Many visitors to Key West arrive seeking nothing more than an umbrella drink and sand beneath their toes.
But even the thirstiest of tourists has to eat.
And though the island’s restaurant scene is frequently overshadowed by Duval Street and its association with wild spring breakers and boozy bachelorette bashes, the last decade has seen a not-soquiet blossoming of Key West’s culinary offerings. Sure, conch fritters are still in high demand with the day drinking set, but who knew that those bachelorettes would be eager to pair their bottles of rosé with veal osso bucco and spiny lobster pot pie?
Kristen Onderdonk and Tommy Quar- tararo, that’s who.
The picture-perfect married pair is like a steam train dream team in the Key West restaurant scene, with a portfolio that includes three of the most beloved restaurants in town: Italian mainstay Antonia’s, seafood mecca Thirsty Mermaid and the envelope pushing, chameleonic Little Pearl. Known for his hands-on leadership and assertive drive, Mr. Quartararo is the public engine that keeps everything running immaculately at all three establishments. And while you can frequently find Mr. Quartararo rolling pasta in the kitchen at Antonia’s or serving crisp glasses of wine at Little Pearl, it’s Ms. Onderdonk who provides the behind-the-scenes structure.
Mr. Quartararo grew up in Westchester County, New York, where he started his 20-plus-year career in the restaurant industry after his older brother and brother-in-law opened landmark restaurant Le Jardin du Roi in Chappaqua, of which the younger Quartararo was involved from the conception. “He was made for the industry!” Ms. Onderdonk says.
The spark of the future Key West restaurant dynasty was lit when Ms. Onderdonk and Mr. Quartararo met in New York in 2004, but it took a chance reunion in Key West years later for them to recognize their combined potential. “I officially moved to Key West in 2006,” Ms. Onderdonk says. “My family had been coming to the island since I was 2 years old, so it was always a second home for me. Tommy and I had met in New York through old mutual friends while we both lived there and, five months after I moved to Key West solo, he coincidentally came down on a fishing trip and we connected on a whole new level. We fell in love over the course of that year while he was still living in New York and he finally quit his job and moved to Key West in 2007.”
Once he was down on the island fulltime, Mr. Quartararo got into the restaurant industry immediately, working for a handful of Key West’s finest dining establishments before opening Blackfin in 2009 (with which he is no longer affiliated). Ms. Onderdonk joined the party when the pair took over Antonia’s in December 2013. “Right before Hell Week!” she says. (That’s the Key West hospitality industry’s term for the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, when the island is flooded with vacationing families and revelers.)
Of the three restaurants, Antonia’s is like Old Faithful — consistently good food and authentically Italian (in case the last name Quartararo wasn’t enough of an indication of Tommy’s heritage). “Antonia’s is an incredible landmark, with over 40 years of history at 615 Duval St., right in the heart of Old Town,” Ms. Onderdonk says. “Tommy really embraced that, and I think there’s some extra love since he’s got the Italian genes in his family. We grabbed that beast by the horns when our son, Truman, was just 9 months old and we’ve made great improvements since the beginning. Tommy is an absolute stickler for the freshest and best quality products, utmost cleanliness and great service. Running Antonia’s has been challenging yet rewarding.”
Pasta made in-house daily may present a challenge for the kitchen, but it’s absolutely worth it when you dive into a plate of seafood linguine and can taste the perfect textural contrast between the al dente pasta, the plump Key West pink shrimp and the tender squid. And since Mr. Quartararo never turns down an opportunity to make a Sunday braciole or throw together a batch of wagyu beef meatballs, special additions to the menu are always exciting — and made from the heart.
Mr. Quartararo and Ms. Onderdonk’s sophomore contribution to Key West’s culinary landscape is Thirsty Mermaid, the upscale boutique raw bar at 521 Fleming St. that they opened in February 2016 with their partner, chef Ryan Shapiro, a Key West native. The restaurant’s airy, nautical vibe is enhanced by the natural light that streams in from the open windows. The menu skews toward classic bistro fare, well prepared yet casual, paired with a raw bar that specializes in what the owners call “the freshest oysters and seafood available.”
“We had loved the location and tried to wrap our heads around it years before, but I think everything happens for a reason and time was on our side with Thirsty Mermaid,” Ms. Onderdonk says. “The addition of a sleek and inviting raw bar in that nice corner location has been very well received by locals and tourists alike. It’s got a great feel for casual lunch or dinner with the family and, of course I’m partial, but it’s also the best spot for oysters on the halfshell and champagne on a date night! Our partner, Ryan Shapiro, also affiliated with Keys Fresh Seafood, has been bringing in the freshest local seafood on the island. We’ve got a great groove going on there and feel very fortunate.”
With an emphasis on fresh seafood, the year-round menu reflects the best of what the Florida Keys has to offer, driven by Chef Shapiro’s upscale (and highly curated) culinary vision. After completing his culinary education at Johnson and Wales, Chef Shapiro landed an internship in Seattle with James Beard Award nominee Jason Franey at the fine dining establishment Canlis. Thirsty Mermaid’s stainless steel tables are quite the departure from the white tablecloths Mr. Shapiro cut his teeth on, but the technical skills and deep knowledge of unique flavors he acquired in Seattle set his dishes apart from the average Key West fish house.
Although dock-to-dish fresh seafood should be the norm on an island surrounded by waters filled with grouper, mahi mahi, hogfish and yellowtail snapper, that wasn’t always the case with Key West’s restaurants. Before Thirsty Mermaid opened in 2016, much of the fish caught in the Florida Keys was shipped to Miami for processing and then transported back to the Keys for distribution to the local restaurants. Mr. Quartararo was incredulous at the inefficiency and environmental unsoundness of the system — so he and Chef Shapiro set about to change it by creating their own.
All of the seafood served at Thirsty Mermaid is supplied directly to the restaurant by local fishermen. There is a chance you may see Chef Shapiro himself unloading fresh catch for the kitchen straight from the flatbed of his truck, a sight you don’t often see in this town. As a fisherman himself, Chef Shapiro works directly with the local fishing charters to source everything from cobia to swordfish straight off the boat. Aside from the obvious freshness guarantee, getting whole fish directly from the fishing boats allows the restaurant to utilize the entire fish, as opposed to just the processed filets transported down from Miami.
For many, the perfect Thirsty Mermaid meal starts with a selection of freshly shucked East and West Coast oysters, followed by an appetizer of mac and cheese croquettes with truffle aioli or green gazpacho with blackened Key West pink shrimp. Follow that with pan-sautéed local yellowtail snapper served over hand-cut fettucine with roasted tomatoes and citrus chive butter and you’ll float all the way back to your hotel room, visions of mermaids dancing in your head.
To round out the tasty trifecta, the duo couldn’t resist when a historic Key West restaurant location came available. “Little Pearl has a great story,” Ms. Onderdonk says. “We got an interesting phone call one evening in late 2016, which literally made us drop everything and take a ride down to 632 Olivia St. We instantly fell in love with the historic location and felt that a classy fish house and wine bar would be the perfect match. Our chef and partner, John Ingelsby, has brought such an elevated menu, with ever-changing specials and so much talent and creativity to the table, it’s really set us apart. We opened Little Pearl three weeks after our daughter Teagan was born, and exactly one year and a day after Thirsty Mermaid debuted.”
By the time Ms. Onderdonk and Mr. Quartararo opened up Little Pearl with their partner, Executive Chef John Inglesby, they had the Key West restaurant game down to a science. The Little Pearl space is impossibly chic — dimly lit, romantic and cozy, with echoes of the marine aesthetic of big sister restaurant Thirsty Mermaid. But at Little Pearl, the menu is much more refined and the space a little more romantic. Tucked away from the Duval madness at the corner of Olivia and Elizabeth streets, the view here is less about people watching and more about focusing on what is right in front of you.
With Chef Inglesby at the helm, Little Pearl’s menu is so inspired and inspiring it’s nearly impossible to decide what to eat. From day one, the Bangkok Octopus has been a standout appetizer. Fork-tender octopus nestled in a delicate and mild coconut chili sauce and dressed in a fresh mint, basil, cilantro, and mung bean salad is so addictive you’ll be chasing every last bit of sauce with the crusty bread.
And then there’s the spicy tuna tartare brûlée, topped with caviar and a quail’s egg, a dish so aesthetically pleasing it’s an Instagram foodie’s dream. The lobster and crab pot pie arguably is the pièce de résistance of the entree menu. Inside a gorgeously golden, flaky crust is a steaming treasure chest of lobster and crab swimming in a stew with sweet peas and carrots. Comfort food is definitely having a moment right now, but Little Pearl has elevated the humble pot pie to soaring new heights. Each dish on the menu is so meticulously conceived and executed that it’s not just edible, but a work of art.
Lately, rather than running the usual day-to-day menu, Chef Inglesby has been doing pop-up dinners in the Little Pearl space, with a four-course tasting menu that rotates every two weeks. The pop-up format has allowed the chef to really flex his creative muscle and play with interesting flavor combinations, like in a local grouper saltimbocca (grouper, prosciutto di Parma, sage, madeira demi-glace) and a shrimp katsu steamed bun (kewpie mayo, katsu sauce, furikake). “I know John has a few more of these menus up his sleeve,” Ms. Onderdonk says. “It’s a really fun and creative way to share his immense creativity while incorporating amazing flavors and inspirations from all over the globe.”
Though each of the three restaurants stands on its own culinary merits, their combined reputation elevates each one. “The restaurants obviously all have a personality of their own, but I’d like to think that they complement each other,” Ms. Onderdonk says. “I sometimes joke that we’ve made our workload as complicated as possible by having multiple different partnerships, completely different concepts and entirely different entities for each business versus coming up with a concept and opening multiples of the same! That being said, it’s given us a chance to fill some voids and express more creativity.”
Like many small business owners, Ms. Onderdonk and Mr. Quartararo had to get extra creative during the COVID shutdown this spring. “Who would have ever imagined we’d have this curve ball thrown our way? But we’ve made it this far and are fighting our hardest to do our best,” Ms. Onderdonk says. “Thirsty Mermaid and Little Pearl closed for a bit, but they’re both back up and running full steam ahead. Antonia’s, however, stayed open the entire time as we felt it was important to be able to offer that same great quality meal to go when so many other restaurants were closed. There’s defi- nitely something very comforting about bringing home your favorite classic pasta dishes when the world seemed to be falling apart. (For the record, we are still offering those pastas at 50% off for all our locals.) We deeply cherish all of our faithful regular customers and so many old Conch families that consider our restaurant like a second home. While keeping our locals fed and our rock star employees safely working, we’ve made it this far and will keep on trucking!”
Opening a restaurant — and keeping it open — is no easy feat, but it’s the couple’s gratitude, coupled with their commitment to quality, that has made all three of their establishments so popular and successful. “I think that our focus on the absolute freshest product and on consistency has made us stand out,” Ms. Onderdonk says. “Unfortunately, with such a touristdriven customer base, I think many locals would agree that it’s hard to always find a ‘constant.’ There are many great restaurants on the island, and we feel blessed to be in the mix.
“I also have to give a huge shoutout to our staff and business partners who have made so much of our success possible. Without a solid team, none of this would be what it’s grown into. The menu, product and flavors are of course of utmost importance, but topnotch service is key. We just want to say thank you so much to all of our patrons, fellow local business owners in Key West and our families for the love and support.”
And improbable — and exhausting — as it sounds, the three Key West restaurants are just the tip of what Ms. Onderdonk and Mr. Quartararo are up to these days, both on the island and off. The pair have two children, both of whom are already familiar with the insides of a kitchen and what it takes to make a great braciole. Two years ago, they invested in a property in the mountains outside Asheville, North Carolina, where they’re in the initial phases of expanding their restaurant empire outside the island’s confines.
“As crazy as we are, we’ve got a couple projects in the works 1,000 miles apart from each other,” Ms. Onderdonk says. “Locally, we are actually really excited to announce that there’s some excitement in the works in our ‘hidden’ upstairs dining room at Antonia’s, which will offer our guests an incredibly classy and noteworthy experience … but the rest there is still a secret. We are also psyched to debut Little Pearl Asheville, with a projected launch in September 2020. We stumbled into a beautiful brand-new building in East Asheville in the midst of this unbelievable pandemic and the wheels started cranking.
“It will be a spinoff of our sister Key West location, with a strong focus on seafood and raw bar, but a killer selection of burgers and even DIY s’mores for dessert. It’s a modern yet rustic and casual, user-friendly spot to bring the family or come for a romantic date night. While I’m losing my mind a bit carrying my daily work load and managing and homeschooling our two young children, I’m having a blast doing what I love most, which is designing and decorating both locations. As nervous as we are during these unprecedented times, I always say, ‘If it’s meant to be, it will be.’”
And if Ms. Onderdonk and Mr. Quartararo are involved, not only will it be, but it will be great. ¦