I have been coming down to the Florida Keys since 1977 and if you’re keeping score that dates me back to when I was only 7 years old. I visited frequently before I became a Chef and never really understood the attraction to the food down in the Keys. But I think I may have got it now as well as the secret to great living. It’s all in acting and eating like a local.
The Florida Keys start in Key Largo and go down to Key West, the most southern point in the entire USA. Key Largo starts after about an hour’s drive from Miami. Once you hit the Keys, it becomes very laid back. There is no hurry as tourists drive slowly to take in the views of the ocean. The Keys are not very wide so most of the drive features the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the Atlantic the other.
There is no dress code in the Keys (unless you stay at Cheeca Lodge – the fanciest you can get). Here people are dressed in shorts and t-shirts. After all many come down to fish.
I always stay in Marathon, that’s the middle Keys. Nothing really has changed here other than that restaurants come and go. People also come and go as the Keys is a very transient place and so the vibe is very different in either high or low season.
Rentals can be high in season and the decor can be dated. I spent $3,000 for a week in December and the views were fantastic, the grounds were brilliant, but the decor looked like the furniture from the 1970’s show, The Jeffersons. Property values are high and a 2 bed apartment will easily fetch you $500,000 and up, so it is strange how nothing seems renovated.
It is hard for most establishments to cope with a surge of people over Christmas and then the dead of summer. The Hyatt just opened and were swamped. I had friends who sat there for two hours with only appetizers and drinks. They apologized for being overwhelmed but it’s pretty common here.
So this is what I’ve learned
I always try to look for the good places to eat in the Keys, but this is not what the Keys are all about. Yes you can have a steak with white table cloths but that’s not the soul of this place.
The idea is to stay in your bathing suit, find a dive on the water and order fresh fish. Try either a grilled fish sandwich or blackened. And for those of you with a sweet tooth, yes the key lime pie really is amazing here.
But not all fish is good in the Keys. Sometimes you will see an Ahi tuna on the menu and that’s no good as it’s not local. The Key West shrimp, sorry to say, are awful. Spoiled by Thailand I am afraid.
The fish to order is Mahi which they call dolphin for some bizarre reason. But don’t worry it is not the same as the porpoise. You won’t be eating Flipper but a fish. It’s caught here so it is fresh and tasty. Also don’t forget that the fishing is amazing and some restaurants will even cook your own catch for you. Now that’s cool.
So all in all it’s not the best dining experience but if you order right you will get fresh and local.
Here are my takeaways
- Sunsets by the 7 miles bridge
- The island at the beginning of Marathon
- The Keys Fishery where you can feed the fish
- Barracuda Grill for more upscale fine dining but not great decor
- Little Palm Island is as good as it gets
Key West is a whole different ball game. It’s the biggest and busiest Key. It has long lost its charm as the San Francisco of Florida. Now its home to mass cruise ships and people.
Best thing to do in the Keys – take no suitcase full of clothes. Don’t stay in a hotel; rent a place like the Bonefish Yacht Club. This was the best value and most modern look I have seen, with sweeping views of the harbour. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Daniel Green, the Model Cook is a Celebrity Chef known for his healthy approach to food and living well. With TV, books, magazines and live appearances, Daniel spends his time helping fans to cook better, feel better and live better. He’s also an avid traveler and a self-confessed Foodie.