CafeVenice WEBSince she was a little girl, Kay Kropac knew what it took to turn a restaurant into a "second home."

Her mother owned and operated the historic Hellriegel's Inn in Painesville, Ohio for 48 years, where Kropac grew up learning how to make patrons feel like extended family members.

This mentality stayed with Kropac when she relocated to Southwest Florida to work as a server for Café Venice. When the owner decided to sell, she bought the venture in December 2006.

"I don't think there was ever another option for me other than this business," Kropac says. "My family and home has grown to include Cafe Venice, my staff and my regulars."

It is a combination of Kropac's warmth and Café Venice's décor that makes the eatery seem like a residence. The Tuscan motif, the 100-plus bottles of vino, the beer and wine bar, and the live acoustic concerts make Café Venice a cozy hotspot for downtown Venetians.

"My vision for the restaurant was creating a friendly place where anyone could come to get great food, good wine and service," Kropac says. "I love knowing all our guests' names and favorite drinks."

Executive chef Joel Sardinha whips up signature items like the Grilled Romaine Salad with feta, yellow onions and balsamic reduction; the Crab Cake Sandwich with homemade remoulade; and the Chicken BLT Sandwich with sweet chili mayonnaise on a ciabatta roll.

Kay says, "I am proud to be a part of The Originals. My favorite thing about the group is that they cater to the independent restaurant owner and support each other."

Kropac will never forget when a guest once told her: "It's not only the quality of food that keeps me coming back; it's the environment you have created. You make everyone feel like family."

For Kropac, her regulars are her relatives.

Café Venice Restaurant and Wine Bar: 116 West Venice Avenue | Venice | 941-484-1855 |

Author: Abby Weingarten

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Jean Pierre Knaggs The BijouThe Bijou Café in Sarasota has some incredible accolades to its name. Since 1990, it has been the recipient of the esteemed Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for its outstanding wine selection. In 2014, the eatery received the highest Zagat rating in Sarasota County. But it comes from much humbler beginnings.

Chef/Owner, Jean-Pierre “JP” Knaggs was born in South Africa (which he describes as a “multi-cultural Mecca of cuisine”) to a French mother. He was drawn to cuisine at an early age and worked his way up from the bottom, training in several prestigious restaurants before spending time as a private chef aboard a luxury yacht. He credits this hands-on experience with his success.

“I discovered very early in my career that if you put in a little more effort than the guy next to on the line you would be successful. It’s that simple,” he says. “Pay attention to the chef, work hard and play later.”

But like most chefs, JP’s dream was to one day have his own restaurant. In 1986, he discovered a small then-defunct space called Bijou Café: he knew it was meant for him, and with the help of friends and family he made his dream a reality. Though it’s been known in the past as a fine-dining tablecloth venue, it has evolved into the casual family-style bistro that JP always secretly treasured.

Though classic dishes like the rack of lamb and roast duckling are perennial favorites, the Pommes Gratin Dauphinoise (a dish unique to the Bijou) is without a doubt the most beloved and storied dish on the menu.

“The pommes have a special place on the menu,” JP explains. “In 1980 while working on the yacht, I was sent to L’Ousteau de Beaumaniere in Provence to learn the recipe for the potato dish to satisfy my boss’s craving for them. I adapted the recipe for our restaurant and it has become a legend ever since.”

The Bijou Café: 1287 1st Street at Pineapple Avenue | Sarasota |941-366-8111 |

Author: Kate Wight

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Half Shell Seafood House Dino Mirando OwnerAfter decades of working for restaurant chains, Dino Mirando jumped at the chance to spearhead a Sarasota concept in early 2012 called Half Shell Seafood House. It would be the first time he truly ventured out on his own.

“I worked for Outback for 21-plus years and ran up to 13 restaurants at a time for them,” Mirando says. “It taught me a lot but I wanted to be able to take my experience and energy and focus it on developing something I had more control over.”

Mirando spent 15 years in Mississippi becoming a connoisseur of bayou cuisine, which became the ideal prelude to launching the independently owned Half Shell on University Parkway.

“My vision for the restaurant became a polished, casual, New Orleans-style seafood house with all items made in-house using the freshest ingredients possible,” he says, adding that all of the eatery’s seafood seasonings are homemade.

Popular dishes include the Rockefeller oysters with cream cheese and fresh spinach, the Orleans version with buttery barbecue sauce, and the baked Bienville oysters with Italian breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese topping. For non-oyster fans, there are hand-cut steaks, fried green tomato crab cakes and yellow fin tuna. Drinks like the Cajun Oyster Martini—a bloody Mary-style cocktail poured on top of an oyster—are memorable signatures.

The restaurant’s décor—with its chandeliers, sleek bronze bar, wood floors and vibrantly hued painted murals—feels like a romp in the Big Easy.

“I love to hear from guests that they feel like they are eating in one of the best restaurants in New Orleans without having to travel that far,” Mirando says.

Dino says, “What I like best about the Originals is the sharing of experiences and expertise of many local restaurant owners. It’s a great diverse group that works together and supports each other – it’s great!”

Half Shell Seafood House: 5231 University Parkway #109 | Sarasota | 941-952-9400 |

Author: Abby Weingarten

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Ciao Italia Carmine Astuto OwnerChef/restaurateur Carmine Astuto was born in Sicily and worked in his uncle’s eatery during childhood—an experience that helped him cultivate a genuine love of food.

As an adult, Astuto launched his own deli pizzerias in Staten Island, N.Y., before moving to Longboat Key to start Ciao! Italia. Located in the Centre Shops of Longboat Key, the restaurant has been Astuto’s baby for 20 years. It is a true family operation, run by Astuto; his wife, Victoria; and their daughter, Elizabeth.

Regulars return to Ciao! for the New York-style hand-tossed brick oven pizzas, the simple spaghetti and meatball dishes, and the homemade lasagna. The Veal Elizabeth (which Astuto named after his daughter) is another favorite, with its sundried tomatoes, roasted garlic, red peppers and cream sauce.

“We have a lot of people coming in year after year. I’ve had people who have been coming to me for 20 years, ordering the same thing,” Carmine Astuto says. “We still have the linen tablecloths and napkins but it’s a casual feel, with only 50 seats inside, so people say they come here because it feels like they’re eating at home.”

Being an independent and “Original” restaurant, to him, is a huge part of the appeal of Ciao!

“The independent restaurants are the ones that have the local flavors. The chains, they’re doing the same things in Chicago that they’re doing here,” he says. “I’m in the restaurant every day. The owner of Carrabba’s is sitting on his yacht. When you’re the local guy, I think you care a little more and that gives you the edge.”

Ciao! Italia: 5370 Gulf of Mexico Drive #104 | Longboat Key | 941-383-0010

Author: Abby Weingarten

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JPAN Noriko DanielAfter honing his skills in some of Orlando’s top Japanese restaurants, Daniel Dokko brought his culinary vision to Sarasota and founded Jpan. For the past eight years, Dokko’s eatery has been beloved for its sushi and specialty dishes.

“When I came to America, my first job was as a dishwasher and, from there, I worked as a server, sushi chef and restaurant manager. With that background and passion, six years after that first job, I felt ready to open my own restaurant,” Dokko says. “It has always impressed me how care and skills can make simple ingredients turn into edible art. Being a chef and a restaurateur was the way I found to combine these two passions of mine.”

Jpan’s menu items embody Dokko’s passion. One coveted entrée is the Ishiaki Kobe, which consists of thinly sliced Kobe beef served on a special sizzling stone (the meat is cooked right at the table).

“I created this entrée so that one can experience all five senses through a delicious meal: the sizzling sound, the fine aroma, the visual of the plate and, finally, the tenderness and taste of the Kobe beef,” Dokko says.

Dokko also creates all of the restaurant’s sauces and dressings from scratch.

“Even though it would be easier to buy bottled sauces from big manufacturers, we choose to create and make our sauces from fresh ingredients at our own kitchen, and we don’t use MSG,” he says.

What makes Jpan an “Original,” in Dokko’s words, is: “We’ve kept on being local and also creative, being part of the Sarasota community, and knowing our customers by name. At the same time, we’re always trying to bring original, new ideas to our menu.”

 Jpan Restaurant: 3 Paradise Plaza | Sarasota | 941-954-5726 |

Author: Abby Weingarten

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