Adventures in the Conch Republic: Key West Dining

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Last week, I took some much needed vacation time and made the three-and-a-half-hour drive down to Key West for a bit of R and R, Conch-style. And what a great trip. I hadn't been to the Keys in nearly 10 years, which is far too long an time for any self-respecting South Floridian with liver intact. But driving down that two-lane strip of US-1, past roadside shacks promising the "world's best Key lime pie" and hand-drawn signs promising whole lobsters for less than $5 a pound, it felt like the Keys hadn't changed at all in my absence. Aside from the construction entering Largo (and what a maddening experience it is to get stuck behind someone going 25 on that stretch), the drive is idyllic and untouched. You pass in and out of these small islands, and the scenery changes constantly, from the Shell Worlds and mega-hotels of Largo to the sleepy docks of Marathon and the long, isolating expanse of the Seven Mile Bridge. Through it all, that sense of Old Florida remains the sole constant -- the leathered, booze soaked vibe that seems to get hauled onto the docks alongside mountains of bountiful sea life. For someone used to heading north through the boring flatlands near the Turnpike, it was a welcome change.

Arriving in Key West, we were determined to hit up all the old stops we missed so: The Southernmost Point, a short step from our eponymous hotel down the road, which overlooked Duval's South Beach. The Hemingway House, where it's impossible not to be in awe of a man, a writer, who understood life as equal parts high adventure and simple pleasure. And the restaurants, a collection of eateries inspired by the wonders of fresh seafood, joie de vivre, and a healthy dose of oddball quirk.

Unfortunately for us, many of Key West's most unique dining ports of call were shuttered for September, a hellishly languid month for all the restaurant industry. In the Keys, this is exacerbated by air as thick as bread pudding and constantly alternating states of tropical rain and sweltering heat. Yet, we managed to find a few very worthy restaurants still slinging food in this quiet time of year. On the whole, they were worth the trip, even if Blue Heaven and Cafe Sole were closed. Below is a couple of quick hits from our journeys.

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Cafe Marquesa
600 Fleming St., Key West 33040
305-292-1919

The converted 1880s "conch" houses that form the Marquesa Hotel back up to this lovely boutique restaurant that serves an ever-changing menu of local seafood married with worldly flavors. Here, Chef Susan Ferry creates unexpected pleasures out of yellowtail snapper, working the fillet into an herb-dusted medallion and then setting it off with a summery caponata graced with pine nuts and capers. She'll capriciously pair contrasting flavors to great success, as in a duo of soups that features chilled green apple and fennel alongside a spicy broth of Thai lemongrass and basil studded with luscious, grilled pink shrimp. Then there's the simple perfection of flawlessly cooked vegetables, haricot verts and sugar snap peas that crunch with flavor. And though you'll struggle to fit in dessert with portions this large, the romantic dining room will beg for a finish of smooth peanut butter cheesecake outfitted with two spoons.

Schooner Wharf Bar
202 William St., Key West 33040
305-292-3302

After savoring this Schooner Wharf's signature dish of peel-and-eat drunken shrimp basted in beer and spices, our waitress came back to the table to give us a hint. "Make sure you save the shells so you can feed the fish on the docks," she instructed. It's the sort of advice you'll only get at a true local's place, a dive bar that sits right on the harbor and is constructed out of what looks like flotsam and jetsam. Originally located aboard an actual schooner, the bar moved ashore and became a haven for writers, musicians, drunks, and poets, each looking wash down mojo-marinated Mahi Mahi sandwiches with frosted bottles of Key West Sunset Ale. The bar is a picture of Old Florida, from the din of the boat captains just a few feet away to the Buffett-esque philosophies of singer-songwriter Michael McCloud, who plays on the ramshackle stage just about every day. And those fish do bite: With shrimp shells in tow, we coaxed jack fish, tarpon, and a hungry-looking nurse shark out from under the docks. They seemed to enjoy the place too.

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Camille's
1202 Simonton St., Key West 33040
305-296-4811

If you're in Key West and looking to eat, chances are you're after a sublime slice of Key lime pie. You'll find it at Camille's, an eccentric and eclectic diner just off the beaten path. Order a slice of pie in the pink and blue rooms and savor that tart-sweet custard and cinnamon-infused graham cracker crust as images of Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin look down from above. But be sure you don't stop there: the menu changes daily and features supremely fresh local seafood. For breakfast, try the Florida lobster and asparagus omelet, a giant stack of banana and walnut studded buttermilk pancakes, or some of the best eggs Benedict you'll ever taste, with creamy poached eggs set atop lump crab cakes and dressed with velvety hollandaise. At dinner, you'll find snapper, grouper, and stone crab claws sided with honey Dijon mayo. No matter when you go, the friendly staff will go out of their way to make you feel like part of the same island culture that spawned such a quirky joint. 
 

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