As far as I’m concerned, the traditional American diner is an historic cultural institution, as characteristically American and embroidered into our nation’s fabric as baseball, apple pie and Amazon.com. Nothing beats all-day dining in an informal setting and Camille’s on Simonton Street is as close as Key West gets to the authentic New Jersey diner experience I grew up with as a child.
Random art on the walls (from the high-brow to the low), a bowl full of mints on the hostess stand (I’ve been known to steal two handfuls at a time and run out like a naughty child) and stripper Barbies lounging in provocative poses (my personal favorite decorative touch) definitely make Camille’s a unique spot to grab a delicious meal in the Florida Keys. Camille’s has been around in various locations and incarnations for 20 years and owners Denise and Michael Cheklis aren’t your typical satellite restaurant owners. Denise (and her famous spiky hair) floats frequently around the dining room floor, greeting long-time customers and newcomers alike and her husband, Michael, can usually be found in the kitchen, apron on and spatula in hand.
In true diner fashion, Camille’s breakfast is tough to beat. From the classics (customizable omelets, benedicts, pancakes and waffles) to the unique and indulgent, the breakfast menu covers everything. First and most importantly, let’s talk that hangover-crushing nectar of the gods: the Bloody Mary. Camille’s infuses its own bacon vodka (yes, I appreciate that bacon is “so yesterday” and no, I don’t give a dang because it’s delicious) and the Makin’ Bacon Bloody Mary is even more delicious than it sounds. You’ll drink the first to squash your hangover and the second because the first was so tasty you drank it too quickly to enjoy it. As far as meals go, you can certainly order something standard and simple (read: boring), but the daily breakfast specials vary frequently and are always an excellent choice. On a recent morning, I enjoyed an avocado toast benedict that made me feel simultaneously virtuous and gluttonous — wholesome avocado slathered on whole wheat toast and (here’s where it gets dirty) topped with crispy bacon, oozy poached eggs and unctuous hollandaise sauce. Chef Michael’s benedicts are famous in Key West and they’re all delicious no matter the accompaniments (which include everything from crab cakes to smoked salmon depending on the day).
The waffle, French toast and pancake specials also won’t win you any diet awards, but your tummy will be so happy you won’t even care that your pants are sitting a little tighter. Both the buckwheat and the corn pancakes, generally topped with blueberries or bananas, are the perfect combination of sweet and slightly savory and, if they’re on offer, you’re really missing out if you don’t at least order a short stack. The award-winning Godiva French toast is a menu staple for good reason. Thick cut, golden Texas toast is served with a Godiva white chocolate liqueur sauce and beautiful fresh strawberries. Get the wheelbarrow, mom, because I’m going to need a ride home. And in case you can’t stand surprises, Camille’s has a free mobile app that sends the daily specials right to your phone (don’t pretend you don’t look at menus online to decide what to eat before you even leave the house; everybody does it). Breakfast is served from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily and, although the restaurant is a constant early morning hot spot, reservations are definitely recommended on the weekends.
Though most diners shine at breakfast, Camille’s kitchen crushes the dining game all day. The most well-known item on the menu at Camille’s is definitely the “lick your lips” artichoke dip. Creamy and studded with chunks of fresh artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, jalapeño and spinach, you’ll be digging at the bottom of the bowl with your spoon to get every last bite of dip. Camille’s is also famous for its crabs (no, not that kind — get your mind out of the gutter). On Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday all-year round Camille’s serves all-you-caneat wild Alaskan snow crabs from 6 p.m. until the well of crustaceans runs dry. For only $33.95, you can go to town on snow crab and two side dishes — you can’t get that kind of deal anywhere. Aside from crabs, highlights from the dinner menu include a lobster and shrimp ravioli with creamy tomato sauce and prosciutto, fettucine with shrimp, roasted red peppers, artichokes, olives and fresh basil in a parmesan cream sauce and a roasted duck with a bacony General Tso’s-inspired demi-glace. Camille’s likes to use the word “orgasmic” to describe a lot of its food, but since my mom reads my articles I’ll just say that the food is euphoria-inducing and leave it at that. Now if only I could find my cigarettes … but I digress.
Camille’s unofficial motto is “It’s inexpensive gourmet … done the RIGHT way” and they stay true to its word. With its pink awning, the restaurant is already impossible to miss but its reputation and inventive, crowd-pleasing food make Camille’s a must-stop in the Florida Keys. ¦
Camille’s 1302 Simonton St. www.camilleskeywest.com