One of the things I loved about the Florida Keys and Key West was the food. Oh the food! After driving down the beautiful chain of islands that make up the Florida Keys, we started our three-day stay in Key West by meeting up with Key West Food Tours.
They took us on their Southernmost food tour, essentially a crash-course in Key West’s culinary history. We took away so many foodie tips from our tour guide that by the end of the three hour walking tour, we had a wealth of information on where to find the best restaurants in Key West, which cultures have influenced the Key West cuisine and which signature dishes you need to try.
So as I like to share my travel tips, here are 13 of the top things to eat and drink in Key West, Florida.
13 Top things to eat and drink in Key West Florida
1. A Cuban sandwich from 5 Brothers
Florida was one of the first states in America to experience an influx of Cuban immigrants and a large portion of them settled in Miami and the Florida Keys – both places where you’ll find cafes and bakeries selling the classic Cuban sandwich.
It’s thought that the Cuban sandwich – also called the ‘Cubano Mixto’ – evolved from a lunchtime staple enjoyed by cigar factory workers. These days, it remains one of the top things to eat in Key West and you’ll find the best ones at 5 Brothers.
Located on 930 Southard Street in Old Town, this sandwich counter serves up these toasted delights filled with ham, pork, swiss cheese (and sometimes tomato, lettuce, onions or gherkins), flavoured with a slather of mustard and mayonnaise.
You’ll run shoulders with plenty of locals, all popping in for their daily coffee fix, newspaper and other authentic Cuban bites. The grocery store also stocks plenty of Cuban specialties which you can peruse while you wait.
2. A Cuban coffee from Cuban Coffee Queen
The perfect accompaniment to any Cuban sandwich is of course, a Cuban coffee. And you’ll find heaps of places to try what many people dub ‘legal speed’ in Key West. El Siboney, one of the best Cuban restaurants in Key West, is a great place to pick up this super-strong beverage, while 5 Brothers (mentioned above) is also worth checking out.
If you want to join the cool crowds however, head to the Cuban Coffee Queen on Key Lime Square in Downtown or Margaret Street by Key West’s waterfront.
There are many different ways to order Cuban coffee, which we discovered during our Southernmost Food Tour. This includes the Cafecito or Café Cubano (served in a thimble-sized cup), a Café con leche (coffee with steamed milk), a Cortadito (served with a tiny splash of steamed milk) or the Bucci (a strong shot of espresso that’s served with cane sugar.) If there’s more than one of you, you can go with the tradition of ordering a Colada which is essentially an extra-large cup of the sweet Bucci, which you then share between several people in the thimble-sized cups.
Order some Pan Cubano (Cuban bread) and follow the tradition of dunking it in your cup.
3. Puerco Asado from El Siboney
Aside from Cuban coffee, authentic Cuban food is one of the top things to eat in Key West. See if you can book a table at El Siboney, a no-frills Cuban diner which attracts both locals and tourists and has become something of an institution in Key West’s Old Town.
The menu features all sorts of chicken, seafood and beef dishes, but if you’re only visiting once, try the Puerco Asado, a Cuban classic. This slow-roasted pork is often marinated in various herbs, garlic, onions and lime. And it’s a great dish to try alongside typical Cuban staples such as Moro (rice and beans), sweet or green plantains, fried cassava and tamale (steamed corn husk).
4. Empanadas & Arepas
We realised empanadas were big in Florida as soon as we got to Miami. You’ll find them dotted all around the city, especially in Little Havana. In Key West, these Latin American-style pasties are just as big, especially at breakfast time. In fact, empanadas and arepas (a corn meal dough filled with meat, cheese and other fillings) are among the most popular street food snacks in Key West.
Head to El Siboney, Bliss restaurant or Frita’s Cuban Burgers for some of the best empanadas and arepas. As the name suggests, the latter is also famous for its incredible Latin-inspired burgers.
5. Burritos and Tacos from Badboy Burrito
As I mentioned in my post about the Southernmost Food Tour, the burritos and tacos from Badboy Burrito are legendary in Key West.
Try the fish tacos and you’ll be surprised at how fresh they taste – a delicious concoction of grilled fish topped with sour cream, radish, jalapenos and fragrant coriander. When we visited, ours were filled with succulent chunks of tile fish, one of the most sustainable types of fish you can eat in Key West.
Fun fact – Badboy Burrito featured on the Food Network. You’ll find a second shop further up the Keys in Islamorada too.
6. Quesadillas from Bistro 245
Quesadillas are another South American street food that are vying for your taste buds in Key West. And to be honest, I hadn’t paid them much attention until I tried the incredible lobster quesadillas from Bistro 245 at the Margaritaville Resort.
We visited this waterfront restaurant for dinner one evening and their stylish take on the quesadilla – enhanced with tomato, caramelised onions, manchego cheese, mango salsa, cumin sour cream and juicy chunks of lobster – was one of the best things I’ve ever tasted. Don’t miss out!
7. Key lime pie from Key West Old Town & Bahama Village
There are so many different ways to enjoy Key Lime Pie and I wouldn’t blame you if you wanted to try them all as it’s not just one of the top things to eat in Key West, it’s also one of the most famous dishes you can eat in the whole of the Keys.
You’ll see Key Lime pies presented in various different ways across the region – some are presented with a meringue top (more traditional in Key West), some without; some are topped with whipped cream and most are baked on a graham cracker base. We even discovered chocolate-coated Key Lime Pie on a stick. (I know, amazing, right).
You can guarantee that whichever version you try, they’re going to be good.
The most famous Key Lime Pie shops in Key West include Key West Key Lime Pie Co, The Key Lime Bakery and Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe.
You can also try these gorgeous mini Key Lime Pies (pictured) at the legendary Blue Heaven in Bahama Village. They are out of this world.
8. Other Key Lime treats
From Key Lime cookies and Key Lime jelly beans to tea, chutney and taffy, the use of this citrus ingredient doesn’t stop at pie. Floridians have become quite inventive with its use and you’ll find a whole host of Key Lime-infused treats across Key West and Florida Keys.
Put aside some time to explore the various Key Lime shops across the Old Town. We found all sorts of delicious Key Lime hot sauces which you can try before you buy. And on the none-foodie front you’ll find scrubs and toiletries infused with this tangy ingredient).
9. Conch – fritters, cracked, chowder and burgers
Key Westers (or Conchs as they nickname themselves) pride themselves on cooking with this locally-caught specialty. So whether these squidgy sea snails tempt you or not, you’ve got to try them at least once!
Ease yourself in by trying cracked conch (flash fried in tempura batter) or the conch fritter with your beer at Mangoes. Then if you like it, I can highly recommend the conch sandwich at Fishermans Café on the waterfront. It’s served on a Kaiser burger bun with lettuce, tomato and Key Lime tartare sauce and their sweet potato chips are excellent.
For the best conch salad in Key West, I hear that it’s Johnson’s Grocery, an unassuming shop in the heart of Bahama Village.
And finally, when it comes to conch chowder, try El Siboney, Willie T’s or the Conch Republic Seafood Company on the waterfront and you won’t be disappointed.
10. Hogfish sandwich from Geiger Key Marina
I don’t actually know what hogfish tastes like but I heard a lot of people talking about it while we were in Key West. And the hogfish sandwich – chunks of this white fish encased in soft Cuban bread with Swiss cheese and onions – is a favourite way to enjoy it here.
While not technically in Key West, the Hog Fish Bar on nearby Stock Island, is renowned for this Florida Keys staple. But Geiger Key Marina restaurant is probably one of the best places to try either hogfish, mahi-mahi or grouper sandwiches if you’re staying on Key West island. You’ll be asked whether you want your fish fried, grilled or ‘blackened’. If you go for the latter, the fish will be cooked in a spicy ‘blackening’ seasoning that’s used over the Keys.
11. Rum Runner from the Speakeasy Inn & Rum Bar
When it’s time for a tipple, a rum runner is one of the top things to drink in Key West. It’s a mix of light and dark (or aged) rum, banana, blackberry, grenadine, pineapple juice, orange juice and Bacardi, lime juice or sours and was actually invented in Islamorada in the Upper Keys, as a nod to the rum runners of the prohibition era.
In Key West, you’ll get the best rum runner cocktail at The Speakeasy Inn & Rum Bar, a characterful place in the Old Town, on Duval Street. It was originally owned by Raul Vaquez of Key West’s Gato cigar factory and it stocks over 250 types of rum.
12. Caribbean inspired cooking
Thanks to its proximity to the Caribbean islands and its strong Caribbean community, the food in Key West has many West Indian influences (which made me very happy).
On our first night in Key West, we dined at Blue Macaw Island Eats where you can order Caribbean-style dishes such as jerk rum glazed chicken with plantain, ‘island-style’ salads made with fresh papaya and mango and sandwiches made with authentic Cuban bread.
Over at Blue Heaven in Bahama Village, you’ll find a bounty of Caribbean-inspired curries on the menu with jerk spices and Red Stripe Beer making their way into the chef’s cook books.
Meanwhile, for no-frills Creole food that’s cooked from the heart, check out Mo’s, a Haitian restaurant where the servings are as big as the flavours.
13. Stone crab, shrimp and spiny lobster
If you like seafood, you’ll be in your element in the Florida Keys. So once you’ve tried the local conch and lobster, you might like to try a few other types of locally-caught shellfish.
Shrimp here can be served in all sorts of ways. So look out for crispy tempura batter, the famed Floridian ‘blackening’ or jerk sauce. You’ll find it’s used in all sorts of Caribbean curries too.
The Caribbean spiny lobster here is served straight up in its shell (most commonly you’ll order the lobster tail), blackened, in a curry, or used inventively in Latin-inspired dishes such as tacos and quesadillas. I actually tried both the lobster and local shrimp together in a very indulgent fettuccine at Bistro 245 and it tasted incredible.
If crab’s more your thing, Key West and the rest of the Florida Keys are known for their stone crab. Try the popular Stoned Crab restaurant on North Roosevelt Boulevard for expertly-made dishes such as stone crab bisque and their famed ‘steamers’.
And you don’t have to wait for dinner to try Key West’s best seafood. Both shrimp and lobster make their way onto many breakfast menus here. Try the famed shrimp or lobster eggs benedict at Blue Heaven in the Bahama Village.
Have I got you feeling hungry? What are your tips for the top things to eat and drink in Key West? Feel free to leave your comments.
Some of my restaurant visits mentioned were hosted by The Florida Keys & Key West Tourist Board. All views here are my own.