There’s a reason why Key West, Florida, is also sometimes known as The Conch Republic. This tiny island hosts a plethora of restaurants, cafes and markets where conch is procured. From old Hemingway haunts to contemporary hot spots, here are ten places to find top-notch conch.
Louie’s Backyard is not only a restaurant; it is a Key West tradition. The restored Victorian home is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was once operated as a three-table restaurant under the original owner, Louie Signorelli, but currently, it boasts three different rooms where both a delicious meal and the sunset can be enjoyed. The main dining room, the after deck and the upper deck all offer breathtaking views of the ocean and the famous Key West sunset. Louie’s Backyard conch menu item must-haves are Bahamian conch chowder with bird pepper hot sauce; conch fritters with hot pepper jelly and wasabi; and the coconut conch ceviche.
Drawing from its location in a historical dockyard of Key West, this sponge warehouse-turned-restaurant not only serves the freshest catch of the day, but also aims to educate its culinary patrons through a Reef Relief initiative. The Conch Republic Seafood Company was constructed with salvaged materials from the old warehouse that have been integrated into the restaurants new decor. While dining, guests can marvel at the restaurant’s two extra large saltwater aquariums displaying marine invertebrates indigenous to the Florida Keys. The goal of Conch Republic Seafood Company is to be an environmentally concerned enterprise that not only delights the taste buds, but educates as well. Try the cracked conch, which consists of tempura battered queen conch lightly flash fried and served with orange horseradish marmalade.
BO’s Fish Wagon
Owner Buddy Owen is a local legend in Key West, having served fish and conch out of a little wagon on the infamous Duval Street for more than 25 years. Today, BO’s Fish Wagon is a nationally acclaimed restaurant. Don’t worry about entering the premise barefoot because BO’s Fish Wagon is not fussy. The open-aired restaurant serves the freshest seafood and also entertains guests with live music on Friday nights. The spot is famous for their cracked conch sandwich, which consists of strips of fried conch doused with key lime mayo stuffed between fresh Cuban bread.
Sloppy Joe’s is one of the most famous establishments in Key West. Named by Ernest Hemingway, the business has been serving patrons food, drinks and entertainment for over 77 years. Hemingway’s fishing companion Joe Russell served alcohol during the years of prohibition, and once it ended, Russell turned his speakeasy into a legal booze-selling operation. In 1917 Russell bought a corner building in Key West’s now-famous Duval Street for $2,500. Today that building hosts Sloppy Joe’s, donned with Hemingway relics, intricate Cuban tiles and jalousie doors. On the menu: conch chowder with blended tomato, spiced vegetables and ground conch, also hand-rolled conch fritters served with key lime dipping sauce.
The Conch Shack
The Conch Shack is exactly what the name implies. Pull up a stool at this small street side cafe meant for eating and watching the colorful people of Key West trickle by. Nothing fancy, and not wanting to be, The Conch Shack is rumored to have the best conch fritters in town. For a non-fried menu item, the cracked conch offers tender meat with Key Lime alioli and a spicy pink sauce. While eating at The Conch Shack, servers teach guests how to blow on a conch shell. Not to worry, this is merely an activity for fun and has no relation to Lord of the Flies.
Hot Tin Roof
Hot Tin Roof is a fine dining restaurant located in Key West’s premiere lodging accommodations, the Ocean Key Resort & Spa. Paying homage to Tennessee Williams, who was a frequent guest to Key West, Hot Tin Roof offers waterfront dining overlooking the Sunset Pier in Mallory Square. The restaurant is filled with teak woodwork and hand painted murals by the late Key West artist, Jeff Beal, as well as contemporary white leather seating and wire sculptures. For dinner, try the paella, which includes local seafood, conch, chorizo and valencia rice.
Hogfish Bar & Grill
Hogfish Bar & Grill is a favorite among locals and one of Key West’s best-kept secrets, located off-the-beaten path and away from the bustling tourism scene of Key West. In Safe Harbor Marina on Stock Island, one of Key West’s less-rowdy neighborhoods, Hogfish Bar & Grill offers fresh-catch seafood in a relaxing atmosphere. This open-aired, thatched roof establishment has panoramic waterfront views and live music with an unsophisticated crowd. Most famous for their hogfish sandwich, the restaurant also offers conch chowder and conch fritters on their menu.
Half Shell Raw Bar
Recently visited by Andrew Zimmern during the filming of his Bizarre Foods Travel Channel TV show, Half Shell Raw Bar, offers an impressive array of fresh seafood, raw oysters and conch dishes. While guests dine they can also watch boats unload their daily seafood catch into the adjoining Half Shell Market, which supplies the restaurant, as well as sister restaurants owned by Pat Croce. Offering casual dining by the waterfront, guests are seated picnic style in long rectangular wooden tables lined with US license plates. This gregarious atmosphere offers must-have conch menu items such as conch salad and conch chowder.
Eaton Street Seafood Market
As a fresh seafood market that offers a lunch menu, Eaton Street Seafood Market is known to have a line out the door. Offering very limited seating, this market is not exactly a sit-down restaurant, but more of a to-go style meal. Located in a white and pink Deco building a few blocks away from the bustle of Duval Street, the Eaton Street Seafood Market receives rave reviews from all who enter the premises. Fresh seafood can be purchased to take home or prepared on-site. The lunch menu offers both conch ceviche and conch chowder.
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