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TRAVEL FEATURE

Out of Town

Where to Eat and Play in Key West


Andrew Collins | November 20, 2003


The Little Black Book
  • Alice's/La-Te-Da (1125 Duval St., 305-296-6706)
  • Aqua Nightclub (711 Duval St., 305-294-0555)
  • Atlantic Shores Beach Club (511 South St., 305-296-2491)
  • Bourbon Street Pub (724 Duval St., 305-296-1992)
  • Camille's (703 Duval St., 305-296-4811)
  • Donnie's Restaurant & Bar (316 Petronia St., 305-294-3434)
  • 801 Bar (801 Duval St., 305-293-9600)
  • El Siboney (900 Catherine St., 305-296-4184)
  • Five Brothers Grocery (930 Southard St., 305-296-5205)
  • Lobo's (611 Duval St., 305-296-5303)
  • Mangia Mangia (900 Southard St., 305-294-2469)
  • Mangoes (700 Duval St., 305-292-4606)
  • Pearl's Patio Bar for Women (525 United St., 305-292-1450)
  • Pizza Joe's (724 Duval St., 305-295-9336)
  • Seven Fish (632 Olivia St., 305-296-2777)
  • Square One (1075 Duval St., 305-296-4300)
  • Among famous gay resort towns, Key West has always stood out for its sheer embrace of total relaxation. This laid-back tropical island in the Caribbean, closer to Cuba than mainland Florida, is without pretensions. People rarely worry about what time it is, dress is casual and colorful, and the party scene is friendly and easygoing. Key West is neither fancy nor especially cosmopolitan - it's just a great place to laze in a deck chair on a bougainvillea-choked lanai, browse for beachwear and souvenirs along Duval Street, or relax on a restaurant patio noshing on raw oysters and sipping mango ice tea or mojitos.

    For a seasonal tourist town, Key West is above average from a culinary standpoint, and getting better every year. The constant presence of cruise ships has ensured the survival of the town's many tacky, dull, and overpriced restaurants, most of these along the northern end of Duval Street and around Mallory Square. But finding truly memorable places to eat is simple, if you know where to look. Key West is as much a Caribbean island as a tiny Florida town, and the phrases "Floribbean" and "Key West regional" are bandied about at some of the more inventive eateries. This blend of culinary cultures results in creations like conch minestrone or pan-seared grouper with mango chutney. In general, the emphasis is on fresh seafood and tropical fruits and vegetables, including avocado, carambola (star fruit), and papaya. The town also has some top-notch Cuban restaurants.

    At the La-Te-Da guest house, Alice's is a favorite restaurant for a special occasion. This romantic space has ample outdoor seating on a landscaped lanai, and the beautifully presented Floribbean cuisine, created by local celebrity chef Alice Weingarten, is out of this world: try spicy pink vodka conch bisque, or perhaps Cuban-style mojo-marinated ostrich with black bean coulis, roasted corn-avocado-tomato salsa, coconut basmati rice, and sweet plantains. A departure from Key West's predominant laid-back tropical look, Square One is a sophisticated restaurant with white table linen and fine china. The regionally inspired Continental cuisine includes escargot baked in a crepe with fresh spinach, garlic, feta, and a tomato beurre blanc, and grilled herb-marinated New Zealand rack of lamb with a charred-sweet onion Madeira glaze. It's very gay - and very trendy.

    One of the better Italian restaurants in town, and certainly one of the gayest, La Trattoria has two dining rooms - the smaller one romantic and intimate, the larger better for groups of friends. The straightforward cooking draws high praise from foodies; consider local shrimp sauteed with garlic, fresh tomatoes, and herbes de Provence in a white wine, lemon, and butter sauce, or green-and-white fettuccine with mushroom and prosciutto cream sauce. Attached to La Trattoria, Virgilio's is a classy spot to sip cocktails before or after dinner. One of Duval Street's true places to be seen, Mangoes brims with colorful sorts. The designer pizzas, composed salads, pastas, and grills - all with nouvelle Floribbean touches - are commendable. Consider rib eye steak Caribe (pan-charred with tamarind steak sauce and yucca).

    A great addition downtown has been Seven Fish, which presents seafood-emphasized bistro fare such as crab and shiitake mushroom ravioli. The slogan at Mangia Mangia is "pasta to the people," a philosophy reflected by the many varieties of heavenly homemade pasta, all fairly priced. The painstakingly preserved building has a lovely, quiet garden and redbrick patio in back. Choose from 300 vintages on the wine list. You'll need luck and persistence most nights to get a seat at Camille's, a small storefront bistro, but the delightfully dishy atmosphere and down-home comfort food are worth the trouble. Expect good salads and sandwiches, such as Philly cheese steak, and delicious pancakes for breakfast.

    Donnie's Restaurant & Bar is ideal late at night; it's open 24 hours and serves decent diner-style fare. For arguably the best sandwiches and wraps on the island, try Lobo's - the oyster roll with cheddar, bacon, and basil tartar sauce is a stand-out. Pizza Joe's is where gay revelers often load up on sandwiches, pizzas, and foofy frozen drinks before hitting the clubs. El Siboney is a zero-atmosphere eatery - the place in town for humble, stick-to-your-ribs Cuban fare. Rickety tables are set with plastic tablecloths and paper napkins. Try such Havana specialties as conch chowder, garlic chicken, stuffed shrimp and crabs, platanos (plantains), and a sweet flan to top it off. As for Cuban sandwiches, tiny Five Brothers Grocery - on a side street in the historic district - serves the best around.

    Much of the gay social activity in Key West takes place at actual resorts, some of which provide refreshments and snacks during the afternoon and early evening, often exclusively to guests. But a handful of properties have bars open to the public. One of these is at Pearl's Rainbow, the town's only women's guest house, where women staying anywhere in Key West can mingle together at Pearl's Patio Bar. The ultra-cruisy Island House is a favorite guys' hangout throughout the day and into the evening; non-overnight guests can also buy passes to the resort's frisky hot tub and adult-movie lounge.

    Key West's essential daytime "sun and be seen" bar, Atlantic Shores Beach Club is adjacent to the popular resort of the same name and consists of an outdoor deck and pool, and a dock jutting into the Atlantic Ocean. Both guys and gals lie here all day, often nude, and many more come to watch the sun set. Sunday's "tea by the sea" dance has been de rigueur for years. There's also a fun diner at the resort named (what else?) Diner Shores. Right along the main drag, Duval, the La-Te-Da guest house has a poolside bar, an intimate piano bar, and the Treetop Cabaret Lounge upstairs. Classier than most of the local bars, it still won't leave you feeling underdressed or out of place (the welcoming bar staff deserves at least part of the credit for this). The Sunday afternoon tea dance, which precedes the evening tea dance at Atlantic Shores, is a must-do.

    Also along Duval Street, you'll find Key West's most popular gay and lesbian cruise and dance bars - all of these places welcome both guys and gals (along with open-minded heteros), but as is true in most places, men outnumber women most of the time. The New Orleans-inspired Bourbon Street Pub is a great, friendly place with a small bar up front with cocktail tables, a larger outdoor bar in back (along with a lively pool area and hot tub), and video screens galore; it's also well lit, and the music isn't ear-splitting. Many nights you can catch awful (but still entertaining) drag shows on the stage in back.

    Aqua Nightclub, formerly known as Diva's, is best known for its raucous drag shows, which are headlined by the in-house drag troupe, the Aquanettes. This relatively new place also has strippers some nights, an impressive dance floor with high-tech laser-and-sound shows, and a cozy video bar. Since the early 1970s, the lovably raffish, open-air 801 Bar has been Key West's definitive neighborhood hangout. It's open most days from 11 a.m. to 4 a.m., and there's almost always a crowd of dishy locals around the bar. Other features include the adjacent One Saloon - which caters mostly to leather-and-Levi's types and is reached through 801's back door - and a campy upstairs cabaret. A block off Duval, Donnie's is a good place to sit and watch football on a Sunday afternoon or music videos just about any time. It is, like virtually all of Key West, casual and without airs - a perfect place to kick back and chat with locals, and to forget about home for a while.

    Andrew Collinsis the author of 10 travel guides, including Fodor's Gay Guide to the USA.


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