With its prime location between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, Key West overflows with the sea’s bounty like Key West pink shrimp, Florida spiny lobster and stone crabs. There’s also a wide variety of fish like grouper, snapper, hogfish, yellowtail and catches you may have never seen like tilefish and tripletail. You’ll find that abundance overflows into the island’s many seafood restaurants, which also come in a wide variety of flavors.
For something low-key, head to Hogfish Grille or BO’s Fish Shack for their specialties--grilled hogfish and cracked conch sandwiches. You can also sample the local cuisine on the cheap during the best happy hours at the casual Half Shell Raw Bar and Alonzo’s Oyster Bar.
A few eateries are hidden gems like the tiny Seven Fish; you’ll have to them track down in the Old Town neighborhood district. Waterfront dining is an extra perk on the island, and at Louie’s Backyard and Hot Tin Roof you can get front row seating for the sunset while you dine. For that extra special evening out on the town, you’ll want to put your best resort wear on for the upscale A&B Lobster House. No matter which you choose, Mother Ocean never disappoints.
The Flaming Buoy Filet Co.
Flaming Buoy is tucked away in a charming converted home at the corner of Packer and Virginia Streets. This cozy 10-table restaurant mixes simple wood furnishings with splashes of yellow and orange, and has additional seating on their outside patio. Partners Scot Forste and Fred Isch meld gourmet and down-home cooking, focusing on fresh island ingredients. This makes their menu the perfect middle-ground for the foodie and non-foodie alike. As if hosting a party in their own home, Isch and Forste take turns cooking family recipes and charming diners with witty stories. Start your meal with the trio appetizer: smoky-sweet grilled Key West pink shrimp with lime chutney, tuna watermelon ceviche and Florida lobster mac. For an entree try their house specialty--a light flaky pan seared yellowtail snapper entree with a fresh banana salsa. Finish with the Spicy Chocolate Quesadilla. White and dark chocolate is melted between two flour tortillas and drizzled with a pepper-infused chocolate sauce. It's served with a side of freshly-made Tahitian Vanilla ice cream from Flamingo Crossing. (305-295-7970)
Alonzo's Oyster Bar
Located underneath the more formal A&B Lobster House, this casual waterfront restaurant in the historic seaport has one of the best happy hours in Key West, especially with a view. Drinks are half priced everyday from 4:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. and a wide selection of menu items like peel and eat shrimp, Spinach Parmesan Oysters, Key Lime Garlic Oysters and steamed clams are all half off as well. Arrive early to get a table, or if you catch the tail end of happy hour, stay for dinner and sample the Mango Lobster Salad, Coconut Fried Grouper, or snapper in a spicy Cajun cream sauce. Don't miss the Key lime martini! (305-294-5880)
This fab food truck just got an upgrade, moving from their small corner on Greene Street to a bona fide restaurant on near Mallory Square. Since the beginning, the owners grew a cult following for their authentic island-style tacos and burritos. Now that they have seating and frontage, their popularity is bound to skyrocket. Being featured on Guy Fierri's "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" certainly won't hurt. Try the Cayo Fish Mahi Mahi tacos, which come with big chunks fresh fish with mango, cilantro and red cabbage. Jalapeno mayonnaise gives it that perfect kick. For the Yum Yum Shrimp taco, they only use the local Key West Pinks, which are large and juicy. Customer fave, the Koji Korean Beef Shortrib burrito, is both sweet and spicy with a hint of sriracha. While the menu is small, it changes with the seasons offering a variety of unique flavors. You still place your order at the truck, but be prepared to wait. It's worth it. (305-304-3004)
Hot Tin Roof
For upscale dining with a stellar view of the sunset, head to Hot Tin Roof at Ocean Key Resort and Spa located just off Mallory Square. You can dine alfresco on their patio with the sounds of Jimmy Buffett classics wafting up from the band on Sunset Pier, as boats ply the aquamarine waters in the harbor. The Pan-Latin menu offers small and large plates, so you can design your own meal, whether shared tapas-style or traditional entrees. Dishes like the Key lime fish ceviche, paella and caramelized grouper capitalize on the fresh local seafood. Finish with their delicious Key lime pie in a cashew graham cracker crust. You'll love the dusting of cinnamon in the shape of a palm tree on the plate. The understated elegance makes this a perfect spot for romantic couples. Note that the requested attire is resort casual. Average dinner prices range from $10 for small plates to $35 for entrees. (305-296-7701)
Half Shell Raw Bar
Just like the classic waterfront joints of Key West past, the Half Shell Raw Bar serves the freshest seafood in a casual atmosphere. You can actually watch your dinner being unloaded from the boats at the docks, while looking out over the Historic Seaport. The Shrimp Po' Boy sandwich and the conch ceviche are two of their timeless menu options. Grab a picnic table by the water or head for the funky bar, which was recently featured on the cover of Kenny Chesney's single "When I See This Bar." No white linen dining here, expect paper plates and plastic utensils, but when you're digging into piles of peel n' eat shrimp, oysters, clams and stone crabs, does it really matter? (305-294-7496)
An upscale Caribbean-American restaurant, Louie's Backyard offers island specialties like conch fritters spiced up with a hot pepper jelly or a unique version of shrimp and grits made with Key West pinks, mushrooms and bacon. Finish with a slice of refreshing Key lime pie with a twist--a gingersnap crust. Upstairs--called the Upperdeck--is a touch more casual with a wine bar and elegant small plates. Sample roasted clams or flaming Ouzo shrimp while enjoying panoramic views of the Atlantic. Their back deck--called the Afterdeck--is perfect for a happy hour cocktail or after-dinner drink by the water before a night on the town. Make reservations well in advance, and time your meal to coincide with the colorful sunset. (305-294-1061)
A&B Lobster House
With island roots that date back as far as 1947, A&B Lobster House is an institution in Key West. This upscale restaurant features rich classics like Lobster Bisque laced with cognac, Lobster Thermidor and Sunset Surf and Turf with filet mignon. For something on the lighter sight, their savory Bouillabaisse simmers jumbo shrimp, clams, mussels the local catch in a saffron and fennel broth. With fantastic views of the Key West Bight, their wrap-around balcony is perfect for that romantic evening. Head to their Berlin's cigar and cocktail bar for your nightcap of fine cognacs, dessert wines and specialty martinis. Their elegant white tablecloth dining experience does come with a rather hefty price tag (entrée prices range from $25 to $68), but that makes A&B prime for that special occasion. (305-294-5880)
BO's Fish Wagon
This seafood shack may look like it's barely standing, but the food certainly holds its own. What began as makeshift food truck in the 70s, opened by local legend Buddy Owen, has become a staple in Key West. The fresh fish sandwiches are simple, yet the best in town. Bobby Flay and his Food Network camera crew even paid a visit for the cracked conch sandwich--tiny strips of fried conch stuffed between fresh Cuban bread and shot with Key Lime mayo. Conch fritters, salads, burgers, and hot dogs are equally tasty, and the anything goes atmosphere sums up the entire town. The restaurant stays open until 9:30 p.m. on most nights (they'll close early if they aren't busy), and on Friday nights, you can enjoy an all-out musical jam session. (305-294-9272)
Hogfish Bar and Grill
For a taste of a true local's joint just five minutes away from Old Town, follow the signs to the Hogfish Bar and Grill, located in Safe Harbor Marina on Stock Island. Try anything that's made with their namesake specialty like the "Killer" Hogfish Sandwich, which is smothered in Swiss cheese, onions and mushrooms on a fresh Cuban roll. The Hogfish Fingers or Fried Hogfish Tacos are also favorites, or dig into a plate of "Peel 'n' Eat" Key West pink shrimp. All dishes call for an ice cold beer. This open-air, casual restaurant is a diamond-in-the-rough with live entertainment and a popular happy hour. The owners try to maintain that Old Key West vibe, and views of Key West's last working waterfront are a bonus. (305-293-4041)
This bistro's low-key frontage is indicative of its simple, yet elegant approach to cuisine. Tucked away on the quiet neighborhood streets in Old Town, Seven Fish mixes both fresh seafood and comfort foods like meatloaf on their menu. Start with the spicy tuna roll or the wild mushroom quesadilla followed by their namesake specialty. The type of fish offered each night varies according to the season and catch of the day. Pair with their Thai curry cream sauce or gnocchi and mellow blue cheese. With just 40 seats, tourists and locals alike fill up this intimate restaurant each night, so making a reservation well in advance is highly recommended. If you're feeling more spontaneous, sometimes you can score a seat at the bar last minute. Note: they are closed on Tuesdays and for several weeks in the fall. (305-296-2777)
About Claudia Miller
Claudia Miller has been writing about South Florida for over 17 years--seven from Key Largo. A budding photographer, she can usually be found stalking a sunset. Despite being a tad uncoordinated, she tries new adventures like parasailing for the sake of her readers.
Passionate about sharing the Florida Keys, she hosts the monthly #flkeys Twitter chat and was the Keys Contributor for Florida Travel + Life magazine for six years. Other publications include: Keynoter, Key Largo Visitors Guide and Time Out Guide to Miami & the Florida Keys. Join Claudia as she plays tourist in her own backyard at KeysClaudia.com.
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