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Key West's Budget-Friendly Eateries: Short on Frills, Long on Character



Vacation budget a little tight? Key West has several reasonably-priced eateries, and while they may be short on frills, they’re long on character. Since the Southernmost City is primarily a tourist destination, follow the traveler's rule of thumb--go where the locals eat. The tiny Kojin Noodle Bar and the Caribbean-styled Bien (formerly Paseo) get top recommendations from Key West denizens for large portions at low prices. Kojin's Pho, a popular street food in Vietnam, has a reputation as the perfect hangover cure. Go-to casual seafood joints include Hogfish Bar and Grill on Stock Island, Half Shell Raw Bar by the Historic Seaport and a true fish shack, BO’s Fish Wagon. Hogfish and Half Shell have especially good deals during happy hour, and BO's has the best cracked conch sandwich on the island. For authentic Cuban food at low prices, El Siboney with its diner decor and the Five Brothers Grocery's walk-up window shine. For over 26 years, people have been lining up outside Five Brothers for their high-test Cuban coffee and Cuban Mix sandwich. The old-school Pepe’s Cafe and Steakhouse (open since 1909) and the French Banana Cafe are a fantastic value for breakfast, brunch and lunch, but prices go up significantly for dinner. Santiago’s Bodega in Bahama Village offers gourmet Spanish tapas without the extra tiny plates and budget-busting bill in a warm and cozy setting.


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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.


Pepe's Cafe and Steakhouse
Photo courtesy of Amber Nolan


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.


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Duval Street


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.


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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.




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.




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?




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.




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.




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.


Kojin Noodle Bar
Photo courtesy of Kojin Noodle Bar


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.


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Meet 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...  More About Claudia

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