Hemingway once said, “I drink to make other people more interesting,” and if you’ve ever been to Key West you know he didn’t have the citizens of the Conch Republic in mind, they are never dull. Key West is where all sorts of people go that are escaping to or from something. The rest of us go for the sun, fun, gorgeous beaches, amazing sunsets, and tropical cuisine.
Fresh is the byword down there at the tip of the U.S.—just caught wild seafood and fresh-picked produce that shines in classic Conch cuisine dishes like chilled stone crab and delightfully tart Key Lime pie. If you aren’t familiar with Conch (pronounced konk, any other pronunciation is a dead giveaway you are not a local) you will be, the term and the mollusk are seen, heard, and eaten all over the place.
What’s To Eat
Conch, often queen conch, is the large spiral-shelled mollusk found in the waters just offshore and it’s also what Floridians call Key West natives so feel free to use the term for folks too, it’s PC. So what is exactly is conch cuisine? In a conch shell, it’s a bit like Key West: it’s bright, fresh, is bursting with citrus flavors, delicate seafood and spices and is a little salty, sweet, and savory. The culinary influences are all over the map, but that’s a good thing, so the food is sort of kind of maybe but not really Southern, Caribbean, Cuban, and French with whatever flavor of the day fits the chefs’ fancy.
The Key West Food Lovers Festival: let the eating begin
Are you getting hungry yet? Good, because we’re going to wave our magic wand and tell you where to find this great food. Just think of us as your foodie godmother. With a wave of our wand you can go to the The Ultimate Florida Keys Food Lovers Festival.
Just sit back and read our guide to the best things to eat and where to find them, beginning with seafood. Key West is all about the ocean. But don’t forget, just because a restaurant serves fish doesn’t mean shellfish, steaks, chicken, aren’t an option and the opposite is true.
Fins and Shells
If it swims and tastes good they eat it in Key West, and there are lots of local fish to choose from, but we’ll stick to a few choices that chefs prefer. In no particular order, they include dolphin (not the Flipper kind, this is a fish, not a mammal), wahoo, blackfin tuna, cobia, amberjack, kingfish, snapper (yellowtail, mangrove, and mutton), hogfish, grouper (red, black, gag, and Goliath).
In the Florida Keys, thankfully, chefs and home cooks don’t like to muck up the taste and texture of the gorgeous local fish with elaborate preparations or heavy sauces and whatnot. Instead, the fish is caught, grilled, baked, roasted, marinated, served on a sandwich, smoked, or put in chowder with a flavorful broth and served quickly.
Blue Heaven, Key West
If it just isn’t Florida without snapper, then your best choice is Blue Heaven. The yellowtail snapper entrée is sautéed and served simply with a delicate citrus beurre blanc sauce and is one of the best versions you’ll ever eat.
Chef Michaels, Islamorada
You can’t judge a book by its cover or a fish by its name because in the Keys you can get incredibly good fish with names like wahoo and hogfish, which is exactly the kind of local fish done at Chef Michael’s. From the boat to the kitchen the fish is barely out of the water before it’s cooked to perfection.
Garbo’s Grill, Key West
If quirky but tasty is your thing for fish, then you have to try Garbo’s Grill for the Cayo fish tacos made with fresh mahi-mahi, red cabbage, mango, jalapeño, cilantro, onion, and house Caribbean sauce.
Lighthouse Grille, Marathon
At Lighthouse Grille, the staff says, “Outstanding views are only the first course,” and boy does the restaurant have views! The food, the restaurant, the drinks, and the views all look like a glossy magazine spread, and it’s easy to sink into a comfy chair in the dining room and feel like you have escaped to a tropical island. Go classic and order a jumbo shrimp cocktail and the freshly caught fish of the day.
A Lorelei, the owners, encourage guests to relax, dine, and dance to the live music, you should do the same and try the restaurant’s world famous fish sandwich and fish tacos. The sandwich is made with your choice of mahi-mahi or snapper cooked blackened or fried. The tacos are fried, grilled, or blackened and can be prepared with mahi-mahi or snapper.
Louie’s Backyard, Key West
For some of the best fish, and one of the most enchanting spots to sit and watch the sunset, Louie’s Backyard is where to eat fish every way chef Doug Shook fixes it, but go for the grilled tuna with olives and preserved lemons.
Sundowners, Key Largo
This is old school Conch cuisine, and fun all rolled into one. At Sundowners, order the Key Largo fish sandwich if you don’t want fancy. It’s made with jerk-style mahi-mahi, put on a Kaiser roll and topped with grilled onions and American cheese. Remember; it’s old school. For a switch get the broiled Florida lobster tail, these may be smaller (and lack claws) than their cousins with claws up in Maine, but what they lack in size they make up for in flavor.
Conch and Stone Crab
Conch is good eats but it’s a bit of work, and it’s a bit of a culinary beauty and the beast story. The shell is lovely (it’s the one tourists collect), but the ugly bugger inside will scare the heck out of you. Trust us, you will get over that the minute you taste it served ceviche-style in a cold salad, added to chowder, and especially in fritters.
Florida stone crab will have you at hello. They are gorgeous to look at, are sustainable (legally the fishermen has to throw it back after they take the claw and the crab grows another one back and lives another day), and the dense, briny, succulent meat is unlike any other crab meat.
Harvested only from October through May, this is one delicacy that is best served hot with melted butter. This Sunshine State delicacy is a refreshing departure from typical seafood fare, both for its fine flavor and its relatively guilt-free harvesting method. Only the claws are edible, so fishermen may legally harvest only the claws, leaving the crab to live—and regenerate its missing claw—another day.
B.O.’s Fish Wagon, Key West
B.O.'s Fish Wagon is a typical Key West fish shack: they serve simple food that’s rich with flavor. Order the cracked conch sandwich and a grouper sandwich for two quintessential Key West seafood dishes and throw in an order of the crispy hand-cut fries; you won’t be disappointed. And bring cash; this is not a restaurant, people.
Conch House, Key Largo
You can’t go to a restaurant like the Conch House and not get conch, lots of conch, so order three conch dishes, the classic conch fritters, the Bahamian conch, and the Atlantic conch cooked two ways. After that you’ll be full, you will want to konk out on the sofa.
Conch Shack, Key West
The Conch Shack is not messing around and is serious about conch, whether it’s the cracked conch or the fabulous conch fritters. It gets the secret recipe for the fritters honestly—it comes from the owner’s 90-year old Bahamian grandmother who brought it back from the Abaco Islands.
Half Shell Raw Bar, Key West
Half Shell Raw Bar sits right over the water as if to remind you that dinner is right below you, the restaurant just needs to go catch it. While the raw bar is great, go for the stone crab claws and indulge a bit. They’re served with drawn butter and will make you wish for them when you get home.
Islamorada Fish Company, Islamorada
Islamorada Fish Company has multiple locations but when you are in Islamorada it’s a fantastic destination to do a double whammy in the local food category because they serve delicious conch fritters and specialize in stone crab claws. You can order medium of large stone crab, when it’s in season, and have it served hot or cold. And if you get a hankering for some stone crab once you get home, don’t worry; they also ship.
Keys Fisheries Market & Marina, Marathon
The seafood Keys Fisheries is so fresh it was alive just moments before it was cooked, so go crazy and order enough stone crab for a feast. Stone crab has to be fresh to be sweet and tender, and this is one place to get it in quantity; hot with butter, in soup, or to take home.
Spencer’s by the Sea, Key West
Spencer's By The Sea is a relative newcomer to the restaurant scene, but it’s got one heck of a location right on the beach. Classic American fare that includes steaks and seafood, the beer battered fish is great but go for the conch chowder. Think bouillabaisse meets Key West with a savory broth tomato and clam broth with conch, potatoes, zucchini, yellow squash, and carrots served with ciabatta croutons and bird pepper rouille.
Americans eat shrimp more than any other seafood, and despite an incredible supply available from U.S. waters, most shrimp is either farmed or imported. In Key West, they have the luxury of catching wild local seafood all year long, and you can taste the difference. The six types of shrimp you’ll find are royal reds, Key West Pinks, hoppers, white, brown, and rock shrimp.
Pretty as a pink ballerina slipper, the Key West Pinks (also called hoppers) are sweet, delicately flavored and terrific as peel and eat during peak season from January to June. Key West Pinks are brighter pink in the southern waters near Key West because they spend their lives on the ocean floor, which in the Tortugas is lined with pink coral sand. Pinks are sweet and tender and best served as peel and eat, in cocktails, ceviche, and delicate cold salads. Peak season is January to June.
Ballyhoo’s, Key Largo
By the time the Hollywood classic “Key Largo” was filmed in 1948, Ballyhoo’s had already been around for a decade—and they are pleasing diners with their eclectic menu. Seafood is, of course, a must and especially the shrimp so order be sure to try Joe vs. the volcano that’s a Thai pan-Asian riff made with grilled pink shrimp, grilled mango, spinach, noodles, tomato, avocado, and peanuts. Or consider ordering shrimp & tomatoes made with local pink tomatoes and pink shrimp in a light basil cream sauce.
Since 1951, Castaway has been, according to the website, “known for many years as a place to get beer and shrimp steamed in beer.” The menu has expanded but why screw around with what works. Go, get the shrimp and wash it down with one of the 52 beers on tap. Cheers!
Flaming Buoy, Key West
Locals and visitors go to the Flaming Buoy for the diverse menu but if you want to try Key West pinks try the grilled marinated Key West pinks served with spicy lime chutney or order one of the salads topped with boiled pinks.
Islamorada Shrimp Shack, Islamorada
The name says it all. At Islamorada Shrimp Shack They serve lots of other seafood but get the shrimp fritters, a basket of shack shrimp with hush puppies, key lime shrimp, and shrimp Po’Boy. Then you should be good to go.
Not Everything is Seafood
It’s tempting to focus on seafood since Key West is surrounded by ocean, but there’s more to the food scene than that. There are fine dining restaurants that serve French and European cuisine, steakhouses, Cuban sandwich places, and more. Here’s our list of places to consider.
El Meson de Pepe, Key West
Translated as Pepe’s place, El Meson de Pepe is an authentic Cuban mom and pop spot that has been around for 30 years. It’s where to go for great Cuban dishes. Two standouts include tamal Cubano en hoja, which is roasted pork cooked in a corn husk and served on a bed of plantain chips and masitas de credo frita, marinated, fried pork with onions and parsley. Stay for the relaxing outdoor bar, some Cuban music, the Cuban cigars, and then watch the sunset.
El Siboney Restaurant, Key West
It would be a shame to come this close to Cuba without experiencing authentic Cuban food. The menu at El Siboney is complete with traditional items like oxtail with rice and plantains. This family-run eatery aims to end the embargo on home cooked Cuban meals.
King Seafood Market and Restaurant, Marathon
Locals and tourists are unanimous: this seafood shack is the bomb. People go for a diverse menu, great prices, and Cuban selections. King Seafood Restaurant has fresh seafood but gives the nod to our Cuban neighbors 120 miles south. Order a crusty Cuban sandwich, some fried yucca, a bit of flan for dessert and then café Cubano for a quick pick-me-up.
Lazy Days Restaurant, Islamorada
Lazy Days Restaurant has a full menu that includes the usual suspects every Key West restaurant should have, so expect conch, fish, shrimp, and more but go for the Surf and Turf and order a steak with Florida lobster. You may not know this, but Florida’s a big cattle state and beef there is some of the best, which is we suggest order a Certified Black Angus filet mignon with the Florida lobster tail; they complement each other in size, flavor, and quality.
Mangrove Mike’s, Islamorada
This restaurant is included for all the breakfast-crazed travelers out there. If you love a great breakfast Mangrove Mike's has mastered the power breakfast. Go hungry, order the tower of tater tots with sausage gravy, get poached eggs and you’ll have a hearty start to your day.
Mindful Mermaid Café, Key Largo
If you want your food to be safe, clean, organic, and sustainable, then the Mindful Mermaid Café is the ticket. They make über tasty wraps, sandwiches, and salads and serve healthy smoothies that taste terrific. The kids menu is unique because they make special drinks for them that are loaded with tons of sugar and preservatives, just fresh natural juices, and if you or your kid have special dietary needs, they can accommodate gluten-free, ovo-lacto vegetarian, vegetarian, and vegan requests.
Michaels Restaurant, Key West
This restaurant has it all from great drinks to fresh seafood and top quality steaks. Michaels Restaurant is also known for the fantastic customer service so if you are in the mood for a bit of beef consider ordering the cowboy cut steak or the New York strip. And order the key lime martini; it’s a real mood enhancer with a pucker.
Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen, Key Largo
You can go to Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen in Key Largo and order boatloads of seafood, but if you’re allergic or you are a confirmed carnivore, pas de panique! This is also where people in Key Largo go for huge Southern breakfasts with eggs, grits, pancakes, and alligator sausage or for lunch and dinner. Mrs. Mac’s is famous for its chile, burgers, and its steaks so order a big juicy burger with the works or go upscale and try a porterhouse or New York strip. You can go real down home and chow down on alligator tenders, barbecue baby back ribs made with Danish pork (you heard correctly), and then seal the deal with some of Mrs. Mac’s renowned key lime pie.
Porky’s Bayside Barbecue, Marathon
Here’s a weird one that’s still worth investigating: Porky’s Bayside Barbecue does great barbecue, but you have to go to the restaurant for breakfast to get it. And when you do, you can order smoked pulled pork, brisket, and andouille sausage with classic Southern breakfast dishes like grits, eggs, bacon, biscuits, and corned beef hash. Just another winner for the breakfast club.
The Sweet Stuff
A dining guide without a sweet ending is just wrong. Here are some suggestions for the ubiquitous key lime pie and few other treats.
The Blonde Giraffe, Key West
Glazed Donuts, Key West
Key Lime Pie Company, Key West
Kermit’s Key West Lime Shoppe, Key West
Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen, Key Largo