Going with the Flow in Key West

Key West presents a somewhat carefree, laid-back image to its visitors, as if it doesn't take itself too seriously. One of the best ways to relax in Key West is to visit its eclectic mix of restaurants.

We spent 2 weeks in Key West because there was so much to do. We chose the shoulder season for a better price but even in mid-May 2015 it was starting to get very warm. We asked Shel Segel, the guest services coordinator for a local realtor, Last Key Realty, how attractive he felt the price reduction in the off season was to clients? He said, “Not at all. It’s not important.” His opinion was visitors came at the times they do not to get better rates in the summer but to escape from their bleak winter weather irrespective of the increased cost in high season. “They come here to get away from their winter!”

That explains why Key West presents a somewhat carefree, laid-back image to its visitors, as if it doesn’t take itself too seriously. As if, “Life is Good. Days are Fun. You chose Well!”

Maybe that’s why wait staffs in restaurants are so friendly; their customers are happy almost as if Key West is Disneyland. Indeed life is good if you’re not slogging through wet snow. And visitors do have a lot of restaurant choices, although all of them seem to charge about 20% more than you’d pay in our San Diego, itself a holiday town.

Breakfast? We liked Harpoon Harry’s up near the Key West Bight Harbor. Recommended apparently by both Bill Clinton and Jimmy Buffett! For a light lunch with great tomato soup, The Café on Southard or, next door, a marvelous BLT at the Coffee & Tea House. What about indulging yourself? Where would be the best glazed donuts you’ve ever snuggled up to? It’s simply called Glazed Donuts and it’s easily found on Eaton Street beside the Tropic Cinema and its statue of Marilyn Munroe!

About the young couple who own Glazed Donuts: Jonathan Pidgeon is from Norfolk, VA, and Megan’s from Houston, TX. They met during their 4 years at the Culinary Institute of America. “Did you know one day you would be married?” we ask Megan. ”No!” she says, her eyes sparkling. “But he did! I was stubborn.”

We came 3 times for coffee and donuts but even knowing they close at 3 p.m. we once found a note “Sold Out” before that time on their door. Megan explained. As a pastry chef she always had to wait till the last diner had eaten the pastry or desert and left the restaurant. Sometimes it would be as late as 3 a.m. With their own donut shop when they have sold all their donuts for the day, they simply close up shop and go home even if it is before 3 p.m. And if at 3 they still had some donuts unsold? “We take them to a soup kitchen for the homeless. They call me ‘The Donut Lady.’”

Hungry still? Ready for lunch? How about Blue Heaven on Thomas Street, in Bahama Village? It’s close to the Hemingway House so maybe you can combine visits. It’s just great, casual patio dining and the place to have Key Lime Pie as your dessert, even though we thought their charge for one slice a bit immodest at $9.50. Dinner? There are 2 places a cab ride away on Stock Island, both casual and full of locals (which is always a good sign): Roostica Wood-fired Pizzeria and, nearby, Hogfish Bar & Grill. And since you are so close to the sea, how about a light snack with a fresh lobster roll at the Eaton Street Seafood Market, which is actually a heavy snack given the huge size of your $15 roll. You really could split it with your partner. (Lunchbreak by J. Seward Johnson is one of several statues around Mallory Square.)

Walking around gives one a feel for Key West. A parrot on a bicycle. Marilyn outside the cinema, the building where PanAm had its beginnings, the Southernmost Point in the continental USA (impossible to photograph without some stranger whooping, “See me!) Key West’s houseboats. And is that dog going to get a rude awakening from a swordfish? Not in Key West; dogs can sleep forever. They are on vacation, too.

Signs are easily understood. It’s not really a bad dog! The toilet is Unisex, Chickens rule here so don’t ask why they cross the road. In 1998 Hurricane Georges destroyed many trees and wild chicken habitats and since then chickens roam safely everywhere, a controversial issue in town.

Realistic figures in Mallory Square, fun art in el Meson de Pepe restaurant. A famous National Geographic photograph in tiles at Ripley’s — and 2 of the mysterious graffiti paintings that show up at times at the base of street columns.

A restaurant salutes a past era, a Mario Sanchez piece of 3-D art shows police chasing robbers, and a sister photographs a sibling who is having fun, naturally, in Key West. (Mario Sanchez lived in Key West as a child; his primitive style of carving and painting his recollections is delightful and can be seen in several Key West museums.)

The cavernous restaurant El Meson de Pepe is a convenient landmark in Mallory Square. Its Cuban art charms—and the restrooms are real, a fortunate occurrence in a tourist area that might provide more where on hot days everyone is carrying a water bottle. Outside sprawls The Key West Memorial Garden with its bronze busts of the 36 persons who have contributed the most to the city over its history. There are tributes to 2 physicians, Jeptha Vining Harris, MD and Joseph Yates Porter, MD. Porter showed tenacity as the first State Health Officer in dealing with yellow fever. Born in 1847, he was recalled to active duty in World War I at age 70! Harris (illustrated) also served in the army—in the Civil War. At the outbreak he enlisted in the Confederate Army as a private and on the first day of the Battle of Shiloh he fought as a sharpshooter and claimed he had killed 78 Yankees. Thereafter he worked as a surgeon with the Shiloh casualties. He attended the Seminole tribe during an typhoid epidemic.

Photography by the authors.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Physicians. Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written 5 books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life

Most of the signs around Key West are intended to make visitors smile and they do have that effect. But they leave the visitor wanting to know more about the famous personalities who have lived here. And that surely sends us off now to find Hemingway.