Key West and the Florida Keys: A Culinary History

I love food. I enjoy both cooking and eating out. The highlight of my day is typically what I will be consuming. I normally eat very healthy meals that are still delicious, although I of course splurge on occasion. And the Florida Keys and Key West have a rich cultural history, making there all different types of cuisine found in the southernmost part of the United States. So I was super excited when I was contacted by Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmerman for information for an upcoming episode that they would be shooting in the Keys that only a local foodie could share with them. Here is some of what I shared with them…


When one thinks of Florida cuisine, and especially the Florida Keys and Key West, one thinks seafood. And they should! Commercial fishing is the second largest industry here, tourism being the first. Some of the more notable species fished for in our waters today include:

Island Genn With A Nice Key West Dolphin (mahi)
Island Genn With A Nice Key West Dolphin (mahi)
  • Key West pink shrimp
  • stone crab claws
  • spiny lobster
  • wahoo
  • blackfin tuna
  • swordfish
  • mahi mahi (dolphin)
  • black grouper
  • red grouper
  • yellowtail snapper
  • mutton snapper
  • red snapper
  • tilefish
  • hogfish (hog snapper)

You can find many of the local restaurants serving fresh seafood from the local waters. Or to make sure it is really fresh, you can go out on a fishing charter with one of the local captains and bring your catch to a local restaurant to have it cooked up for you. 

There are several dishes that are specific to the area such as fish dip. This local specialty is delicious, and no two will taste alike. It is usually made from smoked king fish or amberjack that most of us find to be too fishy tasting to eat any other way than smoked.
Key West Restaurants Dinner
Seafood Dinner at a Key West Restaurant

Key West used to have a huge conch industry here as well, so much so that the local Key Westers have dubbed themselves Conchs and Key West is known as the Conch Republic. But since the queen conchs in local waters were being depleted by fishermen, there was a commercial ban put into place in 1975 and a recreational ban in 1986. Because conch is such a Key West culinary tradition, they are now imported from the Bahamas to make such delicacies as conch fritters, conch ceviche, conch salad, cracked conch, and conch burgers which can be found at most local restaurants. The Mote Marine Laboratory has recently opened the Key West Conch Baby Farm next to the Conch Republic Seafood Company Restaurant with the intent to release about 4500 conchs into the Key West waters annually in hopes to replenish the stock.

Sea turtle farming and canning were also once big business in the Florida Keys, but by the 1940’s there were not enough turtles to support the industry. And turtle meat was still processed and served in Key West until about 1980. Today, the location of the original Turtle Cannery and Kraals is on the US National Register of Historic Places and serves as a small museum.  Turtle Kraals Restaurant also has turtle races twice a week.

Key Lime Pie at Square One
Key Lime Pie at Square One

With its small land mass, hard limestone surface, and lack of fresh water, farming is not something that the Florida Keys is known for. From the earliest days, residents have always grown some of their own produce to live off of and trade with one another. Many of us have coconut and banana trees in our yards still today. However, in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s a few did attempt to start a farming industry, mainly in the Upper Keys where such crops as pineapples, tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cabbage, cassava, tapias, tamarinds, breadfruit, beets, carrots, turnips, limes, sugar apples, bananas, oranges, grapefruits, avocados, pears, coconuts, onions, and various tropical fruits were grown.  But with the development of land, this farm land was needed and ended the fledgling industry. In more recent years citrus canker destroyed many of the citrus trees in the  area, but they are slowly making a comeback. A hydroponic farm on Plantation Key growing lettuces is making a go at farming again in the Upper Keys. And many local restaurants such as The Square Grouper on Cudjoe Key grow their own herbs to use in their meals.

While we no longer have an industry for farming key limes, nothing says Key West quite like key lime pie. The pie’s origins are said to derive from Key West’s first millionaire, William Curry, whose cook made it for him in the 1800’s. Key Limes were also thought to prevent scurvy from those underway at sea for days on end. Today, there is hardly a restaurant in the Keys where you can not find key lime pie on the menu. We even had the first Key Lime Festival this year, which coincided with the 4th of July festivities. Places like Kermit’s and the Key West Key Lime Pie Factory make their pies here for residents and visitors to enjoy, and they ship them out all over the country as well.
Delicious chicken with brand and rice at havana Key West on Duval Street.
Delicious chicken with beans and rice at Havana Key West on Duval Street.

The islands also have a large Cuban population, so even though we no longer keep live stock here and all of our meat is shipped in, you can find Cuban specialty dishes at many local eateries. And some of the best Cuban Food can be gotten at places like El Siboney and El Meson de Pepe’s. A few of the more popular menu items include:

  • Ropa Vieja (shredded beef)
  • Picadillo (ground beef)
  • Lechon Asado (roast pork)
  • Cuban sandwiches
  • plantains
  • yucca
  • Cuban bread
  • Cuban coffee
There are many other types of food served by the many nationalities of people that call the Keys home. You will find everything from Thai to Italian on the island and throughout the Florida Keys.
Key West is a party town. So you can imagine the number of festivals we have down here, which is just an excuse to eat and drink for most!  Some food related festivals that we have here in the Florida Keys and Key West include:
  • Key West Food and Wine Festival – January
  • Key West Seafood Festival – January
  • Uncorked, the Islamorada and Key Largo Food Festival – January
  • Florida Keys Celtic Festival (Marathon) – January
  • Brew on the Bay (Key Largo) – January
  • Key Largo Stone Crab and Seafood Festival – January
  • Key West Master Chef’s Classic – January
  • Taste of Key West – April
  • Key Lime Fest (Key West) – July
  • Lobsterfest Key West – August
  • Key West Brewfest – August
  • Goombay Key West – October
With so many bars dotting the island, one could guess that alcohol played a huge part of Key West’s history. During prohibition many Key Westers made their living by importing rum from nearby Cuba. And the Rum Bar located at the Speakeasy Inn on Duval Street is said to have been a haven for smuggled rum during this time. In order to legally advertise that establishments were serving bootleg alcohol, the gingerbread decorations on the outside of the buildings added bottle shapes. You can still see some of this today walking around downtown. Today, many bars help make Key West and the Florida Keys famous. Ernest Hemingway frequented Sloppy Joe’s in Key West, and today it is still a huge tourist attraction. It is also said that the first rumrunner was concocted in the 1950‘s in Islamorada at the Holiday Isle Tiki Bar. Today, chef and kiteboarder Paul Menta is opening Key West’s first legal rum distillery soon in the abandoned Cocoa Cola bottling plant on Simonton Street.
Key West is a foodie’s paradise. Nothing outright weird on the menu, but lots of diversity with a rich culinary history, its mainstay being the seafood industry.

Before deciding where you are going to eat while visiting Key West, be sure to read my other restaurant reviews too; check out our restaurant review section of this blog as well as our previous restaurant reviews.

And to see what is happening on Key West during your visit, check out our Key West Events Calendar to see other upcoming special events. For more information about the fun side of Key West… things to do and see in our island city, go to our Key West Web Site.

Feel free to Email Me if you have any questions about Key West!!

Island Genn
Key West Concierge

About the author: Island Genn

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