Here are SFGN's "Best of 2017" winners in Key West.
Bourbon St. Pub
724 Duval St.
In his nine years of bartending in the Florida Keys, Corey James says he’s seen it all. Some of it he asked not to have printed, even with the names of the guilty parties withheld.
“Nothing surprises me, not anymore. It’s a whole other world in Key West. I have seen everything and anything you can imagine,” said James, who won the “Best Bartender” award. Before working at Bourbon St. Pub, James tended bar at 801 Cabaret for four and a half years. Before that, he worked at Island House for two years.
Asked what he thinks makes him so popular as a bartender, “Definitely my personality. I’m always happy, I’m always cheerful. They call me bobbles. I’m always bouncing around.”
As for why he likes serving alcohol, “it’s the customers, the friends I’ve made over the years. It’s certainly a fun job to go to.”
Then, he jokes, “I can drink.”
Best Activist & Best Non-Profit
Aaron Huntsman’s two Best Of awards mirror his life. Last year, he won “Best Bartender” and this year he won “Best Activist.”
Huntsman, who serves as executive director of the LoveIsLove Foundation, which aims to expand and protect the rights of LGBT individuals, was a bartender before he got involved in activism. Years ago, Huntsman noticed a number of fundraisers going on in the bar he was working at, and he decided there was no reason he couldn’t do the same.
“Someone was raising money for awareness and I said, ‘I can do that.’ You get five bucks, you get ten bucks. People just started throwing you money.”
Years later, Huntsman’s working on things more weighty than bar fundraisers.
In January of 2015, Huntsman and his husband, William Lee Jones, were married. They were the first gay couple in Florida to do so because of the case where Florida’s ban on gay marriage was ruled unconstitutional – a case that Huntsman and Jones were a part of.
“It really hurt not being able to be recognized. I think that’s what really sticks with me. We have to stand up.”
Best Kept Secret
711 Duval St
Aqua has won “Best Bar/Club” and much of that, if not all, seems owed to the popularity of its drag shows. While Side Bar, part of the Aqua Group and attached to Aqua has won “Best Kept Secret.”
Meade Huggins saw his first drag show recently with his wife. “As a recently activated ally, it was an incredibly fun experience. If you are not a total stick in the mud, it's something that should be on everybody's bucket list. The bartender was entertaining all by himself. And the show, wow.”
“This place is great fun. It's a complex with two inside bars for watching the shows, a Side Bar with the latest dance music and videos, and a sweet outside bar in the back for some quiet cocktails. You'll always find a space just perfect for your mood,” Paul Harding said.
Aqua’s drag ensemble is made up of six performers, known as the Aquanettes. There’s a nightly performance, usually featuring three Aquanettes at a time. Aqua describes it as “fun, raucous and a quintessential part of Key West life.”
It’s a description echoed by many of Aqua’s patrons.
“I have to go to a show at Aqua every time I visit Key West. The performances are always top notch, the drinks rather strong, the atmosphere always fun and friendly. But to tell you the truth, the only reason I really come to Aqua is to see Faith Michaels. She is nine kinds of fantastic. I love her costumes, her energy, and her obvious enjoyment and intent to truly entertain,” Barbara Elder said.
310 Duval St.
At Caroline’s Café, Jacqui Albert says the people watching is great, but the burgers are even better.
“The prices were not expensive at all but the food was amazing. My husband ordered a hamburger. Wow, it was very large and cooked perfectly. The manager was always walking around asking if there was anything we needed. Our waitress, Saige, was very attentive and sweet. We will be back.”
There’s only one burger on the menu, Rev. Joe’s Burger, but it won “Best Burger.” It’s a concoction Caroline’s Café claims to have perfected. “We have mastered the incredible, memorable, juicy, gorgeous burger. However you like it.”
Other customers rave that it’s the best on Duval Street. Jordan Morris Brown says it’s still the best he’s ever had, even four years after visiting Caroline’s. “I wish there was a way to order a burger from Tennessee. Hands down, the best hamburger I have ever had.”
Todd Wells says he gets it every time he’s on Duval. “Best burger on Duval, hands down. That’s what I get every time I’m there.”
Best Drag Queen
If there is such a thing as drag queen royalty, Gary “Sushi” Marion has been crowned by the people of Key West.
Every year since 1996, Sushi has been the focal point of the city’s New Year’s Eve celebrations. Instead of relying on the ball drop in Times Square, the people of Key West watch as Sushi is lowered in a giant red high heel.
The rest of the year, Sushi holds court mostly on the weekends at Cabaret 801. “I started out as a janitor . . . I’ve run 801 for the last 18 years. I have 14 drag queens.”
Sushi doesn’t personally perform as much as years past, but it’s far from what where the famous drag queen expected to end up.
“It’s weird. I never dreamed when I was a little kid that I’d be sitting in a shoe in drag.
I enjoy it, but it’s a love/hate relationship.” Love, because of the performance side. Hate, because of all the work. “I spend about three weeks on my outfit.”
But it’s all part of what’s gone into making her famous, or infamous, as Sushi likes to say.
Best Annual Event
Key West Pride
In a town known for legendary parties, including the world-famous Fantasy Fest, Key West Pride was chosen as “Best Annual Event.”
The multi-day festival, held every June, features cocktail parties, pool parties, dance parties, variety shows, drag shows, a street far, parade, the world’s longest Pride Flag, and everything Key West offers the rest of the year.
All in what Key West Pride organizers say is one of the most integrated and welcoming cities in the world. “Whether you’re looking to party with friends, travel with family, or get lost in the magic of our tropical island . . . show us your pride, we will show you our Key West Pride.”
Patrik Gallineaux attends every year to work one of the events. And every year, he’s glad he takes part in the “confetti-filled glittery week” that is Key West Pride. “Every year, I sit at Key West airport exhausted but feeling every ounce of effort was and is worth it.”
Best Key Lime Pie
Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe
200 Elizabeth St. #A
Legend has it that Key Lime Pie was invented in Key West. Talk to customers of Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe and they’ll tell you that owner and founder Kermit Carpenter has perfected it.
“My hubby and I spent two weeks in Key West last January. We made it our mission to find the best key lime pie in Key West. We literally ate key lime pie every place that served it. I'm not exaggerating when I say we tried at least two dozen pies. Kermit's was the very best, hands down. We now consider ourselves Key Lime pie experts, and Kermit's wins, by a mile,” said Jill Feldman.
“The best Key lime pie ever,” says CariAnne Behr Huffman, who recently undertook her second visit to Kermit’s. In between the visits, she says she tried a lot of other recipes. “But Kermit's is the best.”
But, as Kermit says, “Key Lime Pie is only the beginning.” For those not happy with just Key Lime Pie, Kermit’s sells Key Lime Cookies, Key Lime Salsa, Key Lime Chutney, Key Lime Taffy, Key Lime Jelly Beans, Key Lime Tea, Key Lime Olive Oil, and pretty much anything else Key Lime.
AIDS Help Monroe
1434 Kennedy Drive
No one does it all, or alone.
That’s what Scott Pridgen, executive director of AIDS Help Monroe, said when he was told his organization had been chosen as “Best Non-Profit.”
“I would say that in a rural area like the Florida Keys, regardless of the mission, we collaborate with just about every non-profit in the Florida Keys. That’s critically important,” Pridgen said.
Whether it’s treating and preventing HIV infections, providing suitable housing for the black community, or assisting low-income seniors, Pridgen says every agency works on every problem in some way or another. “You’ve got to take part in your community.”
AIDS Help Monroe’s official mission, which covers all of Monroe County, is treatment, prevention, housing, and research, including linking those with HIV/AIDS to the resources they need. “Depending on what day you ask me is what we’re doing that day,” Pridgen said. “Anybody can walk through our doors. If we can’t help you, we’ll direct you where to go to get help.”
Mr. Z’s Pizza
501 Southard St. at Duval
305-296-4445 or 4448
Mr. Z’s Pizza has Old Town and New Town locations in Key West. But no matter the location, customers say the pizza is the same – awesome.
“If you’re in Key West and you are from Philly, this is the only place that comes close to home. They have real rolls and real pizza,” says Greg Bader. That “close to home” taste helped Mr. Z’s win “Best Pizza.”
“Great people and so friendly. Made me feel comfortable. The pizzas were full of flavor and cooked to perfection. This a must stop when I can make it back,” Greg Bader said. Those who stop in can get pizza by the slice or a whole pie. And there’s plenty to choose from.
The selection of pizzas includes the Tomato Pie, White Pie, Roasted Veggie, Meatball, Cholesterol Bomb, and Cheesesteak.
Mr. Z’s also serves Stromboli, hot sandwiches, cold sandwiches, and salads.
“Mr. Z’s is a family-run pizza place that reminds me of home every time I walk through the door. From awesome pizza to delicious cheese steaks, you can’t go wrong,” Jessica Rosen said.
207 Petronia St.
Every time Melanie O'Neill visits Key West, she gets a taste for tapas – the ones served up at
She recently made a trip back and vows to return.
“We ordered two items from the happy hour appetizers and that was the pulled pork tostadas with blueberry BBQ sauce and the beef with cheddar Quesada’s. They were both excellent. We also had rack of lamb that was perfect, the filet – we had to order two of these – the blue cheese wedge salad, asparagus with dipping sauce, and the crab cake. They were all fantastic. We will be back.”
Owner Jason Dugan started the restaurant with a vision to give guests a wide variety of tapas-style dishes.
Cathy Tamburro seems to have tried much of the menu on one sole recent visit.
“The food was excellent. The pear and avocado salad, the signature Yellowfin tuna ceviche, the petite lamb chop, and the beef tenderloin with blue cheese were all outstanding. The bread pudding was the cherry on top. The way staff was very attentive and knowledgeable. Would go again in a heartbeat. One of the best restaurants I've been to.”
Best Activity for Tourists
Mallory Square Sunset Celebration
400 Wall St.
Mallory Square is attraction piled on top of attraction. When the Cat Man and other eccentric local performers finish their acts, the beautiful Florida Keys sunset takes over.
“It’s a beautiful, fun experience. Something the whole family can do in Key West. The view is spectacular,” said Ashley Hirshberg Conrad.
As Mallory Square’s promoters say, the famous spot is a coming together of everything that makes Key West what it is – food, drinks, entertainment, and natural beauty. It’s a combination that won it “Best Activity for Tourists.”
Along with the Cat Man and his acrobatic cats, there are sword-swallowers, fire breathers, jugglers, and entertainers of all ilk. All of it can be enjoyed with a mojito, a serving of conch fritters, a cone of ice cream, or whatever else Mallory Square’s restaurants, bars, and vendors have to offer.
“Mallory Square never gets old. The sunsets are mystical and the gathering of people who are there to witness it highlights that which we share in common, rather than what divides,” said Michel du Chaussee.