By Doc Lawrence –
KEY WEST-It’s an island refuge for artists, playwrights and novelists, and a launch pad of sorts for those longing to try the life of an expatriate. Lovingly called The Conch Republic by the permanent denizens, there is something that truly separates Key West from the rest of America – in a good way. From the first time I visited during my baby days I’ve felt about this five-square mile place in much the same way as the French Quarter in New Orleans: Free-spirited yet relaxed, comfortable with myself and unconcerned with the ups and downs of others.
As if I needed an excuse, my journey to this southernmost part of the country was to participate in the 31st session of the Key West Literary Seminar, one of the most respected gatherings of writers, authors, poets and publishers. The full schedule allowed ample time for dining and visits to legendary watering holes.
Drawn by the tropical climate and its anything-goes attitude, many of the greatest American writers have called Key West home. Ernest Hemingway wrote To Have and Have Not while residing here. Many of Wallace Stevens’s poems were influenced by his visits and walks on the beach with Robert Frost. Tennessee Williams, who once said of Key West that he “worked best here,” lived on Duncan Street and partied with Truman Capote. Annie Dillard, Ann Beattie, Judy Blume, James Gleick, and Robert Stone are just a handful of the writers who currently live in Key West.
La Crêperie is one the island’s primary places to enjoy a special treat from Brittany. The authentic recipes for sweet and savory crêpes or the lunch favorite galettes are best enjoyed outside under an umbrella near the sidewalk. The menu hints that much of the island’s cuisine is tied closely to Europe. Marilyn Ball, who is working on a play about Ava Gardner, came here from Asheville for the literary event. “Was I in Paris or Florida? La Crêperie,” she said, “was
reminiscent some of the lovely outdoor cafes I visited in France. The crêpes were individually made with fresh cheeses and farm-to-table vegetables. The wait staff were friendly and attentive and the wine choices admirable. Tucked away in a quiet neighborhood, it is just a short walk to everything else.”
For more than 100 years, Pepe’s has been a dining mainstay with guests that included Hemingway and countless authors and movie stars. As the oldest eatery in the Keys – a Cuban fisherman opened it in 1909 – Pepe’s is worth a visit for the history alone. The fish sandwich for lunch always features something just brought in from the Gulf or the Atlantic waters on either end of the island.
Key West is still known to some Cubans as Stella Mara and the authentic Cuban cuisine in Key West harkens to the days of
the liberation from Spain memorialized in the art exhibition at the San Carlos Institute which served as the venue for the Key West Literary Seminar. Cuban patriot Jose Marti loved the San Carlos Institute so much he called it La Casa Cuba, the Cuban House. It was here in 1892 that Marti welded Key West’s fragmented Cuban exile community into the Cuban Revolutionary Party, the movement that led to the establishment of a free Cuba in 1902.
Few things connect today’s visitors with the island’s history and cultural heritage better than Cuban cuisine. El Siboney’s is a local restaurant gem where everyone except diners seems to be Cuban. Shrimp enchilado, roast pork, and two-person paella are just a few of the exceptional menu items. Prices are very reasonable and the ambience is family-friendly. The homemade Sangria contains good wine and fresh fruit juices. During stone crab season from October to May, Key West’s Rusty Anchor Restaurant has the raw bar at full throttle offering an array of claws cooked and served on ice. Like almost every island restaurant, casual dining here means wearing whatever suits you and devouring what you like. The cocktails here are bargains. The bartender knew how to make a generous-size Cuba Libre.
Bookstores, art galleries, B&B’s, shops and historical sites keep the interest up and the standards high. Walking and bicycling beat travel by
car. There is a natural bonhomie that invites you into a small retail store or art gallery. For some, it’s the last place to see before going into the
Caribbean. True to the easy-going spirit, locals respond to smiles and warm greetings.
The mañana lifestyle is omnipresent. America has the Stars and Stripes, while Key West has its own flag, the blue and gold Conch Republic, a friendly reminder that things are pleasantly different here. It’s the birthplace of Key Lime Pie, first introduced at the venerable Curry Mansion by a gifted cook remembered only as Miss Sally. Key Lime Pie was designated by the Florida legislature as the official pie of the Sunshine State.
There will only be only one New York Algonquin Roundtable, but if a modern counterpart could ever be assembled, one of the hotels or restaurants in Key West would be a perfect meeting place for some creative minds to regularly gather and exchange ideas and opinions, occasionally spicing everything with savage wit while enjoying good food, fine wine and generously poured cocktails.