For decades, The Keys have cultivated a quirky charm and laid back vibe like no other. It’s no surprise the Conch Republic has its own unique cuisine too.
Key West pink shrimp
Tender Key West pink shrimp are harvested from the coral sands in the clear waters of the Dry Tortugas from November to June. Recognizable by a red dot on each distinctive pink shell, Key West pink shrimp are sweet. One of the best places to sample Key West pink shrimp is Schooner Wharf Bar in Key West. Try the coconut dipped shrimp with mango sauce; the shrimp BLT stacked with Key West pink shrimp, romaine lettuce, tomato, Applewood smoked bacon, and mango mayonnaise; or the drunken shrimp, which are taken straight off the boat, then boiled in beer and spices and served chilled. The Island Fish Co. Restaurant & Tiki Bar in Marathon serves appetizers like Key West pink gold shrimp cocktail and flash fried buffalo shrimp and mains like the Key West Sunset Ale Beer steamed shrimp and Key West pink gold grilled shrimp tacos. Don’t miss the house specialty shrimp tempura and coconut fried shrimp. Featured on Guy Fieri’s television show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, Islamorada Shrimp Shack in Islamorada serves shrimp in every conceivable manner, fried, fitter, bacon-wrapped, scampi, and more. The mother-daughter duo who run the shrimp shack are famous for their shrimp and grils sautéed with pepper and onions in a creamy Creole sauce and served over slow-cooked grits. The Fish House in Key Largo serves more than a dozen shrimp appetizers and mains, from fried shrimp and shrimp cocktail to shrimp bundles, shrimp marinated in garlic, honey, and lemon juice, then wrapped in a basil leaf and prosciutto, then baked.
Conch fritters and conch chowder
Locals love Sharkey’s conch fritters – chopped conch meat, battered, and seasoned with cayenne pepper, bell pepper, celery, garlic, and salt and then deep fried – and conch chowder, a spicy, tomato-based comfort food brimming with diced onions, celery, carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, and conch meat, served with a side of ambiance on the Key Largo Harbor in Key Largo. Conch Republic Seafood Company in the historic Key West Bight serves conch, a ubiquitous shellfish on menus across the keys, in a variety of ways. From cracked, flash fried Queen Conch to traditional Island-style conch fritters served with key lime mustard to its award-winning Bahamian-style red conch chowder. Local fishermen run MA’s Fish Camp in Islamorada and serve some of the best conch fritters and conch chowder on the island. The Sunset Grille & Raw Bar in Marathon is famous for its chowders, including its Bahamian-style conch chowder.
From October 15 to May 15, locals get crackin’ to eat massive stone crabs, which are harvested just off shore. While Floridians to the north swear by Miami Beach’s Joe’s Stone Crab as the place to enjoy these sweet crab claws, wholesale fishery Keys Fisheries Market & Marina is the seafood source for the famed restaurant. Its Keys Fishery Restaurant in Marathon serves jumbo, large, select, and medium stone crabs straight from its boats. While most restaurants serve stone crabs cold with a mustard-based dipping sauce or drawn butter, diners can enjoy their stone crab claws hot after 5:00 p.m. nightly. Since 1948, locals have come to Islamorada Fish Company for stone crab claws from the raw bar. Key Largo Fisheries in Key Largo is a favorite for locals for stone crab chowder while Half Shell Raw Bar is the popular place to go for stone crabs in Key West.
Also known as “Florida lobster,” spiny lobsters lack claws but they certainly don’t lack taste. From August to April, spiny lobsters, served sautéed, broiled, stuffed, or fried, are a fixture on menus across The Keys. Since 1947, locals have dined in the upscale surroundings of Alonzo & Berlin’s Lobster House, or simply A&B’s Lobster House. Specialties include lobster thermidor (spiny lobster medallions served with a thyme and sherry sauce with wild mushrooms and baked with herb-infused panko breadcrumbs) and broiled lobster tail with coconut pecan rice and baby vegetables. You don’t have to travel all the way to Key West for spiny lobster. Hungry Tarpon Restaurant, one of Islamorada’s many fish shacks, serves a broiled spiny lobster tail. During lobster season, the Buzzard’s Roost Restaurant at Garden Cove Marina in Key Largo hosts a lobster fest that locals love.
With a light, melt-in-your-mouth texture, hogfish is a delicious and popular fish in The Keys – if you can get it. Located on the shrimp docks in downtown Stock Island, Hogfish Bar & Grill serves arguably the best hogfish, which the restaurant describes on its menu as having “a light, delicate, scallop-like flavor that’ll have you licking your lips!” Whether you indulge in fried hogfish smothered in Swiss cheese, onions, and mushrooms on Cuban bread, as sliders topped with pico de gallo and key lime tartar sauce, or stuffed with crabmeat stuffing, you can’t go wrong. The macadamia crusted hogfish at The Pilot House Restaurant, Marina, and Glass Bottom Bar in Key Largo caught the attention of Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, which featured the broiled fish with crisp citrus macadamia panko crusted hogfish topped with mango pineapple salsa. After a round of miniature golf, head to The Boondocks Grille & Draft House in Ramrod Key for hogfish served fried, grilled, lime peppered or blackened. Famous for its dock to dish cuisine, Chef Michael’s in Islamorada serves freshly caught hogfish that is popular among locals and visitors alike.
Key lime pie
One of the most legendary treats in The Keys is key lime pie. The iconic yellow-hued pie is made of key limes and condensed milk nestled on a graham cracker crust and topped with a dollop of whipped cream. It seems nearly every establishment, from waterside restaurant to dive bar, serves a signature tart and tasty key lime pie. Two of the best places include Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe (there are two locations in Key West: one on Key West Bite near the cruise terminal and the other on bustling Duval Street) and Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen in Key Largo (the recipe for its key lime pie graced the pages of Cosmopolitan magazine in 2004). Located midway in the Florida Keys at Mile Marker 80.5, the family-run Midway Café is famous for its classic key lime pie. Sweet Savannah’s serves ice cream, cupcakes, and arguably the best key lime pie in Marathon.
The original Rum Runner drink was born out of a challenge: to make a cocktail out of overstock liquor at the Tiki Bar at the Postcard Inn Beach Resort & Marina at Holiday Isle in Islamorada. The sunset-colored concoction, a mix of Bacardi Superior Rum, Blackberry Brandy, banana liquor, lime juice and grenadine, is still served at the 47-year-old bar, which has recently undergone renovations that have preserved the bar’s iconic neon sign and the names of visitors that were scrawled on the bar’s original floorboards. It’s the perfect sundowner after a day of exploring The Keys. The rum runner appears on other bar menus like that of the No Name Pub on Big Pine Key, which is easier to find nowadays than when it opened in 1936 thanks to GPS, and can be made upon request at bars like Pepe’s Café & Steakhouse, the oldest “joint” in Key West.