Key West Trip Report Nov 2021: A Tale of several fishes

I just returned from a conference in Key West and wanted to write up some of the eats. My motivation is that there was a real dearth of good guidance. Usually between this site and the New York Times 36 Hours In… column I can come up with some good recs but it was a bit sparse, and the NYT article was 6 years old. So, for posterity and in rapid fire because frankly I’m a little burnt out by my first work travel in 2 years, here goes:

Breakfast 1- Croissants de France- excellent coffee, very good cheddar and bacon croissant. Nice porch to sit on and sip coffee. Disappointing that even if you’re staying, they serve coffee in disposable cups. (This was a big theme for me as I’m used to reusable mugs and tableware, and those of you who know my posts know that styrofoam is enough of a turn off for me that you could serve me like a 1000 dollar wine in it, and I’d still find it undrinkable.)

Lunch was snacks at the hotel, which were inedible. Full stop.

(I was staying at the Casa Marina, which is down close to the Southernmost marker part of the island.)

Grand Vin Wine Bar- Duval St- this was recommended as an alternative by the concierge at the hotel when I turned down his 2-for-1 happy hour drink coupons and described myself as more of a “one excellent glass of wine” person. However, although the bartender here was super nice, no, they didn’t have any sparkling wines by the glass that weren’t in little airplane individual bottles, and no, she hadn’t heard of pet nat, and no, there isn’t any such thing as orange wine. So… after a straw full of frose and determining it was not really my scene, I moved on.

Dinner 1- this was the real winner of the trip- definitely check out the Thirsty Mermaid- each and every bite was excellent. They have Island Creek Oyster stickers on the chalkboard menu, which clued me in that the seafood was going to be top notch (biased New Englander here in case you weren’t aware). My tuna tartare app and red snapper with pasta entree were both excellent. The snapper was cooked so perfectly, and the pasta was fresh and toothsome and everything was perfectly seasoned. Also, the sparkling wine did not come from a single serve bottle- I was gun-shy and the bartender did give me a bit of a look when I asked.

Breakfast 2- I found the Cuban Coffee Queen, which is a roaster and cafe in Key Lime Square, right off Duval Street. These guys have great branding and marketing, and a friendly little covered but outdoor seating area with roosters scrambling around for entertainment. The cortadito coffee was quite good- usually I’m a black-no-sugar coffee addict, but when in Rome… I returned here a few times over the visit, and I also think the frozen coffee ice cubes that they use in their cold drinks merit a shout out. Genius! I took one of the spicy cuban sandwiches to go just before I left for the airport, and ate it on a layover in Philly (really, who wants a cheesesteak when you could have a cuban sandwich) and thought it was excellent. I have 2 bags of coffee I brought home with me, so we’ll see how it brews up.

Lunch 2- Louie’s Backyard- very close to my hotel, and recommended by someone on this site. I sat at the bar and had the fish tacos which were good. Maybe not quite excellent, and not a great value at $17, but really nothing in Key West is cheap, and you’re paying for the amazing view.

Dinner 2- Cafe Sole- went along with the conference organizers, who apparently always go here. Afterwards, I noted that it was recommended by the NYT. Everyone at the table had the hogfish snapper, so who am I to argue? Another beautifully cooked piece of fish, but the sides fell flat for me- watery baby lima beans, a tasteless tomato with some bread crumbs, and some sweet shredded carrots.

Will return to add in a few more- out of time right now.

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Great info, thanks for sharing.

If you like mysteries, Key West, and food, try the Key West food Critic mystery series by Lucy Burdette. They’re really fun. The author lives there and talks about real Key West restaurants in her books.

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Fun report, looking forward to the rest!

Thanks for the report(s). As someone who has only been to Florida once (Stuart, at my BIL’s about 8 years ago), Florida remains a big black box for me. Key West seems fun. Spring Onion would probably like it. We’re steering way clear of Orlando.

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Orlando sucks. Our nephew lives near there and our visits are horrible.

Recommend the Sarasota/Bradenton area if you are feeling the urge. Lots to see, nice beaches and
the foods pretty good.
TBH though, if I did not have family in that area Florida would not be on our travel list.
Too many other places to see.

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Spring Onion would probably like it

I think Spring Onion will like Key West a lot more when he’s 23 and there with his friends and you and pop are not around. There are some good food experiences to be had there, but it’s mainly stand in the bar and holla for most people. If you like chickens running around the gas station, motorcycle club meetings, and chatting with expats from the rest of the country, Key West is great. I happen to love it there. Not much like the rest of Florida at all.

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Here’s the rest! I forgot I couldn’t edit the next day- was going to go in and add links. Ah, well. So,
Breakfast 3- La Grignote- excellent coffee, very good almond and chocolate croissant. The pastries on the whole looked very good and I would have liked to return to check out the lunch sandwiches.

Lunch 3- Ana’s Cuban Cafe- fish plate lunch special- this was where the grouper binge started. I do like grouper, but after sampling several snappers and several groupers, I have to agree with the folks who find snapper the superior fish. Regardless, a plate of blackened grouper served with rice, a cup of brothy black beans, and some fried plantains on the porch of this cute cafe hit the spot. One of the ever-present rooster chicks even jumped up onto the table to share, and I had to remove him by having him step up onto my finger and then depositing him onto the ground to the amusement of fellow diners.

Dinner 3- Nine One Five restaurant, right on Duval- I was able to use the trick of promising to be a fast eater to get a coveted porch table without a reservation. My appetizer was the ceviche of the day, which was grouper- nicely prepared with avocado and orange segments, well seasoned. I went with the fish of the day, which was, wait for it… grouper. A nicely prepared simple dish with a potato puree and some asparagus. In retrospect, I should have ordered the whole snapper, but still overall a nice meal.

Somewhere along the way, I had ice cream at Flamingo Crossing, which while advertised as the best homemade ice cream in Key West, was kind of icy and crunchy for my taste.

I take very few pictures of food, but I’ll paste a few of other activities in & give some quick recs. I had been hoping to scuba dive, but unfortunately it was too windy for any sort of visibility and all dives were cancelled. I tried snorkeling off the beach at Zachary Taylor State park in windy chop, and confirmed there was truly nothing to see.

The sunset from Zachary Taylor Park is a must, though. It’s beautiful and quiet with an amazing view. (apparently the tourist thing is to go to Mallory Square which also faces west for sunset, but it’s known to be a crazy party scene so I avoided it.)

I recommend the Hemingway House, especially if you like cats.

A jet ski tour to circumnavigate and see the entire island by water was fun, although motor sports aren’t usually my thing I enjoyed it.

To me, Key West is a warmer version of Provincetown MA but without the culture. I was happy to see it, and ate enough excellent snapper and grouper to satisfy my fish needs for a few months, but with sea level rise half of Key West will probably be gone in 20 years, so if it sounds like your cup of tea, go now.

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Enjoyed all your pics and the rest of your report immensely, thank you!

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Great report! I especially appreciate how you translated your Dinner 1 report into New England-ese for those of us familiar with Island Creek oysters. :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes:

P.S. I too use the presence of ICOB-sourced oysters on a menu as a indicator that the seafood will be good.

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SO goes with the flow, despite his food pickiness. And of course he’ll be hanging out with us when he’s 23. :grin:

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I’m a big fan of Key West, including the area away from Duval Street, which can get undoable at dark for anyone on the far, far side of 23. The local grouper and yellowtail are-- or can be-other-worldly, including at some hyper-local places, and there are very good hole in the wall Cuban places. Of, and the sunset cruise on the first Americas Cup replica I’ve reviewed a lot of places, including Louie’s and their upstairs tapas place, Salute’ on the Beach, Cuban Coffee Queen, and various other local seafood and other places, as well as a couple of off-beat places to stay at my blog (search “Key West”) The local group rand yellowtail are excellent, and th

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I think I skimmed your blog to come up with the Louie’s rec- not sure I would have picked it otherwise- thanks!

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Making noodles. Phongdien Town, Cantho City, Southern Vietnam.
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