Chef Norman Van Aken left Illinois for tropical Key West, Florida, in 1973 and hasn’t looked back. The author of the cookbook My Key West Kitchen now splits his time between Key West and mainland Florida, where he owns several ventures including Norman’s Restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, and Miami’s Tuyo. Here, he shares his favorite places to go in the Keys, from a fantastic waterfront seafood dive to “the last old-school Cuban restaurant in town.”» F&W’s Full Key West Travel Guide

By Jamie Feldmar
Updated June 15, 2017

In this Article

Best Local Oysters: Half Shell Raw Bar

“This is one of oldest spots in town, right on the water. It’s a nice place to grab a beer, and they have shuckers going through tons of Apalachicola oysters right in front of you—in fact, the local oyster shucking competitions are held here.”

Date Night: Café Marquesa

“Inside the Marquesa Hotel, this is a beautiful jewel of a restaurant, with no more than 35 seats. A million years ago I opened it, and my sous-chef is still the chef there. It has the most elegant interior anywhere in Key West.”

Best Cuban in Town: El Siboney

“The last true old-fashioned Cuban restaurant in town is in a residential neighborhood where you wouldn’t think there would be a restaurant. They’re great for Cuban standards: black beans, yellow rice, roast pork, repeat. Wash it down with a cold beer from the cooler. And flan.”

Hogfish Bar and Grill
Photo courtesy of Hogfish Bar & Grill

Classic Seafood: Hogfish Bar and Grill

“Hogfish is a sweet local fish you can’t really find outside the Keys. This restaurant is on nearby Stock Island, but it’s what many people consider reflective of the old style of Key West—laid back and right on the water in Safe Harbor. They do great smoked fish, and their chalkboard specials are always solid, but the hogfish sandwich is really the thing to get.”

Dinner on Duval Street: Nine One Five

“One of the nicer places for dinner on Key West’s main strip, Duval Street, Nine One Five is in a Victorian house with an upstairs lounge called Point 5. Sometimes there’s live jazz, and they have an interesting menu with lots of local seafood like pan-roasted grouper with chorizo, spinach and olives.”

Old-School Diner: Pepe’s Café

“I drank Cuban coffee here for the first time. They bill themselves as the ‘eldest eating house in the Florida Keys,’ and it’s become more touristy over the years, but it’s got a lot of history. They serve diner classics and steaks, which are kind of unusual in Key West.”

True French Café: La Crêperie Key West

“Two expat French women, Yolande Findlay and Sylvie Le Nouail, recreated this place as if it were a postcard from their hometown in Brittany. It’s a small space with an open kitchen, where you can watch them make 30 different kinds of crêpes, both sweet and savory, on circular griddles.”

Seafood Lunch: Badboy Burrito

“The former chef of Nine One Five, Chris Otten, opened this tiny little spot where they do a very high-quality fish burrito with whatever’s locally caught, like hogfish or grouper.”

Glazed Donuts
Photo courtesy of Glazed Doughnuts

Sweet Snack: Glazed Donuts

“Everything here is made from scratch, and they do fritter-style and cake doughnuts, including some exotic ones with hibiscus syrup and candied bacon.”

Drinks with a View: Louie’s Backyard

“The restaurant here serves a full menu, but the real magic is at the upper deck bar, which is one of the most beautiful places in the world to have a drink. The deck sits directly on the Gulf of Mexico—go around 5 p.m., and watch the sun set.”

Local Haunt: Green Parrot Bar

“This is the oldest bar in Key West, and my favorite place to go. It’s an open-air place with live honky-tonk music that starts around 5:30 p.m., with no cover. The locals pour in to drink working-class stuff, nothing too fancy. It’s just got a great vibe. And heck yes, people dance!”

Key West Hotels

Beachfront: The Pier House

“The Pier House is right on the water, on an amazing beach—maybe the best beach on the island. It’s got that old, historical Key West vibe.”

Marquesa Hotel
Photo courtesy of Marquesa Hotel

Elegant Guest House: The Marquesa Hotel

“This is a quiet, secluded place, very elegant and beautiful. It’s small and close to the famous Duval Street.”