The Best Roadside Restaurants in the Florida Keys by Adam Erace

The Best Roadside Restaurants in the Florida Keys by Adam Erace, Bergen County Moms

Angler and Ale | Photo Credit:

Bridge-hopping your way on a Miami to Key West drive is one delicious endeavor.

Less than one degree above the Tropic of Cancer, strung like splinters of shipwreck between the Atlantic and the Gulf, the Florida Keys are as far south as you can go in the continental U.S. For this reason, the archipelago has always been an escape, for pirates and poets, hermits and hedonists, and, during the pandemic, American travelers shut out of much of the Caribbean. Since last year, the adorable Key West airport has grown its airline partners (from four to five), nonstop destinations (from 13 to 16), and flight frequency, making it more convenient and affordable than ever to bypass the four-hour drive from Miami and arrive directly in the Conch Republic.

But that misses the point. Key West is a magical place – in some spots, scruffy and mystic; in others, as pastel-manicured as a box of Ladurée macarons – and if you only have a couple of days, by all means take the flight that gets you poolside by noon. If you have time, however, this iconic drive really rewards dawdlers and dillydalliers, lollygaggers and lazybones, particularly hungry ones. Some might think a four-hour ride doesn’t qualify as a road trip. The teeming, flooded cellar of Florida, where time is more a suggestion than an absolute, begs to differ.

The Best Roadside Restaurants in the Florida Keys by Adam Erace, Bergen County Moms

Square Grouper | Photo Credit: Vanessa Rogers

Pre-Keys: Miami and Homestead

After a leisurely morning in Miami, drive immediately south to the suburb of Kendall for lunch in the hulking shadow of the Dadeland Mall, where chef Niven Patel set up the outpost of his acclaimed (and now closed) Design District restaurant, Ghee. Its location in the middle of a mixed-use, town-center-type development could be anywhere in America, but taste the vivacious Indian cooking produced from Florida-grown, South Asian ingredients (sugar apples, musky curry leaves, heart-shaped taro leaves like big green valentines) and you can only be in one of Patel’s kitchens. You’ve never had pakoras like Ghee’s – bulky with squash and onion, threaded with those taro leaves, fried so crunchy they could qualify as musical instruments – because they don’t exist anywhere else.

Continue 25 miles south to Homestead, mainland Florida’s final town before the Keys and the state’s agricultural hub. “Homestead has a lot of big commercial farming, but also a community of cool organic farmers – there’s a lot of soul in this area,” says Patel, who lives here on a two-acre farm nicknamed Rancho Patel. Fringed with trellised passion-fruit vines and eight varieties of mango tree, the farm supplies much of the produce he works with at Ghee and his other restaurants; the Homestead microclimate can support tropical crops that won’t grow anywhere else in the U.S. Patel’s been tinkering with the farm’s wood-burning outdoor oven in hopes of opening Rancho to the public for special events later this year, but that’s for another time, another trip.

The last stop before Homestead’s light industrial sprawl and shimmering green farmland dissolve into the Southern Glades Wildlife and Environmental Area is Robert Is Here, the Moehling family’s 62-year-old, eccentrically named farm and fruit/milkshake stand. In summer, stock up on their luscious Kent mangoes; in winter, Florida avocados the size of emu eggs; and in any season, a smoothie featuring guava, sapodilla, soursop, or a dozen other tropical fruits. Grab a shake for the road and follow Route 1, one low-lying lane in either direction with creeping marsh on both sides, a tenuous Achilles tendon connecting mainland and island. For a few miles you’re in a liminal space between the two, sailing over Manatee Bay and Blackwater Sound on the lofted causeway, and then suddenly the road curves, and you’ve arrived in the Keys.

The Best Roadside Restaurants in the Florida Keys by Adam Erace, Bergen County Moms

Burdines Waterfront | Photo Credit: Vanessa Rogers

Dig In: Key Largo to Big Pine Key

Key Largo goes by in a 25-mile blur on the way to Square Grouper in laid-back Islamorada, the town encompassing Upper Matecumbe Key. This is actually S.G.’s second, larger location, with a handsome deck furnished with rattan lanterns and ceiling fans. Is it weird to brag on their salad instead of, say, the almond-crusted grouper with pineapple-cranberry relish or the hulky rib eye? Because the house salad is truly fantastic, a forest of pristine greens (and purples) pebbled with blue cheese.

Twenty miles down the highway on tiny Duck Key, another undercover star awaits. Nobody comes to the Keys to eat chicken wings, but the crispy ones lacquered in sweet-tangy mango barbecue sauce at Angler and Ale will stick in your head long after its buttery tripletail, a local fish, and salt-and-vinegar crab cakes have faded. Chef William Ryan explains: “I brought the recipe from my time in Saint Lucia, where mango trees lined the streets.”

Duck is dead center between the mainland and Key West, making it a prime location to break overnight. The next day, continue on to the city of Marathon, which spreads itself across a smattering of islands between mile markers 47 and 60, and take some time to check out its Turtle Hospital or beaches, which are some of the prettiest in the Keys.

When you get hungry, head up a flight of rickety wooden stairs to Clawsablanca, the ramshackle crow’s nest of a bar at Keys Fisheries, for a round of stone-crab claws in the company of mounted marlins and hammerheads. This is the outfit that supplies the legendary Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami Beach, and here at the source they cost as little as $3 a claw.

The Best Roadside Restaurants in the Florida Keys by Adam Erace, Bergen County Moms

Angler and Ale’s tuna nachos, mango barbecue wings, and Key lime pie. Photo Credit: Vanessa Rogers

Another option, hidden at the end of the road past seafood wholesalers and mobile homes, is the 22-year-old Burdines Waterfront, one of the first restaurants to reopen after Hurricane Irma decimated Marathon in 2017. From its peppermint-pink building with a thatched roof and second-story deck overlooking its marina, Burdines traffics in savagely delicious sandwiches: poached yellowfin tuna melts (“No canned tuna here!!” the menu declares), green chile cheeseburgers straight out of Santa Fe, mahi Reubens dripping with dressing. And if you only have one lime pie in the Keys, make it Burdines’ version, with a spiced walnut crust, a slouchy bank of fresh whipped cream, and lime custard that’s tart and not sorry about it.

The famous Seven Mile Bridge takes off at Marathon’s southern edge, soaring across open water toward Big Pine Key, home to the elusive Key deer, “who will eat almost anything,” says Patrick Garvey, the food-policy-organizer-turned-gardener who runs Grimal Grove. An eccentric Lithuanian American botanist and adventurer named Adolf Grimal planted this tropical fruit orchard in the 1950s. Garvey, a Canadian runaway who fell in love with the Keys, resurrected the farm in 2013 after it was abandoned to squatters. Along with various tropical fruit trees, it now has the only breadfruit grove in the continental U.S. Garvey offers tours by appointment and is a born storyteller – ask about the lychee tree Grimal smuggled out of a Chinese palace garden with the help of a Buddhist monk.

The Best Roadside Restaurants in the Florida Keys by Adam Erace, Bergen County Moms

Key West’s laid back Blue Heaven | Photo Credit: Vanessa Rogers

Sweet Sights: Lower Keys to Key West

From Big Pine, it’s an hour to Blue Heaven, a busy Key West charmer with a sprawling shaded outdoor space. To get there, you’ll cross Little Torch, Ramrod, Summerland, Cudjoe, and Sugarloaf keys like stepping stones before arriving at the southernmost point in the continental U.S. Served with a tall porcupine crown of browned meringue, Blue Heaven’s Key lime pie is a real scene-stealer, but the sleeper hit here is the low-profile banana bread. Have a slice after the delicious local shrimp and grits, then grab a loaf from the on-site gift shop. It’ll make your car smell like warm spices and caramelized bananas all 112 miles back to the mainland.

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