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Retro Florida Keys

Taking a "Seventies Style" trip to the Florida Keys and Key West

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The year is 1972 and as you sip your coffee in the Sambo’s Restaurant on U.S. Highway 1 in Fort Lauderdale, you decide, on a whim, to follow the highway to its southern termination in Key West, Florida. You load the wife into your brand new Plymouth Duster and head south. You arrive in Key West and park at the foot of Duval Street. The first order of business is to satisfy the thirst that built up after the long drive over a series of bridges linking Key West with mainland Florida. You stumble into the nearest watering hole, the Chart Room Bar at the Pier House Motel. In the corner is a scruffy haired, mustached young singer, who has yet to discover his lost shaker of salt.

While the years have changed the Florida Keys and Key West, it is still possible to experience the magic of the seventies, a variety of locations from Key Largo to Key West. My wife and I recently ventured forth to rediscover the Florida Keys as it was in the sixties and seventies. Hop aboard as we take you on a nostalgic trip back in time to the Keys that Hemingway and Tennessee Williams found so hospitable.
When I originally began formulating our trip to the Keys, I planned on spending two days in Key Largo, Two days in Marathon and two days in Key West. After scouting lodging options I decided to opt for six days in a central location, rather than having to pack up and move three times. Marathon was an obvious choice, being halfway between the upper keys and Key West. In less than an hour I could be anywhere in the Keys. We had planned our trip to coincide with what is known as Spring Break, but we were hopeful we could avoid the worst of the college crowd. It turned out that the vast majority of college aged crowd had moved on to Cancun or Cabo San Lucas, so the crowds were manageable.

After careful consideration, we decided on the Blackfin Resort (800) 548-5397 4650 Overseas Highway, Marathon FL 33050 (MM-49.5) www.blackfinresort.com a charming “fifties style” resort motel, with a variety of room types and rates that were quite reasonable, for what is after all “high season” for the area. The property has an attached marina, including dive and fishing charters. Facilities include boat ramp and fish cleaning station as well as a small pool, swimming beach, tiki hut, outdoor grilles and scattered tables and chairs throughout the complex. There is also an attached bar and restaurant open for lunch and dinner. The rooms were in simple block buildings, but clean and freshly painted. The bathrooms had been recently updated and the rooms came equipped with a refrigerator, microwave, coffee maker and a welcome air conditioner. Rooms were tastefully decorated with wicker furniture, table and chair and tiled floors. Handicapped rooms are available and accessible. Dogs are permitted at Blackfin Resort, with well-behaved owners. There is an additional charge per day and dogs need to be kept on a leash. Free Wi-Fi is available to most rooms, but you may need to access the hotspot near the ice machine and laundry if you are in one of the lower rooms nearest the marina. Owner and staff are knowledgeable and friendly. There are a variety of restaurants and attractions within a few miles of the hotel.

Day One

We drove down from Lake City, Florida and after a long day on the road decided to start our Keys experience off the right way by turning left off Highway One, onto Card Sound Road just one mile east of Homestead, the road is actually a toll road through the mangrove swamps separating Dade County from Monroe County. Our destination was a saloon constructed over the Card Sound Channel. Alabama Jack’s (305) 248-8741 58000 Card Sound Road, Homestead, FL has been a local’s favorite for over fifty years and still serves up what the author considers to be the best conch fritters on the planet. Cathy Lee Gifford is said to be a steady customer of Alabama Jack’s. On weekends the band begins to play at 2:00 P.M. and they were in fine form by the time we arrived at around 3:00. The band played country favorites as I downed a couple of Key West Ale’s. Later I devoured a snapper sandwich and an order of the signature fritters. Don’t be deterred by all the motorcycles parked out front, once inside you will find a cross section of locals, families and chances are the motorcycles are ridden by local orthodontists living out there childhood dream on the weekend. Don’t forget to save a dollar for the toll bridge between Jack’s and Key Largo directly in front of you as you leave. We continued on to our lodging intent on getting to our location an unpacking for a well needed vacation, we arrived about 5:30 and attacked the ice machine intent upon starting happy hour and planning dinner.

The staff at Blackfin had made a few suggestions and after our happy hour cocktails we decided on Castaway’s Restaurant (305) 743-6247 1406 Oceanview Avenue, Marathon, FL 33050 www.jonesn4sushi.com/ The restaurant is a little hard to find as it is off the Overseas Highway a bit, turn left at MM-47.5 on to 15th Street, past the trailer park on the left. Don’t be deterred by the neighborhood or the area, continue down 15th to Oceanview Avenue where you will take a right and from there you can see the restaurant. Parking is limited, but the restaurant operates a stretch golf cart shuttle and will shuttle you from adjacent parking to and from the restaurant. We were able to access the handicapped parking spot directly in front and were quickly ushered to an outside table near the lively bar where a two-man band serenaded us during our dinner. Seafood and Sushi were the house specialties, so my wife Anne chose the wreck diver baked hogfish, I, having had seafood for lunch opted for a cheeseburger. Both came with a fresh salad and a choice of two sides. The Castaway’s originally opened in 1951, back then they specialized in shrimp, being a short walk from the shrimper’s docks. When the current owners John & Arlene purchased the restaurant in 1999 they expanded the offerings to include an extensive sushi menu. The restaurant is open from 11:00 daily and serves lunch and dinner. The full bar includes cocktails as well as thirty three beers on tap. The restaurant is children friendly, with a menu including many children’s items. Prices are moderate and dress is casual.

Day Two

Sunday Breakfast was at Stuffed Pig (305) 743-4059 3520 Overseas Highway, Marathon, FL 33050 www.stuffedpig.com Located in a non-discreet free standing location the restaurant specializes in a hearty breakfast. Don’t look for the diet plate at this location. The signature breakfast is the World Favorite Pig Breakfast consisting of two eggs, two pancakes, two bacon, two sausages, home fries and toast for $9.00. Enough to make you squeal in delight! The restaurant has limited inside seating but a large patio area. The female staff is friendly and helpful and the menu contains daily specials. Remember to bring cash, as the pig accepts no credit cards. The Stuffed Pig has been a local’s favorite since 1984, on the gulf side of the highway at (MM-49). Serving breakfast and lunch daily from 5 A.M. to 2:00 P.M. (Sunday from 6:00) In case you were wondering, we split a four egg pig omelet, which contained everything but the kitchen sink and Anne had a fruit cup while I ate the English muffin.

We had skipped lunch, still full from our breakfast at the Stuffed Pig. We had decided to try Snapper’s (305) 852-5956 139 Seaside Avenue, Key Largo, FL 33037 (MM-94.5) www.snapperskeylargo.com/ which is about an hour north of Marathon and we left about 4:00 P.M. to arrive in time for a happy hour drink before another fabulous seafood dinner. If you are heading south turn left at Lime Street and proceed to Seaside Avenue. From there you will see the restaurant. This was not our first time at Snapper’s; we had stopped for lunch on a previous trip to Key West. The restaurant is beachside, located on a wharf with seating inside and outside. There is an outside Tiki Bar frequented by a “school” of locals, so we had an oyster shooter before dinner and talked with the fishermen about the one they got and the one that got away. The baked grouper was as good as I remembered and we both enjoyed the meal and the setting. Not many tourists make it to Snapper’s so I am hesitant to mention it in this article, so don’t tell all your friends!

Day Three

We had decided on the Wooden Spoon (305) 743-8383 at 7007 Overseas Highway on the left, past the airport, as you head south through Marathon at (MM-48) for our breakfast and were not disappointed with this ‘50 style diner in the center of town. The restaurant walls were covered with wooden spoons of every shape and size, obviously the gifts of many generations of satisfied diners. There was even a framed original menu on the wall from the original owners, with no item priced over $1.50. The prices have risen, but the quality is still there, all cooked before you on an open grille amongst a busy lunch counter and neat rows of Formica tables. The blue and white checkerboard vinyl floor showed some wear, but the friendly servers kept everyone happy and the coffee hot and strong. After breakfast, we had decided to return to the upper keys, a concession to my wife, having spent the previous afternoon watching the Masters Golf Tournament on television. I was wisely inclined to indulge my better half with an afternoon of art and shopping, to even the score on vacation time. Rain Barrel Artist Colony (305) 852-8935 www.rainbarrelsculpture.com 86700 Overseas Highway, Islamorada, is difficult to miss as you proceed down the overseas highway, for on your right at (MM-86.7) is none other than, “Betsy” a humongous spiny lobster sculpture that leers at approaching cars from the parking area. Nestled on the grounds are a variety of artist’s works in sculpture, clay, mosaics and pottery. Wander through their studios under the watchful eyes of “Betsy” who is available for photos. Rain Barrel is the creation of Dwayne and Cindy King, two dedicated artists that created the attraction more than fifteen years ago.

For dinner we returned to another of Marathon’s eating establishments, Chiki Tiki Bar & Grille (305) 743-5317 www.burdineswaterfront.com which is located on the second floor of Burdines’ Marina at 1200 Oceanview Avenue at the end of 15th Street in Marathon and just down from Castaway’s. The old-time Tiki Bar atmosphere pervades the place and the simple menu is enhanced by the fantastic views from the deck of the surrounding keys, boats and the stunning sunset view. Locals mix with fishermen and tourists as the day comes to a close. The burgers and shrimp are great, but everyone brags about the huge helpings of fries that are delivered fresh to your table. The Chiki Tiki is also known for their signature desert, a deep fried key lime pie slice, join the “Keysi way to enjoy your day” as they say at the Chiki Tiki. A prevailing breeze makes this a great spot to enjoy a burger and a cold beer.

Day Four

To start the day off we went to Breakfast at the Cracked Conch Café (305) 743-CAFÉ www.crackedconch.com The cracked conch cafe is another long time Marathon breakfast location, having been in the same location for over 30 years. The restaurant is at (MM-49.5) 4999 Overseas Highway on the Atlantic side of the road with an oversize sign and the name on the side of the building. They specialize in breakfast, serving it until 4:00 daily, so even if you sleep in you can’t miss their breakfast. Besides conch omelets and conch eggs benedict, they offer standard breakfast fare including pancakes and waffles. The patio seating is a plus as are the better than the average home fries.

We had decided to try out Sombrero Beach which is a city owned and managed park on the south facing Atlantic side of the island. In 2001 the city re-developed the beach to include total handicap accessibility, with new picnic areas, volleyball courts, play areas, restrooms and showers. Also included was a landscape update and lots of convenient parking. Shade is a somewhat sparse commodity in the lawn areas and I am somewhat hesitant to suggest you sun bathe under coconut palms, but if you guard for falling coconuts and apply sunscreen you should survive. Sombrero beach is a nesting site for loggerhead turtles from April to October, but there is plenty of room to share the beach with the turtles and their nests will be clearly marked and access limited during the season. Admission and parking are free at the beach, just turn south off the Overseas Highway on Sombrero Beach Road and follow to the end of the road. The beach is open daily from 7:00 A.M. to dusk.

We had read many great reviews about the food at Frank’s Grille (305) 289-7772 11400 Overseas Highway, Marathon, (MM-48) so where anxious to see what all the talk was about. We called ahead for reservations and it was a good thing we did as they were booked up and we had to adjust our plans for a later dinner. The restaurant is a modest storefront location with limited tables, but don’t be put off by the location, Frank knows what he is doing. We were ready for Italian food, a steady diet of fresh seafood was beginning to become too much of a good thing. Veal Parmigianino and Lasagna turned out to be the perfect anecdote for the night. Frank’s is closed on Sunday, but open for lunch and dinner the other six days of the week. No view or frills at Frank’s just a simple setting and great food and reasonable prices.

Day Five

We were off to Key West on day five, Harpoon Harry’s (305) 294-8744 832 Caroline Street, Key West www.harpoonharryskeywest.com which is a combination Restaurant, Bar and package store in Old Town Key West a few blocks off Duval Street. I indulged in a “Heapin’ Harry’s” 2 eggs; with cheese atop home fried potatoes drown in sausage gravy, which inches you closer to a coronary, while my better half smiled at me from behind her fruit bowl. Harry’s has been around a long time and its reputation is wearing thin, frankly I think it is overrated, though I am sure there are many who will argue with my assessment. I say this as I scoop up the last of my gravy with my toast. The 50’s décor is noteworthy amongst its small tables and eating counter. Our table overlooked the package store and an array of rum bottles allowing for a great “people watching” opportunity. Nice to see imbibing is still a major contributor to the local economy.

I dropped Anne of on Duval Street for some shopping as I scoped out a parking spot to wait for my wife to tire of shopping. One of the least appealing features of a visit to the “Southernmost City” is the parking cost in town. Some prime lots charge up to $4.00 per hour and city street parking is $2.00 an hour. Due to my physical limitations I am issued a handicapped permit, but even these can be hard to find on the weekend. So I drove over to AIA in search of some beach parking. Alongside the White Street Pier I located a couple of unoccupied handicapped spaces and parked. I got out of the car and noticed that I was adjacent to the Key West AIDS Memorial http://keywestaids.org so I decided to take a look at the Memorial. Knowing that Key West has a reputation as being an “alternative lifestyle” location, I was smart enough to figure that the AIDS epidemic had a decided effect on the population of the small island. What I did not realize, is the how immense that impact was. At its inception there were 730 names on the memorial. No segment of the Monroe County population was spared, business owners, housewives, Conchs (Key West Natives), Military, Gays, Straights, you name it the disease played no favorites. Not only did the disease devastate local residents, Key West became a refuge for hundreds diagnosed elsewhere but those that felt they could not stay at home at what many considered hostile environments. Key West had the highest infection rate in the U.S. Per capita the rate was greater than San Francisco and over twice the rate of New York City. Today there are over 1100 names on the memorial and it is still the only official memorial located in the world. This memorial was built with private funds and then donated to the city; I would like to suggest that regardless of your religious beliefs you visit this fitting tribute to the millions that have lost their life to this devastating disease. Perhaps a quiet sunset a world apart from Mallory Square would be fitting.

Anne eventually tired of shopping and the oppressive heat drove her to call her driver, I picked her up and we were off to a “Pina colada” at Louie’s Backyard (305) 294-1067 700 Waddell Avenue, Key West www.louiesbackyard.com Louie Signorelli started the restaurant back in 1971, converting a Victorian Mansion into a twelve table restaurant with only one waiter. Forty three years later Louie’s has evolved into a virtual institution in Key West. Open for both lunch and dinner every day except Christmas, the afterdeck bar is a staple among locals, including the balladeer at one time lived across the street from the restaurant, none other than James Delaney Buffett. Louie’s is known worldwide for its excellent cuisine and dinner at the restaurant is highly regarded amongst the most demanding gourmands. Reservations are suggested and after our Pina coladas, we were escorted upstairs to a table overlooking the waterfront. The food was as advertised with special emphasis on the fresh vegetables in the salad and sides. It is said that the chef specially selects all vegetables and they are grown specifically for the restaurant. The “crème Brule” was a fitting finale to a fabulous evening and we proposed that someday we would return to Louie’s.

Day Six

We were returning to the end of the road for our last day in the Keys and retuned to Caroline Street in old town, to the oldest restaurant in old town, Pepe’s (305) 294-7192 at 806 Caroline Street, Key West. www.pepe’skeywest.com we sat on the patio and ordered the “build your own” omelet special complete with hash browns and toast. It was a warm and breezy morning with a few local roosters and dogs scrambling for scraps amongst the feet of the diners. The mixed crowd was divided into the “hangover group,” bloody Mary and mimosa drinkers and the vacation crowd, all wide eyed and busy discussing the day’s activities. I was busy balancing the paper on my lap as I doctored my coffee and was looking forward to the arrival of my special omelet. The Key West Citizen front-page told a tale of the arrest of a couple of Russian immigrants, caught with nearly a hundred undersized and egg laden lobsters up near Summerland Key, their boat contained neither traps, scuba gear nor air tanks, so it was apparent they had been pulling up local lobstermen’s traps. They were probably lucky Fish & Game caught them and not local fishermen or they might have ended up as cut bait in those traps. In an economy that earns the bulk of their income from the sea, poaching is a near capital offense.

We had planned on skipping lunch, opting for an early dinner before enjoying the Sunset Celebration at Mallory Docks. We arrived at El Meson De Pepe (305) 295-2620, www.elmesondepepe.com 410 Wall Street, Key West around 5:30 planning to have dinner before the daily sunset celebration on the adjacent dock. We had been told to have dinner prior to the celebration and avoid the rush of people after the daily sunset festivities. It was a wise decision, as the restaurant was half full and the waitress had plenty of time to tell us about the history of the Pepe Diaz family and how they had recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of the restaurant opening in 1984. The location of the restaurant is in a historic old town Key West location, the brick building is known as “Cayo Hueso y Habana” is located on Mallory Square facing the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and was the site where thousands of refugees from Cuba disembarked on American shores during the 19th century. The entire building has been converted into a setting sure to please all who visit it, tourists and locals alike. Inspired in part by the imagination and historical accuracy found in the art work of native son Mario Sanchez, the atmosphere and design of the restaurant and gift shop, interprets scenes of old Key West and it’s still existing Cuban flavor. The dinner menu, was true Cuban food, I had a traditional Cuban Combination, including Lechon Asado, (roasted pork in cumin-rojo sauce) and Tamal Cubano, (roast pork appetizer wrapped in corn husk on a bed of plantain chips). Anne had a meal of Pollo El Ajillo, (roasted garlic chicken) both meals came with traditional sides of plantains, yellow rice and black beans. I completed my meal with an excellent Mojito while Anne was off to the sunset celebration. On the drive back to Marathon we both agreed to return to the Keys, but both of us felt that we needed much more than six days, to adjust to the “Keysi way of life”. The retro Keys were a great idea and a relaxing vacation, but did any of you figure out who that scruffy haired singer was in the opening paragraph?

Posted by Hollytile 09:20 Archived in USA Tagged vacation restaurants west keys florida key

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