3 min

Edible Key West

Exploring the Conch Republic one bite at a time

The shrimp boil at Hogfish Bar & Grill is a highlight of the annual Key West Food and Wine Festival. Credit: Lesley Fraser

Gay and lesbian foodies dreaming about sunny getaways this winter should consider an old standby: Key West.

Like Provincetown in the northeast, the continental United States’ southernmost city was geographically isolated until well into the 20th century and became a haven for artists and homos. But even if it looks a bit like New England, its lush vegetation, riotous colour and Spanish feel make it more Caribbean than Floridian. And as the Conchs, as the locals are known, like to say, “the Puritans never made it this far south.” Maybe that’s why the food’s better.

If you like your travel themed, consider one of the many festivals and events that fill the calendar, from the bacchanalian Fantasy Fest to the Hemingway Days Festival to the annual fishing tournament. Sadly, the short-lived ChickenFest (which celebrated the town’s ubiquitous free-roaming poultry) is no more, but food tourists have other options.

A highlight is the five-year-old Food and Wine Festival, which this year kicks off with a beach party on Jan 22 and runs through the 26th (if you’re really keen, you could start the weekend before, at the Key Largo and Islamorada Food & Wine Festival). Must-dos include the Let Them Eat Cake masquerade party at the Green Pineapple boutique; the mile-long Duval Uncorked, a drinking and eating tour of the famous strip’s restaurants, shops and galleries; the Key West Kitchen Tour, which stops at a number of local restaurants; the Master Chef’s Classic culinary tasting and competition; and the wonderful shrimp boil (where you’ll gorge on the famous Key West pinks) at the Hogfish Bar & Grill, located one island over at the decidedly down-market Stock Island shrimp docks. Various seminars are still being scheduled, but if chef Martin Liz’s Conch cooking class is offered, go.

Key West has a number of high-end food spots — Latitudes, in the Westin Resort on Sunset Key, is a standout (their poached lobster on polenta was voted best main at last year’s Master Chef’s competition) — but some of its best are very casual. Blue Heaven is famous for its breakfast but also its key-lime pie, so plan more than one visit if you’re not the sort who eats pie in the morning. The shaded patio at the beautiful Azur restaurant makes for a relaxing start to the day. Be sure to stop for Cuban coffee at the 5 Brothers sandwich shop. Their Cuban mix sandwich is also top-notch, as is El Siboney’s, which offers a range of authentic Cuban food in a sit-down environment.

Pepe’s Cafe, established in 1909, is the oldest restaurant in the Keys, and its low-key patio is the perfect spot for an afternoon refresher. The Half Shell Raw Bar, at the Historic Seaport, has 50-cent oysters at happy hour. East Coasters craving the accents of home should brave the cruise-ship crowds on lower Duval and stop for fritters at the Conch Shack, run by transplanted Newfoundlander Matt McKnight; it’s always open except during the Super Bowl and hurricanes.

For lunch or dinner, Paseo’s is renowned for its Caribbean fare, particularly the fire-roasted corn. Italian-influenced Salute, sister resto to Blue Heaven, is right on Higgs Beach and a great place to drop in after a swim. Abbondanza is an old-fashioned Italian-American joint (think eggplant parm, shrimp scampi, pasta puttanesca) with huge portions.

A visit to Garbo’s Grill is a must, provided they’re not closed because it’s raining or they went to the beach or their fish suppliers didn’t deliver. Run by Eli and Kenna Pancamo, it’s the only food truck in town; word is that the loophole they came in through has been closed and they’ll soon move into a bricks-and-mortar location, so get there while you can, just in case any of the magic is lost. The shrimp and mahi-mahi tacos are fantastic.

If your sweet tooth calls, stop in at Key West Cakes for delicious cupcakes and baked goods or for a slice of key lime pie at any number of places; you’ll find four of the big purveyors along Greene Street — look for the green-and-white-clad baker outside Kermit’s, at the corner of Elizabeth, and take it from there. If you’d like to try your hand at making your own, pick up a copy of David Sloan’s definitive Key Lime Pie Cookbook at the wonderful Restaurant Store, a cook’s paradise.

Of course, Key West isn’t all about eating and drinking. It’s surrounded by the ocean, after all, so you’ll want to spend some time in the water, on it, or plopped on a beach chair beside it. And it’s chock full of fun spots to explore: whether historical, cultural, architectural, horticultural or just plain sexual. Whatever your tastes, you’ll find plenty to gorge on in this charming and fascinating town.

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