Fun restaurants from Key Largo to Key West that serve up outrageous food and ambiance
Culinary island hopping in the Florida Keys turns up some great places for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Savor everything from fresh seafood just plucked from the waters hours earlier to heaping platters of Cuban food to quintessential pub grub like pizza and beer and always a slice of the famous Key lime pie. Get ready to chow down and have some fun.
Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen, Key Largo
This is the closest thing you’ll find to a diner, complete with bright red counters and walls covered with license plates from obscure places like the Repubblica di San Marino and The Klondike,Yukon. It’s a local favorite for breakfast, and folks rave about its thick Key lime pie. Best Bite: Sure you can get a traditional diner breakfast of eggs with bacon and hash browns kicked up a notch with slices of French toast, but if your visit to the islands has you craving seafood, order the crab cake Benedict with the smoothest hollandaise sauce. ____________________________________
The Fish House, Key Largo
Walk through the door at the Fish House and the tantalizing aroma of seafood cooking in a medley of herbs wafts through the air. Strung across the ceilings are fish nets and strands of colored lights shaped like conch shells, flip-flops and tiki gods. A local crowd fills the bar, and tables are close together in this jam-packed dining room where the din of conversation is constant. Best Bites: Start with the shrimp bundles, large shrimp marinated in garlic, honey and lemon juice, wrapped in fresh basil leaf and prosciutto and then baked. First-time diners should order the signature Matecumbe, baked fish topped with fresh tomatoes, shallots, basil, capers, olive oil and lemon juice.
Sundowners, Key Largo
At this chef-driven restaurant on the Florida Bay, sunset viewing is de rigueur at dinner. Sit inside where glass walls provide a panorama of the Florida Bay, outdoors on the covered terrace or right on the edge of the water. Sundowners chef/owner Bobby Stoky grew up fishing, cleaning and preparing the catch before turning chef and adding his culinary touch to the seafood that comes out of the kitchen. Best Bites: Stoky’s jumbo lump crab cakes are made with big clusters of meat and minimum bread crumbs; he serves them with his creamy whole grain mustard sauce. Yellowtail is the restaurant’s star on the menu; order it whole, dusted in cornmeal and fried; sautéed in garlic butter or blackened with mango salsa.
Lazy Days, Islamorada
In Islamorada, the sport fishing capital of the world, recreational fishermen are always returning with freshly caught grouper, mahimahi and an occasional black fin tuna. The chefs at Lazy Days will prepare it for you fried, grilled, blackened or even sushi style. Just grab a table on the white sandy beach or on the second level terrace facing the Atlantic and enjoy. Best Bites: If you didn’t go fishing, order from the oversize menu chock-full of seafood prepared in a zillion ways. Lightly breaded and fried cracked conch is a hit here, and the catch of the day served Lazy Days style with panko bread crumbs, tomatoes, Parmesan cheese and Key lime butter will melt in your mouth.
No Name Pub, Big Pine Key
If you haven’t had any luck spotting a Key deer during your visit, try stopping at the No Name Pub on Big Pine Key at dusk. The miniature deer are usually spotted just outside the restaurant, which is set in a house-like building on a back road off U.S. Highway 1. Its walls and ceilings are covered with thick layers of dollar bills signed and taped there by diners over the years. Best Bites: It’s all about sharing dishes here, starting with orders of the spicy conch fritters and the smoked fish dip, followed by a pizza pie laden with toppings from the traditional to the unexpected like Key West shrimp. Wash it all down with a cold one; ask which Florida beers are on tap.
Hogfish Bar & Grill, Stock Island
A quintessential fish shack, the open-air Hogfish Bar & Grill is within a working fisheries on the neighboring island to Key West. Picnic tables line the waterfront where shrimpers navigate their trawlers and sailboats tie up. A pole of wooden signs pointing to Havana, Cuba 89 miles, Geiger Key 6 miles and other fun destinations stands tall at the entrance. You’ll find a nice mix of regulars and visitors dining under the thatched roof. Best Bites: It’s all about the hogfish. Whether you order it seasoned, grilled and served in a basket with fries or as a sandwich tucked in Cuban bread and topped with Swiss cheese, onions and mushrooms, you have to taste this white meaty fish that’s a Keys staple.
Blue Heaven, Key West
People wait for a table at this funky spot in the Bahama Village, a neighborhood settled decades ago by Bahamians. Cocooned by thick tropical foliage the outdoor bar and dining area are decorated with hand-painted signage and all kinds of colorful paraphernalia. Check out the row of blue bottles decorating the rooftop and the upstairs bathrooms where walls are covered with newspaper clips from the 40s and 50s. The highlight here is the free-roaming “chickens” that strut around the grounds, occasionally offering up a cock-a-doodle-doo to the delight of diners. Best Bites: Blue Heaven has become a favorite for breakfast with dishes like the made-from- scratch banana pancakes and the lobster eggs Benedict scoring big. But no matter what hour of the day, order a slice of the 5-inch-high Key lime pie, which has 4 inches of toasted meringue in perfect peaks and a crunchy graham cracker crust that puts all others to shame.
El Meson de Pepe, Key West
Set on the edge of Mallory Square, where throngs of sunset gazers gather nightly, is the Cuban El Meson de Pepe restaurant. Its outdoor bar serves super-strong mojitos while the inside dining room has all the makings of a nostalgic Havana street scene and an airplane suspended from the ceiling in honor of Cuban-American aviator Agustin Parla. Best Bites: Despite being in the thick of tourist traffic, El Meson de Pepe delivers surprisingly authentic Cuban food that’s as tasty as you’d expect from a mom-and-pop kitchen in Miami’s Little Havana, maybe even better. Find all the traditional pork (lechon asado) and beef (ropa vieja) dishes along with seafood like shrimp in a zesty Cuban Creole sauce.