Last week, our dining critic, John Linn, headed to Key West, where he managed to find a few worthy restaurants still slinging food in this quiet time of year.
The converted 1880s "conch" houses that form the Marquesa Hotel back up to this boutique fishbowl restaurant that serves an ever-changing menu of local seafood married with worldly flavors. Here, Chef Susan Ferry creates unexpected pleasures out of yellowtail snapper, working the fillet into an herb-dusted medallion and then setting it off with a summery caponata graced with pine nuts and capers. She'll capriciously pair contrasting flavors to great success, as in a duo of soups like the chilled green apple and fennel, and a spicy broth of Thai lemongrass and basil studded with grilled pink shrimp. Then there's the simple perfection of flawlessly cooked vegetables, haricot verts, and sugar snap peas. Though you'll struggle to fit in dessert with portions this large, you'll look across the white-clothed table at your partner, awash in the glow of the dimly lit dining room, and practically beg for a finish of smooth peanut butter cheesecake outfitted with two spoons. If anything, it will give you just a bit longer to soak in the sounds of the busy open kitchen, the attention of the doting wait staff, and a restaurant that celebrates the best of Key West.
If you're in Key West and looking to eat, chances are you're after a sublime slice of Key lime pie. You'll find it at Camille's, an eccentric and eclectic diner. Savor that tart-sweet custard and cinnamon-infused graham cracker crust in the pink and blue rooms, where images of Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin look down from above. But be sure you don't stop there: The menu changes daily and features supremely fresh local seafood. For breakfast, try the Florida lobster and asparagus omelet, a giant stack of banana- and walnut-studded buttermilk pancakes, or some of the best eggs Benedict you'll ever taste, with creamy poached eggs set atop lump crab cakes and dressed with velvety hollandaise. At dinner, you'll find snapper, grouper, and stone crab claws sided with honey Dijon mayo. No matter when you go, the friendly staff will make you feel like part of the same island culture that spawned such a quirky joint.
Schooner Wharf Bar
After savoring this Schooner Wharf's signature dish of peel-and-eat drunken shrimp basted in beer and spices, our waitress came back to the table to give us a hint. "Make sure you save the shells so you can feed the fish on the docks," she instructed. It's the sort of advice you'll get only at a true local's place, a dive bar that sits right on the harbor and is constructed out of what looks like flotsam and jetsam. Originally located aboard an actual schooner, the bar moved ashore and became a haven for writers, musicians, drunks, and poets, each looking to wash down mojo-marinated mahi-mahi sandwiches with frosted bottles of Key West Sunset Ale. The bar is a picture of Old Florida, from the din of the boat captains just a few feet away to the Buffettesque philosophies of singer/songwriter Michael McCloud, who plays on the ramshackle stage just about every day. And those fish do bite: With shrimp shells in tow, we coaxed jack fish, tarpon, and a hungry-looking nurse shark out from under the docks. They seemed to enjoy the place too.