If you take the bridge across the Garrison Bight marina in the direction of Old Town, the Palm Avenue Causeway seamlessly morphs into Eaton Street and leads you right by the Eaton Street Seafood Market. The Art Deco building at the corner of William Street is decorated with pink neon light trim and block windows. There is an outdoor picnic area under the shade of an extended roof that looks as if the building could have been a gas station at one point in time. There is no other building like it in a 100-mile radius. It is a unicorn.
The charm continues inside the concrete white walls when you see the smiling faces of customers and where owners Sean Seaman and Damon Santelli run a family-style business that has become a staple in Key West. They have become well-known for selling fresh, locally sourced fish for to their customers. When Sean opened the market on March 14, 2007, it was “because I decided we needed another seafood market” he explains, “and I wanted to do something else.” Damon would join him in co-ownership a year and a half later.
When you walk through the single side entrance there is no immediate indication that you are in a seafood market and that is a good thing. The brightness and cleanliness of the room is shinier than your grandmother’s kitchen and the only smell that might hit you is the passing of a crispy fried fish on its way out the door.
On the menu is whatever the daily catch is. “Key West pinks, black grouper, yellowtail snapper” are almost always available “and hogfish, when we can get it at all,” Sean says. New regulations have made it virtually impossible to capture the snow-white delicacy that tastes like a cross between a lobster and shrimp. Even more rare is the deep-water grouper, the snowy grouper, the golden tile and the barrel fish. So, if you happen to see these little guys behind the glass display then you have been warned that this might be one of your only opportunities to try this particular food. If you are one of those people who is always looking to eat what the locals eat, this is your chance. The ocean around us runs a lot deeper than conch fritters; this isn’t your average seafood market.
When it’s your turn to order more likely than not Sean’s wife will help you. She’ll ask you to choose from their selection of sandwiches or tacos, Key lime mustard dressed salads or deep-fried baskets with French fries and coleslaw. There’s also the spiny lobster which is served grilled with butter, coleslaw and plantain chips. You can either leave it up to the experts to choose the protein for your meal or you can point one out yourself.
“I’m lucky that I get to buy from local fisherman,” Sean says. “If it’s in the case, then you’re going to enjoy it.”
The menu also includes buffalo shrimp, conch fritters, stone crab artichoke dip, conch ceviche and smoked fish dip.
It was on a Monday in the middle of July when I first arrived to interview Sean. The lunch rush was in full swing, and he was nowhere to be found.
“Sorry, it gets busy when we open,” he texted me, adding an invitation to come back in a couple of hours. Judging by the seasonal business in town, I hadn’t expected it to be so busy. Clearly, I had underestimated my timing. Outside there was not one open seat to be found and inside a line forced me to wait nearly ten minutes before I could ask if he was around to talk. I’ve seen this before at the Swan Oyster Depot in San Francisco and at Katz’s Delicatessen in Los Angeles, but rarely do you find lines on a Monday in the middle of July in Key West. If more people could fit on this island, I believe the line would indefinitely be longer and would carry on into the late afternoon and early evening. And I bet sometimes especially in season, it is and it does. I’ll use the solid 4½-star rating that they have on social media to back up that statement.
If you find that the excitement of waiting in line to see what all the fuss is about isn’t exactly the way you want to spend a weekday with nothing else to do but relax and chill, then you can always order delivery. They’ll even send you 5 pounds of stone crab if it’s in season. But then you’ll be missing the energy that only a successful restaurant and market can provide or the romance of eating after sunrise with the hum of cars whizzing by and the glow of neon lights in the background. Add a beer or a glass of wine, and you’ve got yourself a novelty Key West moment.
Eaton Street Seafood Market is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. 365 days a year. Delivery is available by ordering from www.keywestfoodtogo.com. ¦
Eaton Street Seafood Market 801 Eaton Street www.kwseafood.com