Monday, May 28, 2012

Notes on Key West: Part Three

My last post was about a pair of outstanding restaurants on Key West…but drinking is the first thing on the minds of most visitors, so here are some observations about places where you can find the best libations the island has to offer.

The margarita seems to be the national drink down here, and for my money, the best ones are those at the Half Shell Raw Bar and Southernmost Beach Café.

The Half Shell sits on the docks along the key’s northwest shore and is an ideal place to eat lunch while sipping your ’rita. The burgers are big and juicy, the tuna salad among the best you will ever find, and the fish hooks a perfect appetizer. Offering all this tastiness in a weathered, far-from-fancy building makes for the quintessential beach bar:

As for the Southernmost Beach Café, its hand-mixed rum runners are just as quenching as its margaritas. And if you are looking for something unique you should try the Southern Medicine, which is concocted from sweet tea, vodka, and pink lemonade.

On a side note, it is worth pointing out that the Southernmost Beach Café really is the southernmost in the continental United States. Plus, do you know those maps on which travelers insert pins to show where they came from? I doubt you will ever see one as covered as the one here:

Regardless of what you consider to be your beverage of choice, however, it is hard to beat The Bull and Whistle Bar when it comes to pure fun and people-watching. The old-timey, open-air pub occupies this two-story building on the corner of Duval and Caroline Streets:

The first floor is called The Bull and the second floor is called The Whistle. The Bull’s focal point is a corner stage where you are likely to find local musicians performing at almost any hour of the day. The Whistle’s  best feature, as far as I am concerned, is the narrow wraparound balcony that allows you to sit outside and observe the pedestrians below:

Because Key West is so flat and small, the balcony catches the full benefit of ocean breezes blowing across the island. Although it was a hot May afternoon when we recently parked ourselves there, it did not feel like it because the steady breeze made it multiple degrees cooler than on the sidewalk. Check out our vantage point:

After day turned to night, we decided to sacrifice those primo balcony seats and mosey up to the roof, which is called The Garden of Eden and is Key West’s only clothing-optional bar. We remained fully clothed, as did the vast majority of rooftop patrons, but there were a few people in their birthday suits and a few others in lesser states of undress.

I do not know how The Bull and Whistle pulls it off, especially in such an old building, but there is no “bleed over” in the varying atmospheres from one floor to the next. The music on the roof consisted of loud, pulsing dance tunes, but you could not hear them on the second-floor’s balcony, even though they are separated by no walls and less than twenty vertical feet of open air. Meanwhile, the live music on the first floor tends to be acoustic and folksy, and some people who never leave that floor would be stunned to learn that hedonism and voyeurism are occurring in the same building where they sit drinking cold beer while listening to covers of Simon and Garfunkel.

Obviously, I highly recommend each of these places if you ever get a chance to come to the key, and I believe they can not be bested. You might notice that there are a couple better-known drinkeries not mentioned in this post, but rest assured I will write about them soon, when I publish a “chasing Hemingway” kind of piece. For an adavnce taste, here is a picture of Erika and me in one of them seven Novembers ago:

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Notes on Key West: Part Two

I do not claim to have the most refined palette this side of Paris, but I have eaten in all manner of excellent restaurants, all across this great country, and know good food the moment it settles on my taste buds…and today I am here to tell you about two places you can not miss if you find yourself in Key West.

Everyone who visits the key flocks to Duval Street. Seven Fish is located two blocks east of it on the corner of Olivia and Elizabeth Streets, and looks very nondescript. The building is so small and plain that if you walked by while looking for a place to eat, you would probably choose to keep walking -- which would be a colossal mistake.

We went to Seven Fish because it was recommended by a good friend who let us know that the menu’s fresh fish are same-day catches. The night we were there, those catches consisted of grouper, cobia, and snapper.

I ordered the grouper grilled simple and it practically melted in my mouth. Erika ordered the gnocchi (which, incidentally, was made with cobia) and raved that it was the best she ever had, so I took a couple bites and agreed with her. No one in our party of eight could stop talking about how good the food was, and that includes my popular food-blogger sister-in-law.

When dessert time came we were very impressed by the strawberry pie, topped with a whipped cream that is uniquely delicious because of its abundant vanilla. Erika and I were so happy with the meal that we had to have our picture taken there:

On our way out, we saw someone we believe was either the owner or chef. After graciously accepting our compliments, he let us know that they also own a breakfast-and-lunch eatery called Six Toed Cat, and armed with that information, we couldn’t help but visit that establishment a couple mornings later.

You will find Six Toed Cat on Whitehead Street, within eyesight of Ernest Hemingway’s house. Here is how it looks from the outside:

It was late morning and we all opted for breakfast food over lunch food. Signboards proclaimed that the French toast is world famous, and regardless of whether or not that is true, the people in our party who ordered it confirmed that it should be. I opted for eggs benedict and found the homemade Hollandaise to be so delectable my mouth watered every time I raised my fork.

As good as the food is at Six Toed Cat, I was most impressed with the beverages. Their Bellinis (champagne mixed with peach nectar) are so tasty I can not imagine drinking anything else the next time I feel like imbibing at brunch.

I wish I had taken more photos to share with you, but it's not natural to think of whipping out a camera while sitting down and enjoying a meal, so you will have to visit these restaurants and see their interiors for yourself. You will not be disappointed!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Notes on Key West: Part One

Though it has been almost five months since I posted anything here, that does not mean I have given up on this blog. It only means that life is busy and over the winter most of my writing energy was expended on my blog about hikes in the Tampa Bay area.

But now I am “back in the game” and yesterday I returned from a three-day whirlwind in Key West. So what better place is there to write about than that tropical island which sits closer to Cuba than it does to Miami?

In Key West the word “southernmost” is used frequently -- and loosely. Throngs of tourists flock to the intersection of South and Whitehead Streets to get their pictures taken near a concrete buoy that is billed as the southernmost point in the continental United States. Erika and I were among them when we visited in 2005:

However, it is not even the southernmost point on Key West. Standing at the buoy and looking out at the water, you can clearly see the island jutting further south into the ocean, although that part is owned by the U.S. Navy and not open to the public.

One block away, vacationers shell out big bucks to stay in an inn that was originally the home of Dr. Jeptha Harris. Built in 1896, it is internationally renowned as The Southernmost House, even though there are homes further south on the very same same street! But oh well…one of the island’s charming eccentricities is the way untruths are looked upon more as stories than as lies, and there is no doubt that The Southernmost House is a beautiful building in a beautiful setting:

You will not be disappointed if you come here hoping to catch a laid back, Jimmy Buffet kind of vibe. Shorts and flip flops are standard attire even in the priciest restaurants. And Saturday afternoon, when some customers on the second floor balcony of the Bull and Whistle Pub decided to shoot baskets by tossing Cheerios toward the cups of people on the sidewalk, the only reaction they got from below was from someone who laughingly said: “Hey, when you’re in Key West you’re supposed to throw Froot Loops!”

You will also not be disappointed if you imagine this island as the kind of place where the faucets seem to pour forth tequila and rum instead of water. Creative beverages are everywhere, mid-morning drinks are not frowned upon, and it is okay to drink on the streets. If you tell your bartender you want one to go, he will simply make sure to give it to you in a plastic cup.

Anyway, those are just a very few, very basic things. I will be writing more about Key West in the coming days and weeks, but for now, just be assured that it is a place where you can not help but relax. Just ask my sister-in-law Leslie:

(And -- shameless plug alert! -- be sure to visit her blog if you like to cook.)