HERE AT THE FLORIDA WEEKLY, WE SURE DO GET AROUND. The island, that is. Need a comprehensive happy hour guide? We’ve got your (pickle) back. Looking for indoor activities to waste away a rare rainy day? We’ve got museums, theaters and attractions enough for a storm of monsoon proportions.
In short, over the past three years we’ve covered every square inch of this island to bring you the best spots to drink, dine and dance and, most importantly, we’ve let you in on our favorite locals’ secrets.
And like any living organism, Key West is constantly evolving. Although many of our Party Like a Local recommendations from years past still stand — the Hindu is still the coolest schooner in town, The Roost’s martini and caviar happy hour remains the best way to ensure you get toasted while feeling like the heiress to a Russian fortune, Thirsty Mermaid and Little Pearl continue to serve up exciting and innovative dock-to-dish masterpieces, The Breakfast Club, Too is slaying the breakfast chow and boozy brunch game and everyone still loves indulging in the nightly weirdness dreamt up by the geniuses at Mary Ellen’s — a few recent additions deserve mention this time around.
No matter where you vacation, lately it seems like guidebooks and knowit all bloggers alike champion seeking out the establishments off the beaten path, those that lie more than just a stone’s throw from the nearest tourist attraction. The argument goes that restaurants that sit in the shadow of iconic monuments like the Louvre or the Pantheon — or, in Key West’s case, the Hemingway House — cater to the lowest common denominator, those patrons too hungry or too lazy seek out the delicious and thus choose to settle for the merely convenient.
To those guidebook authors and snooty bloggers, Moondog Café (823 Whitehead St.) heartily thumbs its nose. Situated directly across the street from the Hemingway House, Moondog is a technicolor daydream of culinary delights. Early risers will appreciate the café’s extensive breakfast menu. Served daily from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., the breakfast offerings include an array of vegan, vegetarian, dairy-free and gluten-free options.
Looking to splurge before a long day of seeing the sights? Then the Elvis French toast was made just for you. Using Moondog’s homemade banana bread as the base, the Elvis French toast is layered with special house-made peanut butter with bacon bits piled on top with bananas. Maple-infused bourbon syrup finishes off the dish, which is a perfect combination of sweet and savory.
If you’re looking for a healthier breakfast option, try the Feel Good Bowl made with organic red and white quinoa, sautéed red onions, pepper, kale, mushrooms, avocados and pepitas. You can also kick-start your day with one of Moondog’s freshly made juices. The refreshing cucumber, watermelon and lime juice is a must after a morning spent strolling Old Town.
If it’s past breakfast thirty, fear not — Moondog’s eclectic menu offers everything from burgers, pizzas and salads to the fresh catch of the day. Ravenous vegan and vegetarian customers can satisfy their appetites with various options. The avocado and veggie salad is the perfect blend of roasted beets, kale, shaved radish, grilled carrots, sprouts, pumpkin seeds and goddess dressing. And Moondog’s share plates are a great starter to any meal or can be eaten alone as an entree. The fresh spinach and artichoke dish on the sharing menu is to die for, but one bite will make you want to devour the savory dish all on your own.
After all that feasting, a stroll sounds like a great idea. Head back to Duval Street to I.C. Double’s Cocktail Craftery & Kitchen (203 Duval St.), one of Key West’s newest and most historically adherent watering holes. Built in 1901 as the Tropical House & Investment Company, the building in which I.C. Double’s sits became the Island City National Bank in 1905 (hence the I.C. initials in the bar’s name). The bank was instrumental in the early development of Duval Street and downtown Key West and the politicians and smugglers of the day who stashed their cash in the bank’s vault cemented the island’s one-time status as the wealthiest town in Florida.
After a number of transitions over the last few years, the space that once housed the fanatically beloved Lazy Gecko has been painstakingly (and luxuriously) restored to its early 1900s glory. The owners and operators (all local, for those of you still mourning the sad and sudden demise of the Gecko) have created a meticulous throwback to the era of crushed velvet and high-end, sophisticated bar culture.
But what really makes I.C. Double’s special is its cocktail menu, expertly and thoroughly designed and executed by cocktail connoisseur Shawna Allen. Given its Duval Street location, it would be all too easy for I.C. Double’s to run all-day specials on buckets of beer and rail vodka and call it a day.
Instead, Allen delved deep into cocktail history to craft classic cocktails that are true to tradition yet modern in interpretation. For example, the I.C. Double’s Hemingway Daiquiri is a far cry from sthe saccharine, grenadine-soaked nightmare you might find on a menu at a Trader Vic’s knockoff — instead, Allen combines local rum, fresh grapefruit and lime juices and a hint of maraschino to create a tropical symphony of flavor that would make Hemingway weep tears of inebriated joy.
The Sazerac and French 75 are all exact replicas of age-old recipes, while the Salted Negroni is an updated, innovative take on the classic, made with gin, sweet vermouth, vanilla and grapefruit accents and a rim salted with local Florida Keys sea salt. I.C. Double’s also features live music every day, making it one of the best places to escape the heat while still enjoying Key West’s legendary music scene in a uniquely vintage setting.
All that drinking is bound to make you crave a little nosh sooner or later. Lucky for you, two of Key West’s most exciting new culinary openings are within a stone’s throw of one another — Onlywood Grill (725 Caroline St.) and The Dirty Pig (320 Grinnell St.) are both located in the historic seaport district and locals are flocking to both restaurants in droves.
Onlywood Grill is the sophomore debut from the Italian duo who brought authentic Neapolitan pizza to Duval Street at Onlywood Pizzeria, only this time they’ve taken their brick oven (imported from Italy and assembled brick by brick at the restaurant) and raised the stakes (meat pun intended) with an Argentinean woodfire grill that churns out some of the most beautifully roasted food the island has ever seen.
Consider the Grigliata Mista, an assorted selection of mixed grilled seafood that rotates based on what came in off the boats that morning. On a recent evening, the rustic wood cutting board was piled high with Key West pink shrimp, Florida spiny lobster tail and meaty swordfish, served with the charred carcass of a beautifully rotund lemon and a tangy romesco sauce.
Bloodthirsty carnivores will get agita trying to choose among the range of grilled meat options, from a New Zealand rack of lamb to the 34-ounce bone-in tomahawk rib chop. And if we learned anything from the original location, Onlywood pizza is second to none on the island. So roll up at happy hour, order an Aperol Spritz (New York Times aspersion be damned) and a personal pie from the happy hour menu and indulge in la dolce vita, Italian-style.
Want something that tastes a little closer to home? Head around the corner to The Dirty Pig, where you can get your fill of authentic barbecue, smoked daily by brothers Dan and Ben Solove, with a side of the blues. Enjoy a plate of St. Louis spare ribs doused in your sauce of choice — Carolina mustard, bourbon BBQ , mango habanero, East North Carolina vinegar or maple BBQ glaze, all made in house, while the legendary blues guitarist Larry Baeder noodles in the background.
And if brisket tater tot nachos don’t get your heart rate up (what kind of monster are you?!), then maybe one of Kimmy Sue Solove’s homemade desserts will do the trick. The past week featured a lavender vanilla cake with lemon curd filling and cream cheese frosting, a traditional carrot cake, chocolate
Kahlua cake with ganache filling and vanilla cake with mango filling. And if the hardest part of your visit to Key West is deciding what type of cake to stuff into your facehole, we don’t feel bad for you at all.
Of course, the mark of living like a local here in Key West goes beyond wherever you choose to drink and dine. It’s a way of being, downshifted into a lower gear and stripped of its close-toed shoes and paired with a flip flop tan from strolling around in the midday sun.
To really blend in, try complaining about the impending construction on the Cow Key Channel Bridge or the dismal stone crab season, and remember that Conch is pronounced with a hard “K” sound at the end, without exception. Then order another glass of whatever it is you’re drinking, sit back, raise a toast to the good life and promise to keep Key West weird — however long you’re lucky enough to be here to enjoy it. And hopefully we’ll see you next year, when there will be another round of new establishments pushing the recreational and gastronomic envelopes. ¦