Most people, like Dean Warden, move to Key West from places far north such as Portsmouth, N.H., to escape bone-numbing winters and to thaw out on an island surrounded by clear blue ocean water.
Dean gets to look at the same blue ocean waters every time he steps behind the tower bar at Turtle Kraals, 231 Margaret St. along the picturesque Key West Bight Marina. The breezy Caribbean restaurant spans a narrow waterfront boardwalk that is a great place to go for a stroll, or to enjoy a bounty of local seafood with an ice-cold daiquiri. From breakfast to dinner, patron’s flock to it for its laid-back, festive atmosphere and to see a friendly face like Dean’s.
What might not be as well-known by the everyday customer is that when Dean isn’t serving up a variety of libations from tropical cocktails to fine wines and craft beers, he is busy belting out some seriously smooth tones as the baritone vocalist with the Southernmost Chamber Music Society and performing as the assistant organist at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Before he found himself “making the jump to warmer climates,” Dean was earning a degree in music education with a concentration in voice and organ at Providence College in Rhode Island. He is now able to exercise his talent on a regular basis.
These days, the little time that he does have to himself he spends playing with his dog, Porter, kayaking or by visiting his favorite pubs.
“Classic Key West” is how Dean describes his off-duty lifestyle.
Dean has been working at Turtle Kraals for 2½ years. Not only does he bartend, but he also manages a very lively staff that throw occasional words of cheeky endearment at him even as he is being interviewed. The harmless banter goes back and forth and I immediately pick up on the sense that Dean is very much a part of the team spirit around these parts. Everyone at Turtle Kraals seems to be a little excited that there is an article being written about him and they have a few words to add themselves.
Sure, his outgoing personality might make him a popular person to be around, but Dean also walks the walk to back up his talk. After getting his foot in the door at a neighborhood Friendly’s back in New England, Dean went on to work at a high-end Cuban restaurant specializing in rum drinks and mojitos and then at Portsmouth Brewery, where he helped to create its very first upscale cocktail menu. In Key West, he also worked at Fogarty’s, 227 Duval St., before finding his niche in one of the prettiest places to work on the island, where people go for both the food and the atmosphere.
“Turtle Kraals serves mostly Latin fare with delicious ceviches and awesome fish tacos,” Dean says. “We have a super-relaxed vibe, great team service and incredible views year-round. It’s classy, but fun at the same time.”
The area where Turtle Kraals is located is commonly described as the historic seaport and is a must-see destination when visiting. Much like the area where Dean grew up, it is home to a mix of both locals and tourists. Besides its casually sophisticated menu, Turtle Kraals is perhaps best known for its turtle races that occur every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 7 p.m., when four box turtles from the Key West aquarium race “slow and steady” from start to finish. Customers can partake in the action by grabbing a numbered ticket from the bar and hope that their turtle wins. Even though it costs nothing but the purchase of a drink to enter, the prize can be up to $500 just for playing. There’s certainly no harm in getting paid to drink, especially when it is at a place as beautiful as this one, where everyone is always smiling.
Dean seems to be quite happy in his surroundings.
“Winter and I just didn’t get along,” he says when comparing New Hampshire to Key West, “I like meeting new people and getting to know the locals and their stories, and I really enjoy being part of a big family.”
Everyone in Key West has a story to tell, whether they are a conch or a transient, and Dean’s is an inspiring one for those who are sick and tired of the kind of temperatures that are cold and frigid and require warming up a car before being able to take it for a spin. He was on vacation with his partner four years ago when the idea of leaving all that behind seemed like the way to go. So, they packed up their flipflops and made their way down south, never looking back and with no plans to do so in the near future. For Dean, this is home, at least for now.
“I love Key West for its diversity, for its acceptance of all types, for the people who visit and the people who make it home, and for its island mind and its art and music scene,” he adds.
Because of his balancing act between bartending and managing, Dean has no set schedule at the moment, but he can be found at the bar three or four days a week between 11 a.m. and 10 p.m.
Go meet the bartender who is more than just a friendly face. Treat yourself to a drink with a view, and I’m sure that if you tip him enough, he might just sing you a song or two. ¦