Fodors and Food in the Keys
Seafood rules in the Keys, which is full of chef-owned restaurants with not-too-fancy food. Many restaurants serve cuisine that reflects the proximity of the Bahamas and Caribbean (you’ll see the term “Floribbean” on many menus). Tropical fruits figure prominently—especially on the beverage side of the menu. Florida spiny lobster should be local and fresh from August to March, and stone crabs
from mid-October to mid-May. And don’t dare leave the islands without sampling conch, be it in a fritter or in ceviche. Keep an eye out for authentic key lime pie—yellow custard in a graham-cracker crust. If it’s green, just say “no.” Note: Particularly in Key West and particularly during spring break, the more affordable and casual restaurants can get loud and downright rowdy, with young visitors often more interested in drinking than eating. Live music contributes to the decibel levels. If you’re more of the quiet, intimate-dining type, avoid such overly exuberant scenes by eating early or choosing a restaurant where the bar isn’t the main focus.
Fodor’s Best Restaurants in Key Largo
Key Largo/ 12 Restaurants
Fodor’s Review Calories be damned—the conch fritters here are heaven on a plate. Don’t expect the traditional, golf-ball-size balls of dough; these are an unusual, mountainous freeform creation of fried, loaded-with-flavor perfection. The crab cakes, made from local blue crabs, earn hallelujahs, too. The conch salad is as good as any you’ll find in the Bahamas. This weathered, circa-1950 restaurant floats on two roadside barges in an old fishing community. Regulars include motorcyclists, families, boaters and the upscale crowd from nearby Ocean Reef Club, including Kathie Lee Gifford, who all come not only for the food but to admire tropical birds in the nearby mangroves, the occasional crocodile, and to jam with the bands playing each weekend afternoon. Dinner has to be early here; Jack’s closes by 6:30, when the mosquitoes start biting. It’s about a half-hour drive from Key Largo, so you may want to plan a visit for your drive in or out.
Fodor’s Review Occupying a 1930s Conch house with outdoor seating right alongside U.S. 1 under the seagrape trees, this local favorite is all about the fish (including the nautical decor). Yellowtail snapper, one of the moistest, most flavorful local fish, is served 10 different ways on the all-day menu, including blackened, stuffed with crab, and Parmesan-crusted. During stone-crab season (mid-October to mid-May) get in on the all-you-can-eat special. Every Friday night, locals flock for the all-you-can-eat mojo-marinated and fried-fish dinner deals.
Buzzard’s Roost Grill and Pub
Fodor’s Review The views are nice at this waterfront restaurant but the food is what gets your attention. Burgers, fish tacos, and seafood baskets are lunch faves. Dinner is about seafood and steaks, any way you like them. Try the smoked-fish dip, served with Armenian heart-shaped lavash crackers. Look for the big signs on U.S. 1 that direct you where to turn—it’s worth finding
Chad’s Deli & Bakery
Fodor’s Review It’s a deli! It’s a bakery! It’s a pasta place! It’s also where the locals go. By day, Chad’s serves monster sandwiches in pita wraps, rolls, or subs. It also offers pizza (try the seafood pizza with rosada sauce), pasta dishes, quesadillas, vegetarian meals, salads, burgers, and breakfast. Everyone loves the homemade soups and chowders, and there’s a good selection of beer and wine to wash it all down. Of course, you may bypass all this and make a meal out of one of Chad’s eight varieties of cookies, approximately the size of your head, including white-chocolate macadamia-nut and chocolate-chip.
Fodor’s Review If you’re looking for comfort food—like melt-in-your-mouth biscuits the size of a salad plate—try this refreshing throwback. The kitchen makes muffins daily in 13 different flavors like mango, coconut, and key lime. Since the early 1980s, owner Harriette Mattson has been here to personally greet guests who come for the to-die-for omelets and old-fashioned hotcakes with sausage or bacon. For something unique, try the conch burger and eggs. At lunch, Harriette shines in the burger department, and her soups—from garlic tomato to chili—are homemade. No wonder there’s always a wait.
Jimmy Johnson’s Big Chill
Owned by former NFL coach, Jimmy Johnson, this waterfront establishment offers three entertaining experiences, and all are big winners. You’ll find the best sports bar in the Upper Keys complete with the coach’s Super Bowl trophies, a main restaurant with all-glass indoor seating and a waterfront deck, and an enormous outdoor tiki bar with entertainment seven nights a week. There’s even a pool and cabana club where (for an entrance fee) you can spend the day sunning. Menu favorites are the Parmesan-crusted snapper and brick-oven roasted chicken wings, but don’t miss the tuna nachos—as delicious as they are artfully presented. As the sun sets over the bay, enjoy the views and a slice of key lime pie.
Key Largo Conch House
Fodor’s Review Tucked into the trees along the Overseas Highway, this Victorian-style home (family-owned since 2004) and its true-to-the-Keys style of cooking is worth seeking out—at least the Food Network and the Travel Channel have thought so in the past. The Old South veranda and patio seating are ideal for winter dining, but indoors the seating is tighter. Raisin pecan French toast and seven varieties of Benedicts, including conch, are brunch favorites. Lunch and dinner menus cover all bases, from a conch chowder bread bowl and vegetarian wraps to lobster and conch ceviche. Lionfish is proudly served when available, as is local yellowtail snapper. Interesting fact: the restaurant’s “loo” was voted “Best of” for local restaurants.
Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen
Townies pack the counters and booths at this tiny eatery, where license plates are stuck on the walls and made into chandeliers, for everything from blackened prime rib to crab cakes. Every night is themed including Meatloaf Monday, Italian Wednesday, and Seafood Sensation (offered Friday and Saturday). There’s also a Champagne breakfast (at this original location) and an assortment of tasty Angus beef burgers, sandwiches, a famous chili, and key lime freeze (a tangy concoction somewhere between a shake and a float). In season, ask about the hogfish special du jour. A second location, Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen 2, is located half a mile south on the Overseas Highway (99020 Overseas Hwy., MM99 Center), also in Key Largo. The newer location offers a similar menu, a full bar, and double the seating, but the original rules supreme on food.
Fodor’s Review “You hook ‘em, we cook ‘em” is the motto here. Alas, “cleanin’ ‘em” is not part of the bargain. If you bring in your ready-for-the-grill fish, dinner here is $14 for a single, $15 per person family style with a mix of preparations. Otherwise, they’ll catch and prepare you a plank-roasted yellowtail snapper, Thai-seared tuna, fish of the day baked with 36 herbs and spices, or a little something from the raw bar. The ceviche of yellowtail, shrimp, and conch (merrily spiced) wins raves, too. The seafood burrito on the sandwich board is a keeper. All this is served up in a lively, mangrove-ringed waterfront setting with live music, an aquarium bar, Sunday brunch (including a build-your-own Bloody Mary bar), killer rum drinks, and seating alongside the fishing dock.
Fodor’s Review The name doesn’t lie. If it’s a clear night and you can snag a reservation, this restaurant will treat you to a sherbet-hue sunset over Florida Bay. If you’re here in mild weather—anytime other than the dog days of summer or the rare winter cold snap—the best seats are on the patio. The food is excellent: try the key lime seafood, a happy combo of sautéed shrimp, lobster, and lump crabmeat swimming in a tangy sauce spiked with Tabasco served over penne or rice. Wednesday and Saturday are all about prime rib, and Friday draws the crowds with an all-you-can-eat fish fry. Vegetarian and gluten-free options are available. To beat the crowds, stop in for lunch, which offers the same great food, minus the hassle.
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