Island Flavors and Creative Chefs Make Key West Restaurants Shine



Dining in Key West is a multi-cultural adventure for your tastebuds. As people from Cuba, the Bahamas and other locales settled in Key West long ago, there was a natural blending of flavors that formed the beginnings of new world cuisine. While you may find a few chains on the island, most of the restaurants here are small gems with talented chefs using fresh ingredients like hogfish, Florida lobster, Key West pink shrimp, Key lime, passion fruit, pineapple, avocado and mango.

For authentic Cuban cuisine, look no further than El Meson de Pepe off of Mallory Square where the mojitos are strong and the pork spiced to perfection. The upscale Hot Tin Roof  at Ocean Key Resort turns up the heat a little bit more with a Pan-Latin menu and dishes like homemade chorizo and paella. For more Caribbean-inspired items, Blue Heaven in Bahama Village turns out an amazing jerk chicken–not to mention a world-famous Key lime pie. Some top restaurants in Key West are no more than shacks like BO’s Fish Wagon, which has one of the best fish sandwiches in town. At Half Shell Raw Bar, fresh seafood unloaded right there at the docks takes center stage. When you’re ready to cool things down, Duetto has the best gelato on the island made fresh each day. Here are just 10 of the fabulous restaurants that Key West has to offer near the cruise port. Be brave and try something new. You’ll be glad you did.



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La Creperie French Cafe
Photo courtesy of La Creperie


 

Tucked away in the charming Bahama Village, many visitors stumble across this quaint French cafe while waiting in line at the popular Blue Heaven Restaurant across the street. But once they've tried the scrumptious crepes turned out by the owners from the Morbihan region in France, La Creperie becomes a regular addition to their vacation itineraries. You can sit at the bar and watch authentic crepes being made from scratch, or you can enjoy the island breezes and dine al fresco. Perfect for breakfast, lunch or late-afternoon snack (they close at 5:00 p.m.), La Creperie has the best Croque Monsieur/ Croque Madame on the island. Homemade ice cream, fresh grilled paninis, and espresso round out the menu. Many items are organic and free of GMOs.


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At the Grand Café, a casual Key West atmosphere is mixed with white tablecloths and an impressive wine selection. Located in a stunning Victorian Mansion on Duval St., this spot is prime for people watching. The service is top-notch with knowledgeable waiters who can guide you through their menu and wine offerings. During lunch, the Grand serves up spinach and goat cheese paninis, steak frites, and good-old-fashioned BLT's on its wraparound porch. At dinner, try the seared sea scallops in a key-lime butter wine or the New Zealand rack of lamb. Don't forget about their specialty cocktails, like the lychee martini with Stoli Vanilla, pineapple and lychee juice.


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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 has become a staple in Key West – and with good reason. The fresh fish sandwiches are simple, yet they're also the best in town. 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 (but will close early if they aren't busy), and on Friday nights there is an all-out musical jam session.


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Hidden down a small walkway off Duval, you'll discover the enchanting garden of Onlywood Pizzeria Trattoria. Owners Davide Cremascoli and Alessandro Piazzo, who grew up in a small village in Napoletana Italy, are devoted to bringing you the most authentic Italian pizza possible. If you sit inside, you can watch your pizza being made from scratch and baked in the the 2-ton wood fired oven imported from Italy. With a great attention to detail, they only use oak wood to maintain the proper temperature inside the oven. Their mozzarella is made fresh daily, and superfine flour makes for a very light thin crust. Pair your meal with a glass (or carafe) of their refreshing homemade sangria made with fresh mint.


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Duval Street
The Conch Shack
Photo courtesy of The Conch Shack


 

This blink-and-you'll-miss-it corner stand doesn't look like much, but they have some of the best conch fritters in Key West. You may have to wait a few minutes if there's a line, but it's worth it. The fritters are made to order, perfectly cooked and served with a Key lime aioli. If you score one of the few stools at their walk-up bar, settle in with a cold beer to watch the parade of people go by. If it's a warm day, they turn on misters to help everyone stay cool. Note that their hours are based on island time: "11ish to 10ish weeknights and til midnight on weekends." If it's raining, all bets are off.


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In Key West, this restaurant needs little introduction. Enter a private courtyard to find roaming chickens, lounging cats soaking in the sun, and live music lingering in the air. Grab a seat outdoors under the shaded canopy or indoors in the "tree house" or dining room. Southern and Caribbean fare is served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but breakfast is always jam-packed. Expect jerk chicken sandwiches and shrimp melts for lunch, pork tenderloin and snapper in citrus sauce for dinner, and at breakfast, the lobster Benedict is the way to go. Parking is extremely limited, so to be courteous to the neighbors walking or bike riding is encouraged.


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Located at the Historic Seaport, this no-frills spot is popular with locals and tourists alike for their happy hour specials. From 4:30-6:30 p.m. daily, you can score two-for-one cocktails and discounts on menu items. The restaurant has a long-standing reputation for the freshest of seafood--you can actually watch it being unloaded from the boats at the docks. Don't expect white tablecloths. Patrons sit at communal picnic tables and eat off paper plates with plastic utensils. Your best bet is the "shuckers station" where you get heaps of fresh shrimp, oysters, clams and crabs. Try their frozen pina colada for dessert.


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This new venue won't be kept a secret for long! The friendly owners, Leonardo and Giancarlo, offer samples of their creamy gelato that is homemade using milk imported from Italy. Once you try their fantastic gelato, you'll be back for more! Flavors include coconut, pistachio, hazelnut, and chocolate rum - all that pair perfectly with an espresso! The cafe also serves pizzas stuffed with prosciutto, salami, olives, fresh tomatoes, anchovies and mozzarella cheese. The roast beef panini melts in your mouth, and if you still have room take one of their baked goods to go. With a location on Green Street, the crowds will find it soon!


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Cuban food is an integral part of Key West's culinary DNA, and El Meson de Pepe serves up classic dishes like roast pork and plantains in a historic red brick building off of Mallory Square. You can choose to sit inside on the warmer days, or enjoy outdoor dining with chickens running across the patio. Order one of their signature mojitos, a Cuban cocktail made with fresh mint, lime and rum. Yes, they're $10 a pop but so worth it. If you're there for lunch, don't miss their classic Media Noche Sandwich with sugar glazed ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard dressing on sweet, pressed bread. Every night at sunset, the salsa band, Caribe of Key West, creates a festive atmosphere, while people dance and mingle outside at the patio bar. Average dinner entrees are $16, while lunch sandwiches average $10. Reservations are recommended.


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Duval Street
Hot Tin Roof
Photo courtesy of 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.


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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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