an abundance of eateries of every type. Tap the locales along the shoreline for fresh seafood and tiki-style cocktails, or head inland for internationally diverse dining destinations. Dine al fresco nearly every month of the year at a landside café or watch sailboats cruise along the Intracoastal Waterway and Gulf of Mexico, all while indulging in some of the most palate-gratifying fare in Southwest Florida. The list of must-visit eateries is lengthy, but here are our 15 top choices from five cities in one bountiful county.

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Thai Bistro’s wonton soup. 

Thai Bistro In Venice’s Center Bridge Plaza, Thai Bistro—with its humble strip mall location and its whiteboard specials—has as much culinary pizzazz as its fancier counterparts. Slide into a booth underneath a hanging tulip light or dine at the warm wooden bar. Start with a Thai sweet iced tea or coffee before an authentic Southeast Asian sit-down lunch or dinner. The beef panang curry with coconut milk, zucchini, bell peppers, ground peanuts and kaffir lime leaves ($11.95) is a savory prelude to Thai coconut ice cream or Thai doughnuts. Prefer takeout? The to-go menu has all the favorites, from the $2.95 wonton soup to the $21.95 sweet-and-sour duck. No frills and no shortage of punchy Thai flavors—a win-win. 537B Venice Ave., Venice, (941) 484-8458, thaibistrovenice.com

Blu Island Bistro Pancake-loving patrons swarm Blu Island Bistro in Venice for chef/owner Alan Laskowski’s beloved breakfast recipe. Known simply as Alan’s Famous Buttermilk Pancakes, these fluffy flapjacks made with fresh buttermilk and local farm eggs ($7.50) make regulars out of most visitors. At this indoor-outdoor, no-frills bistro (attached to the Island Sun Inn Hotel and a few blocks from the Gulf of Mexico), the twists on classic breakfast/lunch fare make the menu shine. Try the banana French toast ($8) in the morning and the BLT with fried egg (pecan-smoked bacon, fried green tomato and basil-garlic aioli, for $8.95) in the afternoon. This is sheer comfort food with an equally comforting price tag. 625 Tamiami Trail S., Venice, (941) 485-8200, bluislandbistro.com

Bushido Sushi Bar Sip raspberry or lychee sake with sashimi for lunch or dinner at Bushido, located near downtown Venice’s picturesque Centennial Park. Grab a chair at the sushi bar and watch the chef create the Love Boat for One (seven pieces of sashimi, seven pieces of sushi, one spicy tuna roll, one hand roll, and dessert) for only $29.95. Not in a raw mood? Go for the negimaki (thinly sliced beef rolled with scallions in teriyaki sauce for $19.95) or the Bushido special salad (chunk tuna, squid, seaweed, jellyfish and shredded crab with sesame oil for $12.50). Finish sweetly with crispy, banana-filled wontons or a scoop of green tea ice cream ($4.50 each). 125 W. Venice Ave., Venice, (941) 485-1757, bushidosushi.com

Café Evergreen An eco-friendly haven in Nokomis, Café Evergreen has everything from pure juices to grass-fed burgers. Pull up to the bar area under a dangling orange light and order a Dreamsicle smoothie with bananas, frozen yogurt, fresh-pressed orange juice and a yellow pea protein mix ($7.45). Head farther inside the airy dining room for some zucchini potato pancakes with quinoa flour ($9.95), or have a bison burger with feta cheese, roasted red peppers and artichoke hearts ($11.95) on the outside patio. There are organic wines, as well as unique beers and ciders, on the bar menu for health-conscious sippers. Get your vitamins and your flavor fix in one South County stop. 801 S. Tamiami Trail, Nokomis, (941) 429-8575, cafeevergreen.net

Café Venice Restaurant and Wine Bar A cozily romantic Tuscan atmosphere and a gourmet menu make Café Venice Restaurant and Wine Bar a downtown staple. There are more than 100 bottles of wine behind the bar, booths inside for intimate dessert sharing, a calendar of live acoustic concerts, and room on the terrace for open-air evenings of sipping and people watching. Venice Avenue shopkeepers often drop in at lunchtime for the grilled romaine heart salad (with roasted tomato, sweet onion, feta cheese and balsamic dressing, for $8). Anniversary celebrators opt for the roasted New Zealand rack of lamb with balsamic honey glaze and Boursin-whipped mashed potatoes ($32), followed by homemade Florida Key lime pie ($6)—with two spoons. For romance and vino, this is the hideaway. 116 W. Venice Ave., Venice, (941) 484-1855, cafeveniceontheisland.com

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Allegro Bistro's chicken Allegro

Allegro Bistro Finish the workday at Allegro Bistro’s upscale bar by relishing a slice of flatbread pizza and a glass of Chianti. The European atmosphere, including a picturesque brick oven, makes nightly happy hour from 4 to 6 p.m. a chic, relaxing ritual. The Venice restaurant/bar is the pride of the Valentis (known locally for their eponymous eateries). Patio dining, live concerts and entrées like the pesce Francese (egg-dipped white fish with a white wine lemon butter sauce for $19) and the chicken limonatta (with artichoke hearts, goat cheese and garlic-infused butter sauce for $18) make Allegro an East Venice Avenue must. Fill up on Italian delicacies while inhaling sweet tunes and wines for some after-office bliss. 1740 E. Venice Ave., Venice, (941) 484-1889, allegro-bistro.com

A Venice Tradition 

Try a Sticky Pig and more at Yummies Donuts & BBQ.

Frying up doughnuts and cooking barbecue—sounds a dream job, doesn’t it? For owners Allen and Karen Tines, the owners of Yummies Donuts and BBQ, it definitely is.

The original Yummies Donuts opened in Venice in 1989 and drew an instant following. When the owners retired in 2006, Allen—who had previously worked for them—bought the business. Since then, it’s expanded to include a catering business and a barbecue smoker and has become more popular than ever.

There’s even a doughnut and barbecue sandwich on the Yummies menu. The Sticky Pig is composed of a glazed cinnamon roll doughnut that’s cut in half and filled with pulled pork, barbecue sauce and coleslaw. It’s a delicious yet outrageous treat—and was featured in Food Network Magazine’s March 2016 issue. “One day we were out of buns for the pulled pork,” Karen explains. “A customer said, ‘You can put it on anything!’ so my husband cut a cinnamon roll doughnut in half and the guy loved it. That’s how the Sticky Pig was born.”

Yummies has dealt with its share of trials and tribulations, too. In January 2015, the building that had long housed the restaurant was sold, forcing Karen and Allen to scramble to find a new location. Then, in January 2016—after Yummies had relocated to a new space in Venice’s Ark Plaza—an enormous gust of wind, called a microburst, blew the roof off their building. But the Venice community showed up: On the Sunday after Yummies reopened, “People were lined up down the plaza to support us,” Karen recalls.

And today, the Tines family continues their quest to bring doughnuts and barbecue to the masses. If history is any indication, they’ll do just that. After all, “The future is sweet,” Karen promises. —Megan McDonald

Casey Key Fish House It’s always tiki time at Casey Key Fish House, where the Mai Tais, piña coladas and tequila sunrises from the chickee-style bar keep the island vibe in full swing. This Osprey restaurant and watering hole is an unpretentious getaway on the Intracoastal Waterway that celebrities (some of whom live on the key) are known to frequent. Snack on baby calamari with homemade marinara sauce ($7.99) in the nautically themed pub area. Then venture inside the eatery for a dinner of Willie Tia’s best bouillabaisse (a lobster tail, mussels, shrimp, scallops and grouper in broth with a hint of Pernod, at the market price). Lounge under the stars (and maybe meet a few, too). 801 Blackburn Point Road, Osprey, (941) 966-1901, caseykeyfish, homestead.com

The Crow’s Nest Marina & Restaurant A mainstay for four decades, The Crow’s Nest Marina & Restaurant along Venice Inlet beckons flip-flop-wearing incomers to chill. Tie up the boat and step inside the restaurant or tiki bar area for a refreshing respite of frozen drinks and seafood. The Famous Fish Sandwich has been a fan favorite since 1976 with its Atlantic filet of sole and house-made tartar sauce on a home-style roll ($11). There are Pacific and North Atlantic oysters with mignonette sauce (half-dozen for $16) at the tavern’s raw bar, too. Post-meal, rent an electric boat or a kayak for an hour and have a quintessential Venetian afternoon. 1968 Tarpon Center Drive, Venice, (941) 484-9551, crowsnest-venice.com

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Sharyk's smoked rib eye.

Fins at Sharky’s If tiki-centric Sharky’s isn’t fancy enough for the dining occasion, worry not, as there is a posher option right upstairs. Fins at Sharky’s offers metropolitan-coastal ambiance with a stellar view of Venice Fishing Pier. Nosh inside or on the outdoor terrace, and relish handcrafted cocktails at the bar during Fins Frenzy (a happy hour from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m.) Then get decadent with a dinner of all-natural smoked duck breast with a fig and chili glaze, and ginger-infused forbidden black rice ($26); or a 16-ounce Angus smoked rib eye that’s jerk-rubbed and Josper-smoked ($38). Wear those stilettoes and prep that cocktail palate for a sophisticated eve. 1600 Harbor Drive S., Venice, (941) 999-3467, finsatsharkys.com 

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Cassariano’s pesce spada alla griglia con funghi portobella. 

Cassariano Italian Eatery Cassariano is as authentically Italian as it gets in Venice (the Sarasota County version, anyway). Inspired by the northern region of the boot country, the eatery’s warmly lit dining room with stone and wooden accents leads into a full-service bar with plenty of colorful martini options. There’s live jazz music from 6 to 9 p.m. every Sunday, as well as weekly specials packed with organic, locally sourced ingredients. The ravioli di ricotta e noci con Gorgonzola e pere (walnut- and ricotta-filled ravioli with Gorgonzola sauce and pears for $19.50) is as scrumptious as the pesce spada alla griglia con funghi portobella (grilled swordfish with caramelized onions, mushrooms, balsamic reduction and roasted potatoes for $28.50). No passport required for this European tour. 313 W. Venice Ave., Venice, (941) 786-1000, cassariano.com

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 Beach Road’s fresh catch grilled salmon. 

Beach Road Wine Bar and Bistro Englewood’s Lemon Bay glimmers in the background as sailboats dock and patrons eat wild-caught seafood at Beach Road Wine Bar and Bistro. This waterfront spot offers pet-friendly seating, live island music nightly in the outdoor bungalow and 70 varieties of wine, so bring the pups and pop the corks for a super laid-back lunch or dinner. Signature entrées include the fresh catch grilled snapper, dusted with house Cajun spice and served with grits and char-grilled asparagus ($26.95); the seared giant sea scallops with creamed carrots, wilted baby kale and tarragon-horseradish remoulade ($29.95); and the caned sugar-seared ahi tuna with seaweed salad and pickled ginger ($24.95). 1350 Beach Road, Englewood, (941) 474-9500, beachroadbistro.com

Darrell’s Restaurant Bring an impressive appetite to Darrell’s in Venice for a feast of authentic Southern, home-cooked fare. Meats like brisket, pulled pork and ribs are pit-smoked in wood chips and served with signature barbecue sauces. The Hungry Heifer is exactly what it says, as this carnivore’s paradise has it all: a half-pound of St. Louis ribs that have been slow-smoked for hours, a quarter piece of chicken, a quarter pound of pork and a quarter pound of brisket ($22). Wash everything down with a raspberry iced tea or a pink lemonade from a large, country-style mason jar. The place for carefully prepared down-home delights. 215 S. Tamiami Trail, Venice, (941) 485-9900, darrellsrestaurant.net

Flynn’s On Venice Ave English tea services, crystal chandeliers and happy hours keep Flynn’s On Venice Ave both fancy and fun. Run by a British proprietor and classily adorned with intimate booth seating, sleek lighting fixtures and cloth napkins, this lunch-and-dinner eatery serves such dishes as roast chicken on brioche with prosciutto, cheddar and horseradish crème fraiche ($10); and shrimp tagliatelle with roasted cream corn sauce and smoked tomato butter ($20). A standout is the afternoon English tea (ranging from $15 to $25 per person) with an array of fresh scones and cream, finger sandwiches and cakes. Book two days in advance for this experience. Having an authentic English tea is a rare indulgence—especially in Florida. 133 W. Venice Ave., Venice, (941) 488-2200, flynnsonveniceave.com

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Mango Bistro’s farmer’s market quinoa bowl. 

Mango Bistro Lively and fresh, with vibrant local art on the walls and world-beat music on the patio, Mango Bistro is a bohemian hotspot in Olde Englewood Village. Diners keeping it organic and nutritious can pick from the menu of pure fruit smoothies like the Hello Sunshine with carrots, apples, pineapples and coconuts for $4.99. Munch on the Honolulu breakfast bowl with mango, banana, coconut and almonds for breakfast ($6.99), and try the farmer’s market quinoa bowl with kale, walnuts, feta cheese and honey-Dijon-citrus vinaigrette for lunch ($11.99). Have a beer or glass of wine with an evening entrée. 301 W. Dearborn St., Englewood, (941) 681-3500, mangobistro.com

Made In Italy  Snuggle up to the warmth of a wood-burning oven at Made In Italy during happy hour at the Aperitivo Bar from 4 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. Have wine with dinner or a frothy cappuccino with lunch while a white pizza with Parma prosciutto ($14.95) cooks to perfection onsite. This Venice locale includes other true-to-Italy dishes such as gnocchi al pesto Siciliano e salsiccia (gnocchi with Sicilian pesto and sausage) for $16.95; mezze maniche allo scoglio (rigatoni with calamari, mussels, shrimp, scallops and salmon in a tomato sauce) for $17.95; and homemade tiramisu and Sicilian cannoli. 117 W. Venice Ave., Venice, (941) 488-8282, madeinitaly-venice.com 

 

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