I've heard it said that a meal in a restaurant is a piece of performance art. Diners are there for the food of course, that part of the meal that gets most of the attention but service makes or breaks the meal in my opinion. On that basis eating out in Key West is a hit or miss affair, as professional wait staff are in short supply. The worst of it is that the negative experiences remain in the back of the unhappy diner's mind for a very long time.
I hesitate to recommend a place to friends because in Key West taking pride in your work is a tenuous concept. Alcohol, partying (ie: getting into an altered mental state) takes priority in a town that is home to people who ended up down here for a number of reasons and rarely is that work. Emigration is often viewed as a cure all for those reasons that caused to leave home in the first place, but as they say you bring the cause of your misery with you to the island. And then try to drown it in between spells at work at an eatery.
With that in mind how can I recommend a place to eat? Go, spend your money and hope the staff showed up, sober and ready to have a good night working that will translate into a positive night out for the guests. If any of them flaked for whatever reason there is an excellent chance my first class meal last week will be a crap experience for you this week. And the cost of the performance remains the same.
So when my wife suggested we stay in town last week for dinner I protested immediately and asked why not go to Square Grouper on Cudjoe Key? Four miles from home and with a perfect record of superb food properly served by a crew that has a record for longevity on the job in the Lower Keys, Square Grouper epitomizes value for money when eating out in the Lower Keys and Key West.
But my wife wanted "something different" so I said fair enough with a sinking feeling. I sank even further when our first choice, Santiago's Bodega proved to be closed for the week for renovations. The tapas place on Petronia is actually a fine choice to go for dinner with interesting small dishes, proper service a convivial atmosphere and a great wine list which I define as interesting wines at affordable prices. Had Santiago's been open this essay would never have formed in my head.
Nothing deterred my wife had a second Good Idea so I pointed the bows of the Bonneville across town at the Santa Maria resort at the southern tip of Simonton Street. Had Ambrosia not been closed we probably would have got away with a slightly delayed dinner and from all accounts it would have been good. Their schtick primarily is sushi and though I am no great fan of not cooked seafood I can appreciate a decent meal Nippon style. I grew up in Italy so udon does me fine and properly crisp light tempura makes up for raw eel and pink slabs of dainty fish meat served on seaweed.
This setback stymied my pillion but she rallied valiantly and we rode the Triumph up Duval to 915. This a street front Victorian with indoor seating which is okay and an upstairs area which some diners like for the view down into the street but I prefer sitting next to the street surrounded by banana palms and flicking candle light. It seems very exotic for some reason and reminds me of The Quiet American by Graham Greene. It's just one of those mental associations I permit myself from time to time as irrational as the fantasy may be. Me in Saigon in the French era. Not very likely is it.
Given that sitting out and eating a whole Thai fried snapper would give you heat stroke on an airless August evening I was not completely enthusiastic about sitting indoors there, but I'm a good sport (I'm told) so there we stopped. Well, I needn't have worried, they weren't open for ten more minutes it turned out and rather than lure us with a glass of wine while we waited or some other thing they were a bit unceremonious so we buggered off.
Sometimes you just know you're not wanted. I knew I wanted to be heading toward Square Grouper at Mile Marker 23, but my headstrong wife checked the menu at Martin's and gave the thumbs down. Café Sole got the same treatment because my wife, who likes the café was still pressing to try something different. The record was stuck on the theme of somewhere different to eat.
I know, she said brightening up considerably. Let's try Two Cents on Appelrouth Lane she said. So we did. And we both wanted to like it. I did like the funky little wooden house when it was Martin's before the German eatery lost it's funk and went upscale in it's bunker on Duval. Now the place is just weird.
The tables were set high at chest height requiring seats that are as tall and as uncomfortable as bar stools in a room that is about as warm and enticing as a ships engine room, and as noisy too. The music speaker mercilessly spewed loud classic reggae directly overhead making conversation with my wife impossible. The waiter arrived wafting bonfire fumes of recently burnt tobacco and whispered the specials inaudibly to us so we decided spontaneously this was a mistake and limited ourselves to a couple of starter dishes as my wife finally caved and admitted we should have just left town and gone to Square Grouper instead. Told you so.
The rich odor of burning rags announced the imminent arrival of two small glasses of eight dollar Tempranillo an inexpensive Spanish wine that packs no surprises usually. We sipped very slowly and waited for the duck nachos and scotch egg to arrive. The sun was setting and the view across Appelrouth Lane would have won no beauty awards in a travel magazine contest for Inspiring Sunsets I Have Seen.
The Quack Quack nachos, laboring under a nursery room name were a disappointment, a small dish of whole wheat nachos a big lump of inexpensive sour cream a few vegetable bits and some insipid gray pieces of greasy meat, it looked like the product of a Soviet military kitchen. Fourteen dollars please, hidden under a coating of cold grilled cheese. The scotch eggs were okay, three quail eggs hard boiled, coated in sausage meat and fried in bread crumbs. A Scottish delicacy, enough said. Eight dollars please. All this delight came to something close to fifty bucks with tax and tip. Phew! The music was still loud so we grumbled once we were back in the street and could hear ourselves think.
The whole Key West thing was such a bust we went to Square Grouper anyway just because, and had two six dollar glasses of Tempranillo, fried eggplant with goat cheese and fried calamari appetizers and took home a slice of peanut butter chocolate pie to eat with Netflix. Corey our waiter mentioned the place was closing for the month of September which made our decision to stop by all the smarter...
We mentioned our evening fiasco in Key West and he was interested to hear our take on Two Cents. "I was wondering why I hadn't heard anything about them" he said. I had hoped Two Cents was going to be the vanguard of a wave of new and interesting places to eat in Key West, but so far I'm disappointed with two visits under my belt and no more. I'm glad we have a few old reliables to fall back on but at a time when eating out is a rare treat I have no interest in wasting money on places that don't get the function of a restaurant, a place where the food and service represent hospitality and a welcome to a hungry traveler off the street. The number of places I trust to get that right I can count on the fingers of one hand. And I don't give two cents for the rest.
(Pictures taken at Ohio Key)
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