Eating Our Way Through... Key West
He came for the wind. I tagged along for the food.
The only time I’d been to Key West was in 2000, stopping in just long enough to tour the Hemingway House and have some lunch. Coincidentally, it was the same year that this small community adopted its official philosophy - “One Human Family” - perfectly summing up the easygoing, live-and-let-live vibe that’s made it appealing to every type of holiday maker, from families and Mardi Gras bead-wearing frat boys to the artistic and alternative crowd.
For five days, as my kitesurfing-obsessed husband traversed the Gulf of Mexico, I criss-crossed the tiny two-by-four-mile island hunting down the best of Key West’s eclectic mix of South Floridian, and immigrant Bahamian and Cuban cuisines.
While my unofficial mission was to find the ultimate conch fritters, there were many tasty detours along the way. A prime charter fishing destination, every menu in town features the “daily catch” like grouper, snapper, hogfish or mahi mahi, often simply grilled or fried in a sandwich, alongside other local seabourne specialties like steamed stone crab claws and pink shrimp. Conch is popular too, though is actually imported from the Bahamas; the Bahamians are said to have 27 different ways to cook this large ocean mollusk or snail, the most common iterations of this alleged aphrodisiac being conch chowder, salad, fritters and cracked conch.
Predictably, the town’s most famous export – key limes – crops up in everything from martinis and marinades to the ubiquitous Key Lime pie, while Cuba makes its historical presence, and relative proximity, known with some of the most authentic mojo-marinated roast pork, beans and rice outside Havana.
In keeping with the relaxed vibe of the place, dining is a casual affair and the best eats were found in anything from a truck parked in a gas station to a stylish, breezy eatery overlooking the water. There were some surprise gems even along tacky Duval Street, but the real foodie finds are cropping up along an unlikely stretch of Petronia Street in the heart of Bahama Village.
THE PERFECT KEY WEST WEEKEND EAT-INERARY
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Conch fritters at Pirates Seafood on the way into town (while refilling the tanks at the Chevron gas station)
A slick dinner at 915 or upstairs Point5 Lounge
Save room for dessert: Key lime pie at the award-winning Blond Giraffe
Breakfast at Key West institution Camille’s
Hemingway Home and Museum tour
Local favorite B.O.’s Fishwagon or Black Fin Bistro's sunny patio for lunch
Jet Ski Tour around Key West
The (in)famous Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square
Evening in Bahama Village:
-Pre-dinner drinks with live music and ping pong at Blue Heaven
-Santiago’s Bodega for international tapas
-Better Than Sex for a decadent dessert
Louie’s Backyard for a seaside brunch
Step into a technicolor dream at the Butterfly Conservatory
Flamingo Ice Cream to sample exotic flavors like guanabana (soursop) and mangrove honey walnut
Your own bike or walking tour of the Conch houses
An authentic, delicious taste of Havana at El Siboney before hitting the road