A colorful walk through Bahama Village brings you to this warm and cozy restaurant tucked away behind lovely landscaping. Value is of course subjective, and for gourmands, the prices on the tasty Spanish tapas at Santiago's Bodega are a steal. At some restaurants, "tapas" equals painfully small plates, but at Santiago's, the portions are generous. Both the hot and cold tapas run from $7-$16, so you can put together a fun smorgasbord to share at a reasonable price. Your only regret will be not being able to try all of them at once. Standout dishes include the Saganaki--haloumi cheese sprinkled with oregano flambeed with Brandy. It arrives flaming at your table. Other faves have equally artful presentation like the Fresh Yellowfin Ceviche, which is marinated in spicy citrus juice and served with fresh avocado, mango and cilantro. Finish with their homemade bread pudding with caramel bourbon sauce.
Recommended for Best Value because: Value is of course subjective, and for gourmands, the prices on these tasty Spanish tapas are a steal. Pair with a pitcher of sparkling sangria.
Claudia's expert tip: Reservations are a must. This tiny gem fills up fast, and they have no problem refusing people that don't have a reservation.
The oldest eatery in the Keys (a Cuban fisherman opened it in 1909), Pepe's is worth a visit for the history alone. While it's still a local's place, visitors have gotten hip to this tiny gem despite its unassuming frontage. Their motto, "A fairly good place, for quite a long while," says it all. People line up each day for a breakfast filled with good-old-fashioned Chock Full O' Nuts coffee ($2), homemade sweet breads, fresh orange juice, chipped beef on toast ($7), and eggs Benedict ($10). The lunch menu features an array of sandwiches like Pepe's Mustard BBQ Pulled Pork or the Thanksgiving Sandwich for around $11. Their outside patio is charming, but the walls inside are packed with flotsam and jetsam from the past decades that will keep you entertained.
Recommended for Best Value because: The oldest eatery in the Keys, Pepe's is worth a visit for the history alone. Breakfast and lunch entrees are only around $10.
Claudia's expert tip: Expect to wait for a table, but you can grab a mimosa made with fresh squeezed juice from the bar while you do.
For breakfast and lunch, this charming bistro offers French classics like sweet and savory crepes along with fresh baguette sandwiches at a modest price. (Note: dinner prices go up considerably.) Grab a window seat and watch the parade of scooters, bikes and a horse-mounted policeman along Duval Street. Of course the crepes are the star of the menu, but it's hard to choose between the savory and the sweet. The savory crepes range from a basic egg, ham and Swiss to their La Ratatouille, which combines eggplant, zucchini, peppers, onions and tomatoes, topped with a fried egg. The sweet crepes wow with simple flavor combinations like banana, sugar and rum or the crowd fave--Key lime sauce with whipped cream. Make sure to check the chalkboard specials for the fresh quiche and soup of the day. Crepe prices run $5-$18 and sandwiches are $10-$20.
Recommended for Best Value because: This charming cafe offers French classics like crepes and fresh baguette sandwiches at modest prices for breakfast and lunch.
Claudia's expert tip: This little bistro is always hopping, so weekdays are best for a leisurely breakfast or lunch without a wait. Note the dinner prices go up considerably.
For over 26 years, locals have been lining up outside this grocery store's grab-and-go window for authentic Cuban coffee and sandwiches. Even tourists have gotten hip to this spot off the beaten path, the adventurous seek it out at the corner of Southard and Grinnell Streets. The high-test Cuban coffee will start your day off with a jolt at a fraction of the cost of any coffee chain. Family-owned, they're known for having the best Cuban Mix sandwich in town. The traditional Cuban sandwich has mustard, dill pickles, roast pork, ham and Swiss cheese layered between pressed Cuban bread. The Key West Mix version adds mayonnaise lettuce and tomato. Closed on Sundays.
Recommended for Best Value because: Over 26 years, people have been lining up outside this grocery store for authentic Cuban coffee and the best Cuban Mix sandwich on-the-cheap.
Claudia's expert tip: Try the bollos, a hush puppy style snack made from black eyed peas. The old-timers claim this is the only place that makes them right. Cash only.
Off the beaten path, this no-frills restaurant serves up generous portions of the best Cuban food on the island at reasonable prices. Mid-day the place is usually bustling with the local lunch break crowd mixed with a healthy dose of visitors in-the-know. The hodge-podge décor includes diner-style tables covered in a red pepper-patterned plastic table cloths, photos of Cuba and a life-size wooden Indian--a nod to the namesake Cuban tribe. A basket of fresh Cuban bread arrives at your table first with thick fluffy slices slathered in butter. Pair it with a pitcher of the house sangria. Follow up with your order of entrees like tender roast pork or perfectly-spiced picadillo (a ground beef entrée). The food comes quickly accompanied by a plate overflowing with fried plantains so sweet you may not even want dessert. Of course, you'll have dessert. The rich creamy flan is too yummy to ignore.
Recommended for Best Value because: Off the beaten path, this no-frills diner serves up generous portions of the best Cuban food on the island at reasonable prices.
Claudia's expert tip: Watch the daily specials for some real treats like the white bean soup on Mondays and Oxtail on Saturdays.
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 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?
Recommended for Best Value because: This laid-back joint offers fresh seafood and waterfront dining at prices that won't break the bank.
Claudia's expert tip: At their happy hour, 4:30-6:30pm daily, you can score 50% off well drinks, beer and house wines plus discounts on menu items.
This seafood shack may look like it's barley 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.
Recommended for Best Value because: At this funky seafood shack, the best cracked conch sandwich in town will only set you back twelve bucks.
Claudia's expert tip: While it may look like a junk heap from afar, there's a hidden gem of a restaurant inside.
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.
Recommended for Best Value because: A true local's joint just five minutes away from Old Town, Hogfish is a great value with their namesake specialty and waterfront views.
Claudia's expert tip: It's called "a great place if you can find it" for a reason. Punch the address into your GPS and watch for the signs to Stock Island.
The Caribbean-inspired Bien (formerly known as Paseo) keeps a low profile. There's no large sign, Facebook page--or much seating for that matter. None of those things have kept this spot from quickly becoming a local's fave for its tasty dishes, large portions and low prices. The sandwiches are the stars of the menu, served on toasted baguette with aioli, fresh cilantro, pickled jalapenos, crisp romaine and caramelized onions. Packed full of juicy meats like Cuban roast pork in the "secret" Paseo Sauce. Roasted corn, rice bowls and fish in red sauce are other stand-out entrees. Bien does mostly take-out business, but they have three outside tables. Misters over the tables help stave off the tropical heat.
Recommended for Best Value because: Despite a low profile, the Caribbean-inspired Bien (formerly Paseo) quickly became a local's fave for its tasty dishes, large portions and low prices.
Claudia's expert tip: The sandwiches are wrapped tightly in paper, to minimize the mess. Peel off the paper as you go, like a banana.
Key West's only noodle bar is easy to miss. The tiny spot on Southard Street is just a half-block off Duval but doesn't have flashy signage. It has a trendy, yet warm vibe in a New York eatery-style. With only a handful of seats at the bar and upstairs, this places stays packed, mostly with locals. Try the Pho, a popular street food in Vietnam. Made with rice noodles, thin slices of beef, cabbage and herbs in a savory broth, it has a reputation as the perfect hangover cure. Portions are huge, but they offer half orders. The fresh lime-aid is to die for, and they have a wide sake selection.
Recommended for Best Value because: The Pho alone makes Kojin a must-try, and the portions are huge. A half-order is plenty and a great value.
Claudia's expert tip: For the late-night cravings, they're open until midnight. Plus, they deliver and offer take-out.