You won't find AAA Five Diamond restaurants in the Florida Keys. Why, then, are mealtimes the highlight of every visitor's day?
To hopscotch island to island along the Overseas Highway is a voyage through unique cultural and culinary history. As separate islands years ago, the Keys had closer ties to the Bahamas and Cuba than to Miami or Tampa. Albeit tongue in cheek, the Keys once seceded from the Union to form the Conch Republic.
Cuban, African and Caribbean influences reign. Step up to a window in a street-side shack and order a Jamaican patty or a bowl of Bahamian pigeon peas, creamy with rice and pungent with thyme. The classic Cuban dish Moros y Christianos (black beans and rice) is dished out for pittance prices. Downing Cuban coffee is a reverent ritual. Yet these islands also are adored by the silver-spoon set, who easily find beluga caviar on menus.
Key West alone is a dining tour de force. The iconic Pisces, formerly the Cafe des Artistes, holds honors galore, including a Wine Spectator award. Walls filled with Andy Warhol works look down on a mellow palette of restful neutrals, gleaming crystal, crisp nappery. Pisces calls itself a seafood place, but the expansive repertoire ranges from surf to turf, and caviar to foie gras. Dine on the local catch — snapper, grouper, shrimp, tuna — but also on cold-water halibut and Maine lobster.
The list of Key West dining experiences goes on and on: Hot Tin Roof, Latitudes and the beloved La Te Da. Once the home of Cuban revolutionary Jose Marti, La Terraza de Marti became a hotel with a sophisticated restaurant. Discerning diners also will find sublime meals at Atlantic's Edge in Islamorada and The Dining Room at Little Palm Island, reached only by boat. They'll send a launch for you, and the pricey but praised menu wins raves. The castaway experience isn't for everyone, though.
The boat ride to Little Palm Island is, however, typical of the interactive adventure aspect of the Keys dining experience. The Hungry Tarpon in Islamorada is humble, but Keys insiders know that the restaurant serves the best fish tacos on the planet. It's also the home of Robbie's Marina and a unique tourism experience. Years ago, Robbie Reckwerdt began feeding an injured tarpon that couldn't survive in the wild. Soon more tarpon showed up, attracting tourists who delight in feeding them while snapping photos of the silvery fish.
The Sunset Grill in Marathon is another hangout where families go for lunch, then spend the afternoon around the swimming pool. After dark the eatery is still informal, but the food and raw/steam bar are uptown all the way. The huge menu includes a long sushi list, specialty drinks, local and flown-in seafood cooked to order, and a children's menu.
Like most islands in the limin' latitudes, the Keys abound in slummy saloons visited by yachties, anglers and Navy veterans who once were stationed in Key West.
Old salts point to Key West's Schooner Wharf and the beloved Green Parrot, where sailors still gather to swap yarns and hoist their ration of grog. Ask around. If you're lucky, someone may let you in on the secret.
Florida Keys Cuisine: A Glossary
Cay: Pronounced “key” in the Caribbean is “kay” here.
Chickee: The Florida word for a tiki hut, a thatched roof with open sides. It provides shade by day and often is a substantial structure for night life too.
Conch: Pronounced “konk,” usually is served as small, rubbery bits in chowder or fritters. No longer harvested legally in Florida, it's imported. Conch also refers to a person who is a Keys native.
Dolphin: That's not Flipper here. It's the fish also known as dorado or mahi-mahi.
Florida lobster: Also called spiny lobster. Only the tail is eaten.
Hogfish: One of the many types of snapper found in the Keys.
Key lime: If your pie is green, run for the exit. Key limes are tiny, yellow and have a faint vanilla essence. The crust may be graham cracker or pastry. The topping may be meringue or whipped cream.
Limin': Caribbean term for hanging out with a drink.
Star fruit: A tart citrus fruit shaped like a star, it's often served in thin slices as a garnish.
Where to eat
The Overseas Highway, or U.S. Highway 1, runs through the Florida Keys for 127.5 miles. Locals refer to specific locations by mile marker numbers, which end — or is it start? — at Mile Marker 0 in Key West, the southernmost point in the continguous states.
Atlantic's Edge: AAA Four Diamond restaurant at Cheeca Lodge, Mile Marker 82, Islamorada, 800-327-2888, cheeca.com. The key words are fresh, local and seafood. If you've caught a fish, have it prepared blackened, onion-crusted, fried or grilled. Pureed Yukon Gold potatoes and a seasonable vegetable complete the plate.
Islamorada Fish Co.: Mile Marker 81.5, Islamorada, 305-664-9271, restaurants.basspro.com/fishcompany. It's a chain and may the tribe increase. Grouper sandwiches, Key lime pie and the fish pond keeps kids wide-eyed.
Hungry Tarpon: Mile Marker 78, Islamorada, 305-664-0535, hungrytarpon.com. Seafood including three choices of seafood tacos. Mexican favorites in a laid-back manana ambience.
Alma: Hawks Cay Resort, Mile Marker 61, Duck Key, 877-514-3967, hawkscay.com. Soft sea breezes, a poolside bonfire crackling in the background, robust sangria and a sublime Latin-inspired menu. For lunch try the resort's Beach Grill.
Sunset Grille and Raw Bar: Mile Marker 47, Marathon, 305-396-7235, sunsetgrille7milebridge.com. Extensive selections for breakfast, lunch and dinner from hogfish to hot dogs, steamers to steaks.
The Dining Room at Little Palm Island: Mile Marker 28.5, Little Torch Key, 305-872-2524, littlepalmisland.com. If you're weary of seafood, have the coriander crusted elk or the Colorado lamb.
Hot Tin Roof: Ocean Key Resort & Spa, 0 Duval St., Key West, 305-296-7701, oceankey.com. Score a table timed to see the sunset and select from a lavish menu of small plates, large plates and side plates that include a heavenly mac and cheese with crabmeat.
La Te Da: 1125 Duval St., Key West, 305-296-6706, lateda.com. The eclectic menu ranges from Lacquered Duck and Le Meatloaf with mashed potatoes to the famous Key lime pie with chocolate ganache crust.
Latitudes: Westin Key West Resort, 245 Front St. 305-292-5300, westinsunsetkeycottages.com. Have small plates at the bar or go all out with ginger-braised short ribs or the seafood ravioli with lobster and black truffles.