Driven by tourism and a tremendous year-round flow of hard cash, Key West, at the tip of the Florida Keys, offers a high-energy restaurant romp for the adventurous palate.
In Old Town, the center of action on the small two by four mile island, visitors will find eclectic and zany cuisine including everything from Jamaican, French, back street Cuban "mom and pop" counters, to Hong Kong Chinese, Italian, Mexican and Key West specialties.
Key West grub is based on a blend of Bahamian, Cuban, and New Orleans cuisine, utilizing fresh seafood and the "catch of the day," also known as swordfish, black fin tuna, mako shark and grouper.
The local pink shrimp is barbecued, baked, broiled, grilled, marinated and fried in clever variations, and offered on almost every menu.
The Cubans and Bahamians introduced black Cuban-style beans, tasty marinated pork plates, plantain, conch, and one-dish chicken and curry rice plates with a slab of flan for dessert.
Conch, a local favorite, (pronounced conk), is the meat of a shellfish and can be prepared 27 different ways claim the Keywesters, such as in a spicy conch chowder with garlic cloves, onions, green peppers, bay leaves, tomatoes and spuds, or simply as fried conch fritters at a street stand.
Most first-time visitors overlook the Cuban dining experience because they refuse to wander off Duval Street, the main Key West tourist drag. Read more about this romantic island.
EL SIBONEY at 900 Catherine Street will carry you back to the land of Cuba, 90 miles to the south, with authentic Cuban and Caribbean offerings. (305) 296-4184.
Stop by the THE ORIGINAL conch fritters street stand, circa 1934, at 1 Whitehead Street and Mallory Square where Tony and Julie sell a half-dozen conch fritters made with hand-chopped onions, green and red peppers, celery and 15 different spices, deep fried and served with key lime mustard sauce. (305) 294-4849.
Key limes, another island specialty, are as ubiquitous as conch chowder, mango chutney and raw oyster bars. The fragile, shallow-rooted lime trees, growing primarily in and around the Florida Keys, produce a smaller, thick-skinned, robust tasting lime that chefs use to create the famed key lime pie and other goodies.
If you would like to test your skills with key lime pie, call Nellie & Joe's at (800)-LIME-PIE for your very own stash of key lime juice.
MANGOES, at the corner of Duval and Angela Streets, is a favorite kitchen with the Keywesters. Al fresco dining at the front entrance is a tempting place to watch the endless parade of people. The cozy, back patio with its large banyan tree is serene and romantic. If it is your first day in Key West, in one swoop you could sample the local favorites family-style from the appetizer list, all reasonably priced. Thick, smoked black bean soup with shrimp, sour cream and a touch of cilantro; conch chowder made with fresh thyme and laced with sherry; conch fritters served with a snappy cocktail sauce and key lime mustard, topped off with a plate of Key West pink shrimp seared with a light curried orange and lemon cream sauce. (305) 292-4606.
ANTONIA'S at 615 Duval Street, has been serving the best Italian food in town for more than 14 years. Hardwood floors, ceiling fans, round, candlelit tables draped with sparkling white linens, and a small bar where Keywesters discuss the day is the attractive setting for a night in Italy. The pasta is fresh, the service dandy and half portions entrees are offered. Noted platters are the homemade fettuccine tossed with red, yellow and green bell peppers, shrimp, olive oil and garlic. The angel hair pasta with fresh tuna, tomato sauce, capers, anchovies, olives, red pepper and garlic is among the best in the Keys. (305) 294-6565.
The noisiest place in town is SLOPPY JOE'S, a few blocks north on Duval Street. Ernest Hemingway, a favorite patron, named the place and spent many a day here in the late 1930s drinking with his buddies.The owner at the time, Joe Russell, was also Hemingway's boat pilot and a treasured fishing chum.
Sloppy Joe's, an ongoing tribute to Hemingway's rowdy life, has live music throughout the day and a party atmosphere that can make you feel like a first year college student. Munchies are Jamaican jerk chicken, chicken quesadillas and a chicken taco salad at fast food prices. If you want to browse the place and look at the memorabilia, go early in the day before the room begins to heat up.
The best margaritas in town are found at JIMMY BUFFETT'S MARGARITAVILLE on upper Duval. CAPTAIN HORNBLOWER'S at 300 Front Street near Mallory Square, is a long standing jazz room, Thursday to Sunday, 9 p.m. to 12 a.m., and reportedly where the pina colada originated. (305) 294-4922.
MANGIA MANGIA at 900 Southard Street prepares fresh pasta daily, and CLANCY'S at 6 Charles Street has a selection of 19 pizzas including a blackened shrimp version. Free delivery in Old Town. (305) 292-1155.
A hideaway is the HUNGRY SAILOR GARDEN CAFE at 618 Duval Street, down a walkway adjoining the Guild Hall Gallery, a hang out for 18 local artists. The garden patio, with vine covered trees and greenery is a splendid value. Salads or a grilled chicken breast for lunch are a great buy.
Funky but fun is RICKY'S BLUE HEAVEN in Bahama Village at the corner of Thomas and Petronia. Blue Heaven, the Keywesters explain, is what the island was 25 years ago. Reportedly, boxing matches were held in the patio during Hemingway's days, along with cock fights--alas, a rooster graveyard is evidence enough.
Specialties are fish and shrimp, vegetarian dishes and health-minded choices such as carrot and curry soup. The pink shrimp platter is sauteed in spices and deglazed with Jamaican Red Stripe beer. The patio tables are made from old pool tables, chickens roam about, maybe in search of their ancestors, and there is a jazz guitarist from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. if he decides to show up. (305) 296-8666.
Another historic restaurant is KELLY'S CARIBBEAN BAR, GRILL & BREWERY at the original offices of Pan American Airlines, 301 Whitehead Street. You can tour the old Pan Am digs and relive history, enjoy a brew from the southernmost brewery in the United States and dine on the tree-shaded Kelly's epicurean reputation has been strengthened with their plantain encrusted fresh fish with a lime and bird pepper sauce. (305) 293-8484. WHEN YOU GO Dress is casual. Lodging is offered at the new upscale Gardens Hotel in Old Town. (305) 294-2661. Contact your travel agent.