A meal at one of the Florida Keys restaurants also is a lesson in the islands' history. Whether it’s seafood, roast pork, or the famous key lime pie, every signature dish is a taste of the cultures who left their mark on the history of the islands. Dining at a tiny seafood shack or making reservations to dine at Key West luxury hotels may be on opposite ends of the spectrum, but both experiences will provide a chance to experience the laid-back and easygoing spirit of the islands.
Many Key West restaurants and others across the chain of islands specialize in fresh fish and seafood served the same day it was caught. A star of the local cuisine, Key West shrimp are renowned for their sweet flavor. While dining in Key West, travelers have the chance to taste conch, a mollusk served on lime-tinged salads, in chowder, or as fritters. Many local eateries take pride in creating new interpretations of these classic dishes.
One Islamorada restaurant started as a marine snack bar in 1948. Over the years, the Islamorada Fish Company has grown into a group of restaurants serving fresh conch, lobster, and other favorites. Fans of Bass Pro Shops will recognize the name; the restaurant has locations in the sporting goods super store all over America in addition to the Florida branches.
Stone crabs also appear frequently on the menus of Florida Keys restaurants. The crabs are a renewable resource because all of the meat is located in the claws. Returned to the sea, crabs grow new claws over the course of two years. Local restaurants serve stone crab claws in season, which runs from October 15 to May 15, with butter or mustard. The crab cakes here are fantastic, too, and local spiny lobsters are in season from August to March.
Of course, fish also is a choice dish in Florida Keys restaurants. Eateries throughout the Keys specialized in sautéed yellowtail, fried group, and mahi-mahi. Ballyhoo’s Historic Seafood Grille, a Key Largo restaurant, re-creates the days when the Keys became a center of commercial fishing. Located in a lovingly restored historic house, the restaurant serves seafood, steaks, and plenty of fish tales and island hospitality.
Dining in Key West also affords the chance to taste Cuban favorites—not a surprise since the city is closer to Cuba than to Miami. At the end of the nineteenth century, wealthy Cubans brought tastes of home with them, including roasted pork, black beans with yellow rice, plantains, and bread. Some of the best sandwiches are found at small take-out stands, perfectly portable for time at one of the beaches or a stroll through Old Town.
In addition to Cuban and seafood Key West restaurants, visitors also will find Key West restaurants serving world cuisine, vegetarian fare, American favorites, and steaks. Sloppy Joe’s, a favorite haunt of author Ernest Hemingway, serves a menu of local favorites such as conch fritters, Cuban favorites such as Havana nachos, and traditional bar food. Visitors can eat—and drink—like a pirate at the Rum Runner Restaurant. Located next to the Pirate Soul Museum, this fun restaurant is sure to give you a meal to remember.
No experience of dining in Key West is complete without a taste of the signature dessert, key lime pie. Local eateries put their own spin on this indigenous dish, but the main ingredients include tiny yellow limes and condensed milk. When found between a graham-cracker crust and a pile of whipped cream, those ingredients make a perfect end to an island meal.
Image: Visit Florida