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A Tasty Treasure: The History of Key West’s Culinary Scene


“Is a four mile by two mile island really a place to take food tour? How many restaurants could Key West possibly have? How could a tiny island be considered a foodie mecca?”

You might be asking yourself these questions as you scroll through travel & review websites looking for places to make your dining reservations and Every. Single. Restaurant. seems to have a 4.5+ star rating?! They can’t all be that good, can they? Oh, but they can! And why? Because Key West has a rich and diverse culinary history that spans centuries, influenced by a mix of cultures and cuisines. Grab your proverbial fork and lets dig in…

a close up of a plate of food

Photo // Marquesa Hotel

In the early days, our tiny island, located at the southernmost point of the United States just 90 miles from Cuba, was a bustling port town that served as a hub for shipping and trade in the Caribbean. This brought a diverse range of people to the city, including Cuban, Bahamian, and African immigrants who brought with them their own unique culinary traditions. These influences can still be seen today in the city’s food culture, which features a mix of Caribbean, Southern, and Latin American flavors.

a bridge over a body of water

Florida East Coast Railway. Postcard gift of Ramon Davies. Monroe County Library Collection.

Before the shrimp boats crowded our Historic Seaport, one of the most important events in Key West’s culinary history was the arrival of Flagler’s railroad in 1912. This gave the island inhabitants access to fresh produce and seafood, allowing chefs to experiment with new ingredients and create the Key West signature dishes we know today. One such ingredient is the famous Key West pink shrimp, which became a staple of the island’s seafood scene. Add that to the other abundant warm water fish and other marine delicacies found right off our coasts, and now you’re talking! We’re known for more than just seafood, too. You’ll see dishes like conch fritters, key lime pie, cuban sandwiches, and the addictive rum runner cockyt5tails on many of the over 320 Key West restaurant menus.

an old photo of a city street

Florida Keys Public Library – Sloppy Joes Bar From the DeWolfe and Wood Collection in the Otto Hirzel Scrapbook. 1940s

In the 1930s, infamous bootlegger Joseph “Sloppy Joe” Russell opened his, now renowned, bar and restaurant on Duval Street. The establishment quickly became a local hotspot, attracting famous patrons like Ernest Hemingway and President Harry Truman. The bar eventually moved to a new location, but its legacy lives on in the famous Sloppy Joe’s sandwich, a messy and delicious combination of ground beef, onions, and spices. Critics may debate about where the sandwich originated, but if the name fits….

Chef Norman Van Aken of Louie’s Backyard. Photo// Rob O’Neal.

Another big hitter in Key West’s culinary scene is chef Norman Van Aken, who opened the acclaimed restaurant Louie’s Backyard in 1983. Van Aken is known for his innovative fusion cuisine, which blends Latin, Caribbean, and Asian flavors. He has been credited with putting Key West on the culinary map and has inspired a new generation of chefs to experiment with new techniques and flavors.


Today, Key West’s culinary scene continues to thrive, with a mix of traditional and modern restaurants serving up everything from fresh seafood to fusion cuisine. Key West Food tours partners with and features 18 of the best grub hubs on the island. Whether you’re a foodie looking to explore new flavors or a history buff interested in the city’s rich past, Key West’s culinary scene offers something for everyone, and best yet, our tours offers all of that every day! Come join us to learn and taste what it’s all about!