Although key lime pie didn’t become the official pie of the state of Florida until 2006, it has been enjoyed by locals in the Keys since it was first created in Key West in the 1890s. And in that century, they’ve had plenty of time to get it right. In doing so, restaurants have all tried to outdo each other, offering pies in different shapes or with different crusts and different toppings to make them stand out and different from all others.
So how do you decide which is the best? Easy. Visit the Keys and make it your mission to try one with every meal. Most every eatery big or small has key lime pie on their menus.
Do you go strictly for taste and forget about presentation? Or are you one who goes all in for presentation, wanting Instagram-worthy photos to send to friends back home? Maybe, though, you want a little bit of both.
Here’s a small sampling of what you can experience when you visit the Land of the Key Lime Pie.
Angler and Ale at Hawk’s Cay Resort
Duck Key is home to Hawk’s Cay Resort (hawkscay.com), a magnificent place to experience most everything the Keys has to offer – from paddle boarding in a saltwater pond; two magnificent pools – one for adults only; to dolphin experiences – a favorite activity for the kids; comfortable accommodations in hotel rooms, suites or cottages with multiple bedrooms and full kitchens; and so much more.
The resort also has two poolside tiki bars and several dining venues, one of which, Angler and Ale, serves a lovely key lime pie that is the favorite dessert on the menu. The crust and filling are typical of many key lime pies – a crust that’s a little crunchy and lightly sweetened, but not so much that it offsets the tartness of the filling. The pie is finished with méringue that is so creamy, one might think it’s whipped cream, but it’s not. It’s a lovely pie that’s quickly baked, adding an eye-catching touch to the topping with stripes of browned meringue.
Keys Fisheries (keysfisheries.com) on Marathon Key dances to a Bahamian beat and sets the mood for your Florida Keys adventure. Part fish market, part marina, part bar, part restaurant. It’s an old waterfront eatery in a white-washed building with a cracked concrete parking lot and a large deck adorned with picnic tables and a walk-up window where orders are placed.
“Who’s your favorite singer,” I was asked when I placed my order for the restaurant’s trademark Lobster Reuben – more than 400,000 sold since Keys Fisheries opened 21 years ago — and a slice of Key lime pie.
Huh? My favorite singer? Bob Marley was the first that came to mind. See? That Bahama thing had already taken hold.
When my order was ready, rather than my name called out when my order was ready, Bob Marley’s name was. That’s how they do things here.
The lobster Reuben was much too big to finish – it’s the kind of sandwich that demands two people, and at $22.95, it’s much more economical for two. They don’t skimp on the lobster here. Huge chunks of it tumble out, so you need to lean over your plate lest you lose some to a waiting sharp-eyed seagull.
I manhandled half of the sandwich, saving room for the key lime pie. Just like the décor of Keys Fisheries, attention isn’t paid to making things beautiful. The pie is served in a plastic container, but it is topped with pretty curlicues of whipped cream. Savor every bite while looking out over the water. That’s where presentation comes into play.
NOW, ON TO KEY WEST …
Half Shell Raw Bar
Half Shell Raw Bar (halfshellrawbar.com) is a Key West treasure. Located in the town’s historic seaport, the restaurant has an open concept – open to the cooling breezes off the Gulf waters. Try to snag a table on the waterfront and take in the scenery of boats anchored for the evening and the drama of a Key West sunset as the sun sinks behind an old wooden boathouse.
Half Shell is known for its oysters. Get them baked and barbecued, Rockefellered, or, for purists, raw and ready to devour with spicy horseradish and cocktail sauce. Follow that with some blackened shrimp and fish – whatever’s fresh for the day – and finish with, yes, your key lime pie.
The pie gets an A-plus in every direction – taste, presentation, the whole pie of deliciousness. It comes on a plate garnished with graham cracker crumbs and a big slice of pie further garnished with magnificent swirls of whipped cream and a big, fat slice of lime.
Kermit’s Key Lime Shop Café
After a morning spent snorkeling with the folks from Fury Adventures – you’ll find several kiosks around Key West where you can sign up for trips or go online (furycat.com) — walk across the street to the original Kermit’s, a Key West classic. There’s a small shop where you can pick up some key lime jellies, salsas, oil, cookies, lotion – pretty much anything key lime. Adjacent to the shop is the café — a very small place with just a couple of tables and a counter where orders are placed for sandwiches and such, but most importantly, the key lime pie that made them famous.
There’s a garden area out front dripping with flowers and greenery, a koi pond and tables – a tranquil place to enjoy a meal. But it’s all about the pie. Again, nothing fancy. It’s served in a plastic container with a dollop of whipped cream. The recipe calls for more egg yolks than most, something that gives the pie a lighter, less-dense texture. The crust is not homemade; the whipped cream is. You can’t reinvent the wheel, but Kermit’s has tried, offering key lime pie dipped in chocolate and served on a stick, a hand-held version that allows you to take your pie on the road as you peruse the shops of Old Town Key West.
Old Town Bakery
Off just a bit from Key West’s beaten paths, Old Town Bakery (oldtownbakerykeywest.com) has made a name for itself with its artisan breads, cakes and pastries, but also a little twist on tradition with its key lime pie. It’s been a winner in the Miami New Times’ “Best Key Lime Pie in the Keys” award, and one bite will convince you. Purists may prefer graham cracker crusts, but this pie, made with freshly squeezed key limes incorporated into a mouthwatering filling is embedded in a zesty gingersnap crust, a clever twist on tradition. Cream is freshly whipped and adorns each slice delivered in a plastic container. Nothing fancy. Just pie-licious.
AND THE HUNT CONTINUES …
The sign hanging above the awning out front Pepe’s (pepeskeywest.com) looks like it’s been there for a while. The paint is fading on well-weathered wood. “EAT Merita … Pepe’s Cafe … Complete Breakfast 75 cents.” Below, painted on a sort of wooden awning, is the restaurant’s provenance: “Established 1909 … Pepe’s Cafe … Eldest Eating House in the Florida Keys.”
The small café has been around almost as long as key lime pie. The inside dining area is small and dark, with stained wood paneling adorned with photos of Pepe’s and Key West. There’s a semi-enclosed dining room and bar off to one side, affording tropical breezes and a brighter atmosphere. It’s a shabby looking place with a neighborhood feel, but a fixture in Old Town Key West.
The menu is a cornucopia of tastes, from hearty steaks to fresh fish and oysters. The key lime is so massive it comes in a bowl that, when no one’s looking, you might want to lick. The pie itself is typical of most in the area – graham cracker crust and creamy tart filling. But there’s an explosion of whipped cream on top, so you get a taste with every bite of pie. Oh my.
Tavern and Town at Marriott Beachside Hotel
The Marriott property is one of the first you’ll encounter when you enter Key West. Its large pool, lovely rooms – many directly on the Gulf and others with Gulf or pool views, a 16-slip marina with water-sport rentals and a great water taxi into downtown Key West, makes this resort one of the most-popular on the island for tourists. But it’s not just the tourist crowd that dines at Tavern N’ Town (tavernntown.com). Locals come for the elegant ambience, superior service and especially delicious seafood that changes most every day, depending on the haul from local fishermen. It may be Golden Tilefish one day, grouper prepared in a spectacular way the next.
But many a meal at this Diner’s Choice award-winning restaurant is finished with key lime pie served differently than any other you’ll find in the Keys. It’s a gorgeous presentation of not a slice, but a round of Key lime pie drizzled with raspberry coulis and topped with beautiful crowns of toasted meringue. It’s one of those dishes that looks to pretty to eat, but you will.
The search for the best Key lime pie in the Keys was a delicious task, but one that is far from complete. It’s a recipe best made in the Keys where the water, the people, the laid-back atmosphere, a can of sweetened condensed milk and a few limes come together to tickle your tastebuds in only the way Key lime pie in the Keys can.