The Florida Keys have access to some of the freshest seafood in the country, making dining in this scenic archipelago a consistent pleasure. But unlike in, say, New Orleans or Charleston, there are very few dressy options. There is no need to bring a sport coat. Indeed, most venues don’t even require pants. Shorts are acceptable almost everywhere. Similarly, presentations tend to be unfussy, and portions are frequently large. Prices, however, are not necessarily commensurate with the casual atmosphere. It’s common to find main courses costing upward of $30, even in restaurants that seemingly haven’t seen a fresh coat of paint in decades.
Conch is a popular ingredient in appetizers, appearing in chowders and hush puppy-like fritters, or fried in chunks. It takes on the flavor of whatever coats it. Fresh fish, including grouper, snapper, mahi-mahi, hogfish and lionfish tend to be superb, and the sweet local lobster tails are barely more expensive than the fish. Stone crab is a seasonal delight. The region’s most famous dish, Key lime pie, has ruined dessert menus for the length of the Overseas Highway. It is delicious but ubiquitous, and it has crowded out more-creative options. Wine lists, too, are often disappointing. The same uninspiring choices appeared time and again on by-the-glass menus, indicating that a single wine distributor has the Keys in its grip. Local craft beers are an appealing alternative, and cocktails tend to be large and strong.
All the restaurants below have outdoor seating. In addition to these recommendations, consider dining on the beach patio of Il Postino, the main restaurant of the Isla Bella Beach Resort, my preferred property in Marathon. I also enjoyed our sunset-view dinners on the terraces of Latitudes and Hot Tin Roof in Key West, though the hotels with which they’re affiliated are not recommendable.
We had a wonderfully romantic dinner at this more formal French-inflected restaurant, occupying a plantation-style mansion facing the water. From our candlelit linen-draped table on the upper wraparound veranda, we had a magnificent view of a palm-dotted beach and an archipelago beyond, all backdropped by a sensational sunset. I started with a fine crispy-skinned duck confit, accompanied by pickled red cabbage, fried gigante beans and a Bing cherry-brandy jus. A grapefruity but refined glass of Le Petit Silex Sancerre stood up nicely to a flawless local lobster tail in a mildly spicy Thai curry sauce with baby bok choy and sweet purple rice. And we were happy we splurged on the Key lime tart, which had a silky filling topped with fluffy meringue. Be sure to ask about specials; our otherwise conscientious waiter neglected to tell us about a foie gras appetizer and the olive oil-sea salt gelato dessert. Pierre’s was, without question, my favorite restaurant in the whole of the Keys. Arrive early to enjoy an aperitif on the beach or in the bar. Dinner only, reservations required.
81600 Overseas Highway. Tel. (305) 664-3225
This casual and friendly restaurant is an ideal spot for lunch, with a terrace overlooking a small marina and a mangrove channel extending beyond it. While waiting for a table (reservations are not accepted), sipping Islamorada Beer Company “Sandbar Sunday” American Pale Wheat Ales at a rail along the terrace’s edge, we spotted a manatee just below. Once seated in the shade, I enjoyed a bowl of conch chowder, resembling a spicier version of Manhattan-style clam chowder, and some soft corn tortillas filled with blackened yellowtail snapper, pickled red onion, queso fresco, jalapeños and Key lime crema. The tacos would surely have pleased any Baja native. A light and surprisingly dry Florida Keys Brewing Company “Iguana Bait” Honey-Hibiscus Kölsch was an excellent accompaniment. Closed Monday and Tuesday.
80460 Overseas Highway. Tel. (786) 901-5678
The battered sign, picnic-table seating and absence of waitstaff could well be off-putting, but the seafood here is some of the freshest you’ll find. Walk up to the window to the left of the retail fish market and order from the menu posted on the wall. The prices reflect the seafood’s quality. When we visited for lunch, main courses, most including the choice of two sides, ran from $20 to $36. After procuring pints (in plastic cups) of Islamorada Beer Company “No Wake Zone” Coconut Key Lime Ale from the separate bar, I tucked into a cup of stone crab chowder, a soup that doesn’t often appear on menus at home. It was rather like cream of potato soup with bacon, enhanced by delicate bits of fresh crab. I followed it with moist baked grouper topped with a crust of panko and Parmesan, accompanied by sides of black beans and fresh broccoli and carrots. The presentation — on a plastic tray, with plastic cutlery and paper napkins — could not have been more casual, but the quality of the fish was unimpeachable.
3502 Gulfview Avenue. Tel. (305) 743-4353
I felt similarly skeptical pulling up to this popular but rather divey-looking restaurant. It doesn’t seem like the sort of place that takes reservations, but I was very glad that we had made them. The harried host was turning people away when we arrived for dinner. We’d confirmed a table on the broad terrace, which had lovely views of a bay and the sun as it sank behind Isla Bella Beach Resort. The menu was quite lengthy, but our friendly waiter was happy to help us navigate it. Since most of the appetizers sounded rather large, I opted again for the conch chowder. This version had a savory broth reminiscent of gumbo, with tomatoes, potatoes and chunks of conch. My main course proved to be one of my favorites of the entire trip: yellowtail snapper sautéed with mushrooms and capers in a tequila cream sauce. The fish was as subtle as sole. Quite a few other dishes on the menu sounded tempting, and I wouldn’t hesitate to return, casual though the atmosphere may be. Reservations highly recommended.
Lazy Days South
725 11th Street Ocean. Tel. (305) 289-0839
Tucked away a few blocks east of the bustle of Duval Street, this Mediterranean-influenced restaurant has a tranquil covered patio with well-spaced tables. I started with Key West pink shrimp in a beurre blanc accompanied by slices of fresh and crusty baguette. In need of a break from seafood, I ordered the pepper-crusted pork tenderloin for my main course. It, too, was delicious, served with a rich veal reduction, spicy arugula and shavings of pecorino. The pork gave me an excuse to order a hearty red, the deep and peppery Michael Pozzan “Annabella” blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. This cozy restaurant, though affiliated with a small hotel, feels untouristy and more like a neighborhood bistro. Reservations highly recommended.
425 Grinnell Street. Tel. (305) 292-2987
I won’t soon forget our lunch on the expansive garden patio of this microbrewery and restaurant in the former headquarters of Pan Am. A server arrived at our table after we’d ordered, bearing a bowl. “Snapper!” he proclaimed, referencing the whole snapper we’d decided to split. Unexpectedly, I could see clams on the side of the dish. I reconfirmed that we had ordered snapper. “Yes, the whole snapper,” he said, putting down a bowl of clams. When I gingerly pointed out this fact, the server looked at the clams for a long moment, and his face clouded. As he withdrew the bowl, he said very gravely, “This is my fault.” We never saw him again. The actual whole snapper arrived shortly thereafter, very fresh and lightly fried, topped with sweet-spicy chile sauce and accompanied by Broccolini and jasmine rice. It was well worth the effort required to debone it. Both First Flight’s “Czech Engine” Pilsner and the “Main Squeeze” Citrus Wheat Ale worked well with the fish, but not so the bitter and sour “Havana Red” Amber Ale. The food menu here contains few unique dishes. But the snapper and the Key lime pie we tried were delicious, the patio is lovely, and the history of the building is fascinating. Plus, the server provided such a delightfully baffling experience, I am rather eager to return.
First Flight Island Restaurant & Brewery
301 Whitehead Street. Tel. (305) 293-8484
I like this spot especially for its fashionable patio, with a central location on Duval Street. Since we were nearing the end of our trip when we lunched here, it seemed obligatory to finally order one of Key West’s most famous dishes: conch fritters. Served with Key lime aioli, these proved surprisingly light. I also liked the spicy togarashi-seasoned tuna poke, rich with sesame flavor, accompanied by seaweed salad, pickled ginger and crunchy wonton chips. A refreshing Pilar Blonde Mojito, made with local rum, was an ideal pairing. The lobster roll and the fish tacos that I saw pass by made me wish that I’d had room to order them as well. Reservations recommended.
700 Duval Street. Tel. (305) 294-8002
Also on Duval Street, this Italian- and Spanish-influenced restaurant occupying a former house is one of Key West’s more upscale options. We had a table on the first-floor terrace (request the second floor if it’s available), from which we could do some people-watching at a safe distance. I opted to start with the clams. They arrived with savory coins of chorizo and lightly charred crostini that were sensational for sopping up the white-wine broth. I followed the clams with the special of fresh hogfish in a well-balanced caper-spiked cream sauce, served atop fresh asparagus and risotto. I also enjoyed our dessert, a bar of velvety Key lime pie brûléed and served with orange sorbet and tangy grapefruit supreme. Nine One Five is justly popular; be sure to make reservations in advance.
Nine One Five
915 Duval Street. Tel. (305) 296-0669
Located on Stock Island, making it an ideal choice for lunch on the way into or out of neighboring Key West, this casual and popular option is hidden down a side street several blocks off U.S. Route 1. We secured a table on its marina-side terrace, and I couldn’t resist ordering a Hemingway daiquiri, which our ebullient waitress confirmed was the best cocktail on the menu. The bartender had a heavy hand with the maraschino liqueur, however, resulting in an unbalanced drink with too strong a note of cherry pit. Fortunately, the food was much better. Indeed, the lobster bisque was one of the finest examples I’ve had, with a creamy broth packed with sweet lobster chunks. I also relished the “stuffed hogfish,” two fresh hogfish fillets with a savory cake of crab and shrimp sandwiched in between, drizzled with a mango cream sauce. Again, the atmosphere and service are extremely casual, but the quality of the seafood is superb.
Hogfish Bar & Grill
6810 Front Street, Stock Island. Tel. (305) 293-4041