NEW YEAR’S EVE — ONE LAST NIGHT OF reckless depravity before we all resolve to be better, to achieve more, to (finally) join the gym and work on that six-pack. It’s also a night when we all gather and gaze towards the heavens, mesmerized by large shiny objects (or people perched atop those objects) descending towards the crowd and heralding new beginnings for us all (and crushing champagne hangovers for many. Bottoms up!).
In 1907, some fun-hating curmudgeon banned fireworks in New York City, forcing The New York Times to find a novel way to ring in the new year. Inspired by the Western Union Telegraph’s time ball (originally designed to signal time to sailors), Times owner Adolph Ochs arranged for a 700-hundred-pound iron and wood ball to be lowered from the top of the Times Tower. Little did old Ochs know just how revolutionary his workaround would be. At the time, The New York Times wrote that as the clock struck midnight and the ball reached the ground, “above all else came the wild human hullabaloo of noise.”
Though printed 110 years ago, “wild human hullabaloo” is quite possibly the most appropriate phrase ever written to describe what New Year’s Eve in Key West is like. Ochs, you may have had a brilliant idea once, but in true Key West fashion we have taken that idea and embellished it in more than one weird and wonderful way. You want a ball drop? We’ve got four, though around here dropping a ball seems a little pedestrian. This year in Key West, we’ll be dropping a busty pirate wench, a glittering disco unicorn, a queen conch shell and a drag queen perched inside an enormous red shoe.
For decades, Key West’s New Year’s Eve celebrations have made national news, which is a pretty big deal for a city so small that the entire island shares the same zip code. Turn on CNN around 11:30 p.m. on Dec. 31 and you’re likely to see shots of a barely clothed crowd dancing wildly under the watchful, glamorous gaze of Gary Marion, better known as Sushi, Key West’s resident Grand Dame of the Drag Queens. This will be Sushi’s 21st year inside the custom-made cherry red shoe that has become her traditional New Year’s Eve throne. Each year, Sushi climbs gracefully into her sequined shoe and is hoisted up above Key West’s most famous gay bar and drag cabaret, the Bourbon Street Pub. Perched high above the screaming crowd beneath her, she is fabulously regal and famously acerbic, spouting cheeky commentary, showing off the handmade gown she’s fashioned for the occasion and keeping a watchful eye on the madness below. Many hours before midnight, the scene at Bourbon Street Pub is hopping with a parade of performers (including this lucky writer) taking the stage to strut and preen as the street becomes impossibly full. By the time Sushi is dropped — carefully, elegantly, and to much fanfare — at the stroke of midnight, it’s standing room only for blocks, a nose-to-drunken-nose revelry that television channels can’t help but show in split-screen next to some frigid northern New Year’s celebration in Boston or Chicago (sorry not sorry, I’ll be the girl in a tiny little dress instead of a parka).
Down the street, another street party will be going strong under the shadow of an enormous conch shell, the “ball” of choice for iconic watering hole Sloppy Joe’s. The bar, one of the oldest in Key West, has an impressive history, dating back to the days of Prohibition. Begun as an illegal speakeasy, it was Ernest Hemingway — allegedly a big fan of the illicit scotch that bar owner Joe Russell doled out in secret — who convinced Russell to change the bar’s name from Silver Slipper to its now renowned moniker. It’s been over 80 years, but Sloppy Joe’s remains as charmingly sloppy as ever, with the kind of authentically shabby décor that restaurant designers spend thousands trying to recreate.
The bar’s conch shell drop, now in its 25th year, is the brainchild of local artist Tobias McGregor, who decades ago felt that the roving, random crowds that swarm Duval Street each New Year’s Eve needed a single event at which to convene and celebrate in unison. A ball drop, like the one at Times Square, seemed like the perfect solution. But of course, Key West’s notoriously kooky crowds would need something a little bit weirder than a disco ball to gather beneath. A massive replica of Key West’s beloved indigenous sea snail was rigged up, and using a TV across the street tuned to the Times Square countdown to keep time, the shell was lowered manually. The technology has gotten a little more advanced since those early days, and the presence of Mardi Gras-style plastic beads flung from high above means keeping an eye out (or risking having one’s eye be taken out by a cheap necklace), but the crowd remains the same in spirit: boozy, jovial, and a little bit swarthy with a heavy dose of tropical flair.
Down by the waterfront, sailors and sea lovers convene each year at the unpretentious waterfront hangout Schooner Wharf Bar, where there’s another gal in the sky waiting to be dropped into a crowd of drunken and delirious patrons. A decidedly nautical (but equally naughty) take on Sushi’s dramatic descent at Bourbon Street Pub, Schooner Warf’s “Lowering of the Pirate Wench” party has become a New Year’s destination for live music lovers, with a packed lineup of some of the island’s most popular acts. Schooner Wharf has dubbed itself “a last little piece of old Key West,” which on New Year’s roughly translates into a no-frills al fresco hangout for those in search of strong drinks, a lively stage scene and a quirky ball drop that the Huffington Post included in their 2014 Amazing New Year’s Photos from Around the World slide show. At the stroke of midnight, bar owner Evalena Worthington — corseted, beaming and dressed in the highest of swashbuckling fashion — descends to the sound of cannon fire and trumpets from her perch atop a high mast, set against an oversize lighted-up countdown, and brandishing a sword at the crowd bellowing Auld Lang Syne below. The bar gives out complimentary hats, party favors and horns to partygoers, all of whom are encouraged to make as much noise as humanly possible (a “wild human hullaballoo” if you will).
Just off Duval Street, tucked behind what some might assume is the garden of a private mansion, beloved local’s bars The Porch and The Other Side are serving their usual dose of quirky, millennial-friendly New Year’s fun. This event has become one of the most sought after on the island, tending to fill up faster than almost any other in town. This year is no exception; especially since the magnanimous owners are letting guests in for free, allowing everyone an up-close glimpse of the famous unicorn-shaped disco ball that the bar drops each New Year’s Eve (carved and decorated painstakingly by local Capt. Jeremy Hackworth of Zia Charters). With legendary DJ Jimmy Cooper spinning records, the party is sure to extend far past midnight.
Does all of this sound a little overwhelming? We understand. Sometimes all you want is a delicious meal, a nice glass of champagne and the company of far fewer than the thousands of bodies that will be swarming on and around Duval Street. Allow us here at Florida Weekly Key West to throw out a few suggestions for a delicious way to end your 2017.
If you want to stay close to the action, Rooftop Café on Front Street will be offering an extravagant menu including the traditional prime rib, lobster, and tons of other local favorites. Right around the corner on Mallory Square, El Meson de Pepe will be cooking up traditional Cuban favorites and dropping a cigar as the clock strikes midnight.
But if you want to get off Duval and away from the hordes of rowdy revelers, we suggest you get way off and head down to Blue Heaven on Petronia Street. Though Blue Heaven is practically synonymous with brunch, dinner at this local favorite is served seven nights a week and, thanks to innovative chef David Dorsty, you may find yourself wondering why the hell you’re getting up so early to avoid the endless breakfast wait when dinner at Blue Heaven is so divine — and that’s just on any given Wednesday. New Year’s Eve at Blue Heaven is another beast entirely.
“New Year’s Eve is the one night of the year that we actually put white tablecloths down on the tables,” Dorsty says. “We totally transform the restaurant for the night. We may feature one or two items on the menu that are from our original dinner menu, but the rest are all one-night-only specials.” Those specials start with a glass of champagne (the authentic kind from France, not that cheap bubble water most restaurants trick you with) and an amuse bouche, and with chef Dorsty at the helm, it’s a given that your bouche will most definitely be amused.
“We try to be very inclusive,” Dorsty explains. “The planned amuse might be swordfish pastrami, but if you can’t have those things then I’ll whip up a cashew cheese with pickled cucumber.” After the amuse, guests will have their choice of an incredibly eclectic array of starters, including carrot curry soup, warm coffee and bourbon braised beet salad, vegan butternut masala uttapam (more on that later), smoked lobster and avocado salad, and scallops Provençal.
As if the white tablecloths weren’t already a sign that this dinner is something special, chef Dorsty will actually be serving an intermezzo between the starters and the mains. (For those of you currently frantically Googling “intermezzo,” — an intermezzo is a palate cleanser served between courses, frequently in the form of a light sorbet.)
“I collaborate with (local ice creamery) Flamingo Crossing on the intermezzo every year because we always do sorbet of some sort,” Dorsty says. “This year we’re featuring a green tomato sorbet with fresh mint.”
Not only does this sound like something I need to keep in my freezer at all times, but it’s even better that Dorsty is collaborating with another local business to enhance his meal.
For the main courses, Dorsty is using culinary New Year’s Eve traditions as a jumping off point for his exciting offerings.
“We all have these little superstitions about what we should be eating to bring money and happiness in the new year,” Dorsty says. “For example, we’re pairing our heritage pork with lentils because they’re a symbol of prosperity. We also know that people come to restaurant on New Year’s Eve expecting surf and turf, so this year most of the main courses are surf and turf.” These include heritage pork and clams, Key West Pink shrimp and house smoked duck ham, Florida lobster tail and ‘nduja, and leg of lamb with an octopus croquette.
Traditional though his inspiration may be, Dorsty’s flavors are anything but. “I tried to make every option be amazing in its own way,” he says. “For example, I decided to feature cobia this year because it’s very sustainable and has a very fatty amazing texture. I’m rubbing the cobia with koji, which is a mold that grows on rice that the Japanese use as the basis for miso and sake. It adds an amazing umami flavor to the cobia, which I plan to balance with a kohlrabi puree and a baby watercress and apple salad with a pecan brown butter.”
Since Blue Heaven’s clientele come from all walks of life, Dorsty endeavors to be as inclusive as possible.
“Many restaurants serve vegetarian dishes, but I’m excited to be featuring completely vegan options as starters and main courses,” Dorsty says. “For example, the uttapam starter is almost like an Indian breakfast item that has transcended into meal. It’s a fermented rice and lentil pancake that I put masala butternut squash on and top with a watercress salad, mango chutney, house-made coconut yogurt, and toasted nigella seeds.”
As a girl who loves a nice fat steak as often as she can get one, I would take that uttapam down without hesitation. For a fixed price of $92 plus tax and gratuity for all the above, I would wager that he won’t have an empty seat in the house. Make your reservations ASAP at 305-296-8666.
No matter how you choose to spend your Key West New Year’s Eve, may you close out your 2017 eager to embrace all the promise every new year holds. And for my New Year’s resolution, I choose to echo Dorsty: “Live life to its fullest. Don’t spend your whole life planning for the future; have your future today. And don’t hold yourself back because you’re not guaranteed any moment beyond the present.”
A hearty cheers to that. ¦