Key West may be a tiny island, but its cuisine can compete with the biggest cities when it comes to delicious food. The culinary culture uses its unique attributes to its advantage: the island is closer to Cuba than to Miami and those waters are full of life, including seafood found nowhere else. Even its disadvantages, like not having refrigeration until the 1930s, were turned into positives — the result was key lime pie.
The country’s southernmost city has beautiful beaches, pristine waters perfect for sailing and a wild nightlife, but none of that compares to its cuisine. Travel & Leisure recently named it one of the world’s best islands for food for a reason. Curious what to eat while you’re on the island?
Here is what to eat in Key West:
1. Key West Pinks (aka Pink Shrimp)
The waters surrounding Key West are home to Pink Shrimp, sweet-tasting shrimp that is — surprise! — pink, identified by the red dot on the shell. They’re in season March through May and are eaten alone or in a variety of dishes, including bacon-wrapped or crab-stuffed. Chances are you’ve had these mild-tasting, firm babies before; nearly 85% of pink shrimp harvested in the U.S. comes from the west coast of Florida.
Where to eat Key West Pinks in Key West:
Pink shrimp is abundant throughout Key West. We had them blackened with Cajun-style Sofrito sauce at Conch Republic Seafood Restaurant and were surprised by how tasty the dish was.
2. Royal Reds (Shrimp)
Royal reds are more flavorful and larger than their pink, white or brown counterparts, yet more tender. The slightly salty, tasty shrimp is in season March through June (but they weren’t hard to find in February). Again, they can be eaten alone or in dishes, but because of their flavorfulness, try them as peel-and-eat to really savor the flavor.
Where to eat Royal Red Shrimp in Key West:
Most shrimp throughout Key West are key west pinks, so specifically ask your server for royal reds. Conch Republic Seafood Restaurant served royal reds peel-and-eat style as the daily special. They were so delicious we ended up devouring a second order!
3. Conch Fritters
It never occurred to me that the beautiful conch shells have creatures living in them. But of course they do and of course people eat the sea snails living in them. Conch (pronounced “conk”) is eaten all sorts of ways: as fritters, ceviche, chowder, steamed or deep-fried. Because of its tough texture, chopped up in fritters is the most common.
Conch fritters are a nod to the Bahamian influence in Key West. (Many locals trace their ancestral history back to Bahamian immigrants or shipwrecks.) The conch snail is chopped up, mixed with green peppers or onions, then fried in batter to make fritters. They are delightfully addicting, especially when served with a key lime aioli.
Where to eat Conch Fritters in Key West:
Conch fritters are on the appetizer section of practically every restaurant in Key West. Obviously not every restaurant uses an identical recipe, so my advice is to try them throughout the island to discover how they vary from place to place.
4. Spiny Lobster
Key West is home to the spiny lobster, also called rock lobster or sea crayfish. Compared to the notorious Maine lobster, the smaller spiny lobsters lack claws but have long antennae and live in the warm waters of the Bahamas, California and Australia. (Geeks On Food has more comparisons if you’re curious.) Spiny lobster peak season isn’t until late summer and in Key West you can even catch your own in July.
Where to eat spiny lobster in Key West:
Because of that, many menus didn’t have spiny or “Florida lobster” in February. (Don’t worry, Maine lobster was everywhere, along with oysters, scallops, crab and clams.) Luckily Latitudes served it, a beach-side restaurant on the private island of Sunset Key, about 500 yards from Key West (only accessible by ferry). The grilled lobster was absolutely phenomenal, dripping in a navel-orange beurre blanc sauce. (See the entire dinner here.)
5. Cuban Food
Part of Key West’s culinary culture is thanks to the fact that Key West is closer to Cuba than it is to Miami, so it’s no surprise that Cuban cuisine has made its mark throughout the island. In the late 1800s, half of Key West’s residents were from Cuba and that heritage lives on. Cuban cafes are scattered throughout the island, serving Cuban sandwiches, classic dishes like ropa vieja and more.
Where to eat Cuban Food in Key West:
Cuban restaurants aren’t hard to find. I read good things about Havana on Duval Street (although it’s not open for dinner) but every restaurant list I read and everyone I talked to recommended El Siboney. The casual house-turned-restaurant is normally packed but they move tables efficiently, serving authentic affordable Cuban dishes.
6. Something French
French food may sound a bit out of place for Key West, but French cafés and bakeries are all over the island. There isn’t any official explanation, except maybe catering to European tourists (who doesn’t like French food?) or a byproduct of France’s repeated attempts to colonize the island in the 1700s. Whatever it is, I’m not questioning or complaining because nothing beats starting the day with a French pastry or a Croque Madame dripping with a sunny side up egg.
Where to eat French Food in Key West:
Frenchies Café is a darling café that makes incredible croque monsieurs (see the post on Frenchies here). The lobster eggs benedict at Banana Café on Duval Street was awesome, and they’re also open for dinner.
7. Key Lime Pie (of course!)
Perhaps Key West’s most famous food is key lime pie, made with the island’s small, tart fruit. Legend has it the signature pie — which is authentically yellow, not green — was created by fishermen who combined condensed milk (that wouldn’t spoil without refrigeration) with limes and egg yolks. The acid from the limes created a chemical reaction when mixed with milk that thickened the filling without baking. Since refrigeration wasn’t introduced in Key West until the Overseas Highway was completed in 1930, the idea spread and, as they say, the rest is history.
Today the pie is baked, but the ingredients remain the same — for the most part. Locals argue whether “authentic” means topping it with meringue or whipped cream. You’ll find both in Key West, plus chocolate-dipped key lime pie on a stick, key lime pie in pina colada form, deconstructed key lime pie, you name it.
Where to eat Key Lime Pie in Key West:
Key lime pie is literally everywhere, from street-side stands to almost every restaurant’s dessert menu. The incredibly quirky Pepe’s Cafe serves a tart slice with whipped cream, but the best was the toasted meringue-topped slice made with freshly squeezed limes at Latitudes. The mountain of meringue on Blue Heaven‘s slice looked amazing (but despite good efforts, we never made it there). My recommendation is to get it everywhere and anywhere!
There you have it: the seven foods to eat in Key West! Happy eating! And try to forget the fact that you’ll probably be in a swim suit at some point during your trip. :)