Travel

Conch Republic

Where to eat and drink in the Florida Keys
Garbo's Grill in Key West
Garbo's Grill | Photo: Steve via Flickr

The rest of the country might be up in arms about snowstorms, but we're experiencing some of our most glorious weather of the year. And with Presidents' Day around the corner, it's the perfect time for a quick weekend getaway to a destination we often take for granted: the free-spirited Florida Keys.

From Key Largo to Key West, the 113-mile archipelago that forms the part of the country is often referred to as the Caribbean of the United States. There's a nostalgic romance to the lax culture of the islands; many of its residents have traded suits for flip-flops and fishing rods—a mentality you'll see in signage all over the Keys reminding you to "slow down, this ain't the mainland."

Begin your adventure with a Friday happy hour stop at Key Largo's famous water tiki hut Snapper's. Snack on cracked conch Bahamian style ($11.99). The place sets the mood with a Jimmy Buffett playlist before down the Overseas Highway you go.

The next Key to hit is "sportfishing capital of the world" Islamorada. Consider spending a night there and planning a water activity for the morning. Lodging options in the Keys abound in the resort arena, so if this is a special occasion, look a couple of minutes down the road into top-rated Hawks Cay Florida Keys Resort or the more casual Postcard Inn.

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As for eats, chef George Patti's international soul food at S.A.L.T. has garnered accolades, and after sinking our teeth into the slow-cooked kurobuta pork belly ($13) resting on a fluffy bed of sharp Manchego grits alongside fried green tomatoes with an apricot and jalapeño dipping jam, we can see why.

If you want to stick with something more authentic, Chef Michael's prepares an off-the-boat catch of the day—including your own, if you bring it with you—six different ways including "Ponchartrain" style ($32), blackened and topped with crawfish and shrimp in a piquant Creole cream. Replenish your vitals after a day in the sun at Meat Eatery and Taproom, with homemade bacon, fried onion strings with beer cheese ($4.50) and duck-fat fries ($2.50).

If you head further along to the southernmost metropolis of the United States, Key West, you may have to explore the many rambunctious dive bars that line the town's main artery, Duval Street, including famous Sloppy Joe's—once the favorite watering hole of the island's most popular resident, Ernest Hemingway.

Key West's Mallory Square | Photo: Joe Parks via Flickr

On your way to snapping a priceless photo at the famous Southernmost Point buoy, pay a visit to rum savant and local mini-celebrity Bahama Bob at his quaint The Rum Bar at the Speakeasy Inn. If there ever was a time and place to indulge in a Painkiller ($8), this would be it.

As the day begins to wind down, stop at the window of DJ's Clam Shack and soak up the waning sun with a buttery, overstuffed Maine lobster roll ($25). If that didn't quite do it, then turn onto Whitehead Street: About four blocks up is where you'll find Eli and Kenna Pancamo's popular taco stand, Garbo's Grill. The cayo fish tacos (two for $10) are bright and crisp: Fresh grilled mahi rests on a bed of red cabbage, cilantro and chopped onions alongside two slices of juicy ripe mango, all doused with a homemade special Caribbean sauce.

By now, it's time for drinks. Rather than barhopping on the strip, try craft cocktails from mixologist Tim Rabior at The Other Side. He caters to your needs with delicate cocktails like the herbal Pale Green Eyes ($12) with snow pea infused Fords Gin, Lillet, Cocchi Americano, lemon and a dash of simple syrup.

If you do the night right, a proper brunch is in order; you cannot skip town without eating at the classic Blue Heaven. Enjoy the outdoor hippie-esque patio oasis, where kittens and roosters run amuck, as a live band serenades you while you soothe your hangover with Bloody Marys and the restaurant's BLT Benedicts: bacon, lobster and tomato (MP). And you can't go back home without having a slice of their famous Key Lime pie, a slice of fluffly heaven topped with meringue on a graham cracker crust with freshly squeezed lime juice.

You'll want to start scheduling your next trip.

Snapper's 139 Seaside Ave. Key Largo FL 33037 305-852-5956 Chef Michael's 81671 Overseas Highway Islamora FL 33036 305-664-0640 S.A.L.T 82779 Overseas Highway Islamorada FL 33036 305-664-9094 Meat Sloppy Joe's 201 Duval St. Key West FL 33040 305-294-5717 The Rum Bar 1117 Duval St. Kew West FL 33040 305-296-2680 DJ's Clam Shack 629 Duval St. Key West FL 32084 305-294-0102 Garbo's Grill 409 Caroline St. Key West FL 33040 305-304-3004 The Other Side 429 Caroline St. Key West FL 33040 305-849-0930 Blue Heaven 729 Thomas St. Key West FL 38107 305-296-8666

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