SARASOTA -- When you walk into the elegant lobby of the chandelier-draped Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, it's hard to believe that the luxury hotel is in the midst of a $3.1 million renovation/redesign.
The only telltale sign is the occasional whirring noise of a drill somewhere in the background.
"When people comment we tell them it's the Hyatt across the street," joked James Cole, executive assistant manager of food and beverage. "But don't say that."
The Ritz, under the new leadership of General Manager Bradford Jencks, is in the midst of making the 11-year-old hotel more relevant and casually enticing to a changing guest demographic.
Gone are the wide crown molding, overstuffed upholstered chairs and patterned carpeting. In its place are sleek modernistic furniture, teal carpeting, driftwood floors and brass mesh artistic shapes suspended from the ceilings.
"It is a much more relaxed approach," said Cole, who came to the hotel eight months ago to work with Jencks, who has a reputation for innovation and progressive thinking. "We want to be more relevant to the local community."
The majority of the renovation surrounds the Ritz's well-known Ca d'Zan Lounge and Vernona fine-dining restaurant. There is a new vision, decor and menu.
"When I came, it was apparent that we needed some change or refreshment," Jencks said.
To take advantage of its waterfront location, workers are busy taking down concrete balustrade along the balcony at the rear of the new restaurant space to showcase the vistas of Sarasota Bay and the hotel's marina.
The old fountain is being relocated to the hotel's rose garden and new fire pits, hot lava torches and comfortable seating areas will take its place, allowing evening diners to relax under the stars.
"It is a brilliant idea to open up the area to the outdoors, it gives diners a different experience," Jencks said.
San Francisco design firm EDG is helping create the new concept which turns traditional dining into casual elegance. Local contractor Connor & Gaskins Unlimited is doing the construction.
Part of the redesign is a switch to edgier and surprising elements like the name for the new restaurant -- Jack Dusty.
The named is based on an 18th-century term for a naval store clerk, the man responsible of handing out bread and later wine or grog to sailors on board ships.
Then there is the Moscow Mule, a cocktail made with vodka, ginger beer and lime served in a copper mug. The drink was popular during the vodka craze in the United States during the 1950s.
The men hope to make the 220-seat restaurant-
lounge-bar area a destination for locals.
About 30 to 40 percent of the Ritz's business now comes from the Sarasota community, with 60 to 70 percent from hotel guests.
"We want to reverse that," Cole said.
Prices at the bar/lounge and the restaurant are dropping too.
In the past, the average dinner entrees were $30 to $55. Now it will be $22 to $28 with $8 to $12 cocktails.
"We are putting the prices on par with Main Street," Cole said.
There also will be new restrooms, keeping diners within the restaurant/lounge area to capture more sales.
Other changes on the 11-acre hotel property, 315-acre golf club in Lakewood Ranch and The Beach Club on Lido Key will bring the total renovations to $4.5 million.
New Executive Chef Dwayne Edwards said the menu will capitalize on the area's Gulf seafood.
"It will be quite a departure from our other menu," he said. The lounge area will include a raw bar and Edwards is planning special events like oyster tastings with shell fish from the Northwest, Northeast, and Southeast.
"The Vernona was a very classical restaurant with old French cuisine," he said. "This will be a more modern approach, with the idea that less is more and utilizing the seasons."
Patrick Bucko, formerly with Beach Bistro and Euphemia Haye, has just been hired as director of restaurants. Currently the CdZ restaurant is open to the public during the renovation.
The total project is expected to be completed and open to the public by mid-January.
"We are moving away from the pomp and circumstance but not from the larger focus on service and quality," Cole said.
"We don't want you to come just on a special occasion like an anniversary once a year," he said. "We want you to come two or three times a week for dinner or a glass of wine after work."