One of the best places to visit in Sarasota, St. Armands Circle is also one of the county's oldest destinations, dating back to 1926, and easily ranks today among the most famous shopping and dining destinations in Florida.
Now, while I have been known to purchase the occasional hat at the Black Dog store, my main reason for regularly visiting St. Armands Circle over the past two decades has been to frequent its fabulous row of restaurants.
In fact, two of Sarasota's most iconic restaurants, Columbia and Cafe L’Europe, are located a short stroll apart on the Circle's namesake street. I love Columbia's renowned Cuban cuisine, as well as the food served next door at its fun-loving sister restaurant Cha Cha Coconuts (which I reviewed last year). I also highly recommend checking out Cafe L'Europe's new lunch menu, which, as I noted in my June review, brings a refreshing playfulness to the restaurant’s longstanding Continental approach.
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St. Armands Oyster Bar opens in the former 15 South spot on the Circle
But it was a brand-new seafood restaurant that caught my attention during a recent visit to St. Armands Circle. Credit the big sign that read "St. Armands Oyster Bar" and the brave worker on the sidewalk in the sizzling summer heat handing out menus and inviting folks in to enjoy some air-conditioning while checking out the latest restaurant to open at 15 S. Boulevard of the Presidents. For those unfamiliar with the two-story structure with its own elevator and stylish staircase leading to the space above, it has quite the history.
St. Armands Oyster Bar replaces The Whiskey Barrel that opened in early 2021 in the space most famous for housing Italian restaurant 15 South Ristorante Enoteca, as well as the short-lived music and New Orleans-themed The Venue. St. Armands Oyster Bar also has a menu influenced by the Big Easy, but with the quality to match that of 15 South, which happened to be a favorite of mine, especially for pizza cooked in the wood-burning oven.
Walk into the new restaurant and the first thing you notice is the open oyster bar where staff shuck the mollusks to be served raw, or cooked in what appears to be the old pizza oven. The narrow room is lined with tables and then there's a full-liquor bar toward the back. During our visit on July 30, only the downstairs was operational, but our server said they would soon be opening the second floor with its own bar and space to host bands and perhaps dancing fueled by their New Orleans-themed cocktails with names like Voodoo Punch, Soco Hurricane, Creole Marry and the Horny Gator.
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St. Armands Oyster Bar specializes in seafood and Louisiana cuisine
Louisiana cuisine, though, is the star of the show, with Gulf of Mexico as well as Connecticut farm-raised oysters offered nine different ways including my new fave: chargrilled (six for $17.99). Freshly shucked and cooked over an open flame, the oysters are smartly charred and imbued with a smokey flavor that's set off by the garlic butter, Creole spices and grated Parmesan sharing space in the blackened shell. Seriously, even if you have never craved an oyster in your life, try one chargrilled at St. Armands Oyster Bar. You'll thank me!
There are also more than a dozen appetizers on the menu, including such Louisiana fare as "alligator sausage and shrimp cheesecake" ($16.99), fried alligator ($14.99), boiled crawfish ($19.99) and several shrimp dishes. St. Armands Oyster Bar also serves chicken wings, which you would think I would be tired of following my recent story on best restaurants for chicken wings but, nope, I had to try these wings ($13.99) after reading they were tossed in the restaurant's "unique Cajun tequila sauce," which actually tasted exactly as it's described, making for some tasty wings.
What impressed me most, though, along with the chargrilled oysters, were the two sandwiches I tried. The first was their take on the often-boring grilled chicken ($11.99), which they turned into a memorable experience with a split breast from a natural grain-fed chicken. Yes, it was a fine piece of poultry goosed by their Cajun spices and house cracked-pepper mayonnaise — and then further enhanced by a side of Cajun fries.
And while I would totally return for the grilled chicken sandwich, it's the po' boys that probably have me most excited about St. Armands Oyster Bar. They're served on fresh baked bread from Gambino's Bakery, a New Orleans area legend dating back to 1949, and dressed with lettuce, tomato, pickle, red onion and a delightful peppercorn mayo. I had a perfectly cooked, ridiculously flavorful filet of fried catfish ($14.99) while you can also opt for fried shrimp ($14.99) or fried crawfish tails ($16.99).
My only quibble, and this goes for my entire experience, is that St. Armands Oyster Bar doesn't offer a fried oyster po' boy. I even asked the server if they could make me one. No dice. Perhaps that will change when I return.
St. Armands Oyster Bar is owned by Brad Hagen, who opened the similar Grafton Oyster Bar in Grafton, Illinois, about six years ago. Both restaurants specialize in Louisiana dishes with the extensive Sarasota menu featuring about 20 entrees including such Crescent City favorites as jambalaya, red beans and rice, and crawfish etouffee, which you can order individually or all together as the "Holy Trinity" ($18.99). Yeah, there's lots to look forward to on return trips to St. Armands Oyster Bar, which also serves one of my favorite beers, the Louisiana-made Abita Amber Lager ($6).
St. Armands Oyster Bar is at 15 S. Boulevard of the Presidents on St. Armands Circle in Sarasota. For more information, call 267-266-9650 or visit starmandsoysterbar.com.
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Read more recent Ticket Editor columns by Wade Tatangelo
Wade Tatangelo is the Herald-Tribune’s dining and entertainment editor overseeing the weekly Ticket publication. He's also author of the Best Things to Eat and Top Things to Do columns and co-leader of USA Today Network's Uniquely Florida team creating statewide content. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. He may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Support local journalism by subscribing.
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: St. Armands Oyster Bar opens on Sarasota’s most famous restaurant row