Time to plan a spring training road trip to Sarasota

Time to plan a spring training road trip to Sarasota
January 27, 2013, 7:30 am
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Spring training begins in just over two weeks, and expectant fans will start streaming to Sarasota, Fla. for a first look at the 2013 Orioles.

It’s the Orioles’ fourth season at the retrofitted Ed Smith Stadium, and tickets for exhibition games, which begin on Feb. 23, went on sale Saturday.

The ballpark is a jewel, and Sarasota is a great place to have spring training. There are dozens of great restaurants, and even though my schedule usually doesn’t allow me to do much of anything but go out to eat and shop, there are some great attractions you should see.

I’ve promised myself that I’ll go to the Ringling Museum of Art, just a few blocks from where I stay. I often walk the grounds in the morning, and there are wonderful art collections and yes, a circus museum. Currently on exhibition is the Wisconsin, the private rail car built for John and Mable Ringling in 1905.

Sarasota is a terrific place for devotees of the art. Lots of live events at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center. Sheryl Crow, Queen Latifah, Les Miserables, Howie Mandel and Yo Gabba Gabba are some of the acts on tap for spring training.

The Sarasota Opera House also has some excellent offerings in Feburary and March.

Siesta Beach is one of the best in North America, and some of the best restaurants in the area can be found there. My favorite is Blu Que Island Grill with its excellent ribs. Bella Roma and Café Gabbiano come highly recommended, too.

A few years ago, this Marylander learned to appreciate the glories of stone crabs, thanks to the great gourmet, Peter Schmuck of the Baltimore Sun. If you’re stuck on blue crabs, you should try and branch out.

If you haven’t had stone crabs, they’re a cross between blue crabs and lobster, best served cold. Expensive, but worth it. My recommendation is Moore’s Stone Crab Restaurant at the far end of Longboat Key. You can find me there a few times each spring.

Longboat Key is terrific for shopping. There are lots of great shops near Lido Beach in St. Armands Circle. Both nationally known shop and several interesting local galleries, featuring art from the area are there, and of course, some fine restaurants.

The best known is Columbia, which has been in the Bay Area for decades. If you like Spanish cuisine, it’s certainly worth a visit. Reservations are a must. It’s loud and busy, but that shouldn’t deter you.

Crab & Fin, also in the Circle has terrific food, and if you’re around at lunchtime and just want a good sandwich, try the Madison Avenue Grill and Deli. A short drive away on Longboat Key is one of my favorites, the Dry Dock, which has excellent grouper.

Gary Thorne, the Orioles’ noted television broadcaster, lives in the area, and as a resident foodie, provides a new restaurant tip or two each year. For 2013, his recommendation is Darwins on 4th a new Peruvian spot in the Rosemary District of downtown Sarasota. Last year’s was the outstanding Indigenous, located nearby. It features seasonal American cuisine.

If you like Mexican, Gary recommends Mi Pueblo, which has two locations, one near where I stay by the airport, and one on Bee Ridge Road.

Eat Here, which features small American plates, has a good location in downtown Sarasota and a new one opening on Siesta Key.

If you’re bringing children, try Yoder’s, an Amish restaurant patronized by local Amish residents. It doesn’t take reservations nor does it serve alcohol and stops seating at 8. They serve breakfast, lunch and dinner and excellent fried chicken.

Across the street is Big Olaf, which dispenses extraordinarily rich ice cream. There are locations on Longboat and Siesta Keys, too.

Another favorite for grouper and other fresh fish is Barnacle Bill’s. There’s one on Main Street in downtown Sarasota and another near where I stay on Tamiani Trail.

The best burgers I’ve found are at Patrick’s on Main Street, which has a vibrant bar scene, too.

National chain restaurants are also heavily represented here, and the best part is that downtown is about 10 minutes from Ed Smith Stadium, and Lido Beach just about 15 minutes away. You can occasionally spot an Orioles player out walking on St. Armonds Circle.

The Orioles have several deals with local hotels located not far away from the ballpark. Many of them are by the airport, which alas, isn’t served by Southwest.

It’s a nearly perfect place to have spring training. It could be made better only by Southwest serving Sarasota instead of just Tampa, and if you come, please stop by the press box to say hello.