Best of 2016: Key West

Here are the winners of SFGN's "Best of 2016" in Key West.

 

Best Activist

Mark Ebenhoch

Maybe you remember him from his 1986 Vietnam war film “Platoon.” Maybe you heard of his duties after that, serving as a United States Marine and then military technical adviser. Maybe you remember him from his 1996 New York Times magazine interview where he detailed his unsafe sexual encounters during the height of the AIDS epidemic (he found out after publication that he was HIV positive). Maybe you know him now as an HIV activist.

Regardless of how you heard of him, you now know Mark Ebenhoch as one of the biggest local gay and HIV activists in Key West. He’s now part of the Sacred Cloth Project, bringing a 1.25-mile rainbow flag — sewn together by Gilbert Baker — around the country to events like the April, 2015 ruling on gay marriage and the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in Australia.

He may no longer be a Hollywood actor, but Ebenhoch isn’t sitting still. He’s still creating change in Key West and across the world.

 

Best Bar

Bourbon St. Pub

724 Duval St

Key West, FL 33040

BourbonStPub.com

It’s winning “best bar” but it turns out Bourbon St. Pub is actually so much more than just one bar.

In fact, in the main bar area, you’ll find three bars, music videos on flat screens, and male dancers all over. There’s also a garden bar — a men only bar — part of the New Orleans House: Key West’s all-male guesthouse. If you manage to get in, you’ll not only get access to the pool and Jacuzzi, but also a place to crash when the party has ended sometime around 4 a.m.

Bourbon St. Pub is known for their featuring the hottest men — some who travel across the world to perform at the bar. Catch the action every night at 10 p.m. at the hottest bar on Duval St. Stay for the resident VJ/DJ Gary Nolan, extravagant parties, and the famous New Year’s Eve party, featuring Sushi the drag queen lowered from a giant high heel at the stroke of midnight.

 

Best Bartender

Aaron Huntsman

On Jan. 6, 2015, Aaron Huntsman wasn’t in the news for his superb bartending skills, but rather, as one-half of the couple that was the first gay marriage in Monroe County.

The fight for marriage in Florida began half a year earlier, when a Monroe County Circuit Court judge struck down the Florida ban on gay marriage, declaring it unconstitutional. Then just after midnight on that January morning, Huntsman and his now husband, William “Lee” Jones were the first couple in Monroe to marry in front of 500 of their closest friends, family, neighbors, strangers, and media. Six months later, the Supreme Court granted that same right to every citizen across the country.

Huntsman and his husband both work as bartenders at the Aqua Nightclub at 801 Bourbon Street. They were honored last year by Equality Florida with the Voice for Equality Award — the organization’s highest honor — for their fight for marriage equality in Florida.

 

Best Burger

Five Guys Burgers and Fries

Multiple Locations, Key West

The long-standing fast-casual burger debate already has a clear winner in Key West. And that winner is Five Guys Burgers and Fries.

The Washington DC-based burger joint has been franchising stores since 2003 and has slowly made its way south, including the southernmost city in the nation. The fresh-never-frozen burgers mantra isn’t a joke. Five Guys boasts that there aren’t actually any freezers in any of the 1,000 nationwide locations, just coolers. That’s how fresh every ingredient is.

And with those ingredients, Five Guys boasts that there are 250,000 different ways to order your burger. With eight burger options, four hot dog choices, four sandwiches to choose from and fries, either regular or cajun. Don’t forget the 15 different toppings, everything from traditional mayo and mustard to jalapenos and hot sauce. Skip the line (because there will be one) and order online! No matter what you prefer, you’ll always find something to love at Five Guys.

 

Best Drag Queen

Sushi

For a quarter century, Sushi the Drag Queen has owned the Key West drag scene. Twenty years ago, Sushi — otherwise known as Gary Marion — got an offer to usher in the New Year with a literal shoe drop, and Marion has been doing it ever since.

Last year before the big shoe drop, Marion married longtime partner Jeff Kusin in an elaborate ceremony and yes, the shoe was there. While her now-husband proposed a few years ago, Sushi didn’t want to leave the state to make it official, and held out until gay marriage was legal nationwide in 2015.

But it’s not all about the shoe (although the shoe and the dress Marion makes every year is extravagant and glamorous naturally). Marion holds weekly shows at 801 Bourbon Bar and if you can’t catch her, there are more than a dozen other talented drag queens every single night, otherwise known as the 801 Girls. You can even book one of the girls for your private functions and events.

 

Best Key Lime Pie

Kermit’s

Multiple locations, Key West

It’s something of a big deal down here. There are taste tests, there are competitions, there are friendships and breakups on the very heated subject matter. Key Lime Pie is no joke in Key West.

When Kermit opened up shop more than two decades ago, he had a plan to make high-quality, delicious pies. In 2016, he’s still doing just that. Aside from the first store on Elizabeth St., Kermit’s is now on Duval St., where more visitors and locals alike can enjoy the best Key Lime Pies in town.

You can grab the traditional pie or by the slice ($4.50) but many will opt for the chocolate-dipped version. Either way you slice it, you’ve got the best Key Lime Pie in the city (state? Country? The worldwide verdict is still out but we’ve got our favorite, for sure). There are plenty of other non-pie options, too, like Key Lime Pie cookies, candy, and and yes — salsa.

 

Best Non-profit

AIDS Help Monroe

1434 Kennedy Drive

Key West, FL 33040

It started in 1986, when a small but active group of Key West locals took on the fight against HIV and AIDS. With grassroots organization and fundraisers, AIDS Help brought 27 locals living with AIDS to relief by giving them guidance in healthcare and overall patient care, including hospice and end-of-life assistance.

As Key West has a long history of being an open and accepting community, the growing gay population in the 1980s was hit hard by this pandemic.

Soon, other organizations were looking to AIDS Help as a model of how to run a successful organization in helping people survive this terrible disease. Now, 30 years later, the group has helped more than 3,000 individuals in and around the Florida Keys.

Today, along with healthcare assistance, patients get counseling, housing, and other supportive services along with their own Medical Case Manager. Along with active fighting against HIV/AIDS, the group aims to build up prevention and research. Currently, it is still the only community-based HIV/AIDS service organization in the Keys.

 

Best Pizza

Mr. Zs

Multiple locations, Key West

When you think of pizza, you naturally think of Philadelphia, right? Well don’t shrug it off just yet! You may think of cheesesteaks and cream cheese, but don’t doubt the power of Philly pizza, especially when it has migrated south indefinitely.

Mr. Z’s has two Key West locations, operating in the Southernmost point for more than a decade. Get your fix by the slice ($3-$4) or whole pies (starting at $10). Everything is fresh and made to order, so if you’re looking for something other than pizza, don’t you worry. Get a stromboli (starting at $12), an Italian hoagie ($9) or the world-famous Philly cheesesteak ($8). And if that isn’t enough, grab the cheese fries — a huge portion of French fries served with melted American cheese ($4.50).

It also helps that the restaurant is only closed for six hours every day. Opening at 10:30 and not closing its doors until 4 a.m., you can get your Philly fix almost any time you want!

 

Best Regular Event

Non-Profit Fridays at Bottle Cap

1128 Simonton Street
Key West, FL

305-296-2807

BottleCapKeyWest.com

Nearly 10 years ago, the owner of Key West’s Bottle Cap was working the bar every Friday night. When she felt guilty about accepting tips as the proprietor, she asked a local non-profit if they would accept her tips. They agreed, and when word got around town that the owner was donating tips, other local non-profit organizations around town wanted to join in. Non-profit Fridays have been a huge thing ever since.

While owner, Carolyn, donates the tips, she pays her helpful staff extra by giving them a 20 percent bonus on sales for the night. There’s no requirement or minimum purchase to get in. In fact, you can show up, put a few bucks in the tip jar, and head out without even buying a drink. The small notion is simply patrons showing love to groups around town. And it’s been a huge success with visitors and locals alike for almost a decade.

 

Best Restaurant

Azur

425 Grinnell St

Key West, FL 33040

305-292-2987

If you’re looking for something to hate at Azur, you’ll be here awhile.

With a solid mix of Mediterranean, Italian and Spanish-influenced items, the menu serves up breakfast, lunch and dinner. In-house specialties start as early as 8 a.m. and go through the day until 10 p.m., with a brief closing from 3-5:30 p.m.

It’s no wonder they’ve been awarded the coveted Best Restaurant in Key West; the menu speaks for itself. If you’re around for breakfast, try the Key Lime Pie Stuffed French Toast with a wild berry compote ($10.75). For a more savory option, grab the Carbonara Breakfast: pancetta, button mushrooms, caramelized onions with a dash of cream and Parmesan reggiano and poached eggs ($14.25).

Don’t forget lunch, like the different variations of hand-made gnocchi ($13.25-$15.95). There’s easy lunch choices, too, like a crab cake BLT ($15.95), French dip ($14.95), and grilled angus rib-eye on ciabatta ($14.95). Come back for dinner, when later on you can choose from Petite Veal Osso Bucco ($27), Confit Duck ($16), or a slew of delicious appetizers and tasting plates: mussels ($15), little neck clams ($16), and octopus salad ($6).

 

Best Kept Secret

El Siboney

900 Catherine Street

Key West, FL 33040

305-296-4184

Miami has some of the best Cuban food options in the entire state, and probably the entire country, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only place to find really delicious Cuban fare.

In Key West, El Siboney serves up authentic Cuban dishes and has been since 1984. Get favorites like fried pork chunks ($10.95), ropa vieja ($11.95), and the traditional Cuban sandwich ($7.75). But the great options don’t just end there. Key West is known for serving up homestyle Conch Chowder, and El Siboney is going to let that one slip away. Get a bowl or a cup ($3.25-$4.25) of the traditional Bahamian dish, loaded with fresh conch, potatoes, and veggies.

Don’t forget the drinks! Cafe con leche ($2.75) isn’t just a Miami thing; if done right, it can be found anywhere, including Key West (which, let’s be honest, is closer to Cuba than Miami is!). Of course, no Cuban joint is complete without flan ($3.95) and, naturally, Key Lime Pie ($3.95).

 

Best Water-Based Activity

Danger Charters

245 Front Street

Key West, FL 33040

305-304-7999

Want to get away when no one else will go with you? Danger Charters leave the big crowds behind and heads out where other can’t go and with some of the best accommodations in the Keys. And that’s good news for you.

Try the Wine & Wine Sunset Sail, where you and your group can sip on fine wine and high-end beers from around the world while noshing on snacks. Hop on a 65-ft schooner and watch the sunset with your friends, partner, or family in this secluded mini getaway. Or take a day trip with by sailing through the Key West National Wildlife Refuge. You could even snorkel through corals and patch reefs through the clear waters with a morning, afternoon, or all-day tour. Don’t forget about the fishing options with 4, 6, and 8-hour options, depending on the excursion you’re looking for.

Of course if you’re looking to go all out, Danger Charters offer a variety of different wedding packages, ranging from $500 to more than $3,800, depending on what you’re looking for in your special day.

 

Best Annual Event

Fantasy Fest

Every year for 10 days in October

If you’ve ever wanted a raging party but didn’t want to leave the state for Mardi Gras, then you’ll fall in love with Fantasy Fest. The 10-day party has been going on since 1979 when a small group of locals wanted to show visitors a party during what would otherwise be a quiet time of the year. Every year since, Fantasy Fest has grown bigger than the last with extravagant street food, costumes, and a huge parade.

This past year’s theme — “Political Voodoo & Ballot Box Barbarians” — celebrates just how crazy this year’s general election got with more than 50 events and parties. Party-goers ended the 10-day affair with the world-famous parade, where each year, floats are judged in theme, creativity, and costume. And speaking of costumes, if you’re ever planning to make the trip, don’t come in street clothes. If you do, however, there are plenty of places around town to pick up an outfit.

Whether you show up for the costumes, the food, or the 10 days of parties, you may realize you’ll never want to leave. The good news is that it’ll be here again, around this time, next year.


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