Here are SFGN's "Best of 2018" winners in Key West.
Two years ago, Aaron Huntsman won Best Bartender in Key West. Last year, he brought home top honors as Best Activist and Best Non-Profit. This year, he won for again for Best Activist for the LoveisLove Foundation, where he serves as Executive Director.
Huntsman first gained notoriety as one half of the first gay marriage in Monroe County. Six months, later, the United States Supreme Court gave the same right to every American.
These days, Huntsman, in his leadership role at LoveisLove, advocates for those who are discriminated against based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, race, age, or disability.
Huntsman, who co-manages the Key West nightclub Aqua, has spent much of the last year helping fellow residents and business owners in Key West recover from Hurricane Irma.
Eventually, LoveIsLove would like to get a mobile disaster relief response vehicle to help people in need, especially in the aftermath of a devastating natural disaster.
To learn more about LoveisLove, visit www.LoveisLoveFoundation.com.
Best Travel Activity
Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory
1316 Duval Street
There’s a lot of activities in Key West, but only one features a pair of pink love birds.
Flamingos Rhett and Scarlett reside at the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory. Named after the famous couple from the epic film “Gone With The Wind,” the flamingos make themselves available to meet small groups daily at the conservatory.
Voted best travel activity in Key West, the Butterfly and Nature Conservatory is home to more than 50 species of butterflies and 20 species of exotic birds. The birds and butterflies flutter about inside a glass enclosed, climate controlled environment.
Inside the conservatory’s learning center, visitors can watch a 15-minute film about Monarch butterflies’ migration and life cycle and see caterpillars feeding and growing on their host plants. There’s also a gift shop and gallery for shoppers. Artist Sam Trophia created Wings of Imagination – The Butterfly Gallery in 1992 after studying and raising Monarchs as a teenager in upstate New York.
Conservatory hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., gallery and gift shop: 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Special orders, commissions and worldwide shipping are offered.
Best Bar/Club & Best Kept Secret
Side Bar (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. Additionally, Sidebar, part of the Aqua Group and attached to the club has won Best Kept Secret.
This is the second time in a row they have won together since the categories were included for three “Best Of” editions.
Aqua holds two inside bars for watching the drag shows and occasional karaoke, the Side Bar, which features the latest dance music and videos, and an outside bar in the back for the more quiet cocktails. In other words, there is always a perfect space for just your mood.
Aqua’s drag ensemble is made up of six performers, known as the Aquanettes; Beatrix, Inga, Elle, Maya, Jessica, and Aquanette host, Faith.
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.”
One yelp reviewer writes “Amazing night here. High quality, professional show, great costumes and music, all around fabulous time!”
Sidebar in particular hosts “Fundraising Fridays,” wherein tips after 5:30 p.m. are donated to the charity of your choice.
Tom Luna @ Aqua
711 Duval St
Tom L. likes to make his customers smile. Maybe that’s why the readers voted him as Best Bartender this year in Key West.
“All I can say is I love where I live and I love what I do. I can honestly say that I have met the most amazing people at my bar and so many are my best friends now. I am one lucky guy,” Luna said. “Now if we can only get customers to stop asking for separate checks.”
Luna has lived in Key West for almost 30 years. He’s originally from Mobile, Alabama.
Luna also likes creating special drinks. Here’s a new one he’s sharing with SFGN readers: Yogurt Liqueur, Coconut Liqueur, Frozen Strawberry Drink Mix, Ice, blend.
“Hey, try it first before you condemn it,” he said. “It’s surprisingly delicious.”
He has the credentials to back up his drink making skills too; a few years back he won the Kenny Chesney Blue Chair Bay Rum drink competition.
409 Caroline Street
Behind Grunt’s Bar you will find the best burger in Key West.
Garbo’s Grill, a food truck, serves the burgers. Opened in 2009, Garbo’s Grill is the dream of owners Eli and Kenna Pancamo. It has four and half stars with more than 1,100 reviews on Yelp.
The winning burger – Umamiburger – is a half of pound of angus beef topped with heirloom tomato, Applewood bacon and chipotle gouda on a brioche bun.
The menu at Garbo’s Grill includes burritos, hot dogs and tacos. Hours: Lunch 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
The business draws its inspiration from iconic Hollywood actress Greta Garbo. Garbo, whose many roles, included famed performances as a World War I German spy in Mata Hari (1931) and a Russian ballerina in Grand Hotel (1932). Born in Sweden, Garbo never married, had no children and died alone in Manhattan in 1990 at the age of 84.
Best Drag Queen
Maya Montana is one of the biggest stars on Duval Street. Named Miss Gay America in 1998, Miss Maya shows no signs of slowing down or losing the fierceness she puts into every show. Maya started performing at Aqua Nightclub in Key West ten years ago and remains a crowd favorite.
“I am flattered and excited about winning this honor,” she said. “I have been doing this for a long time, so this is great.”
Maya, a consummate professional, performs Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Monday evenings. Her shows feature songs by Tina Turner, Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, and other dance numbers. “I draw inspirations from movies, music videos, and magazines,” she said. “I take it all in and translate it in my own way. I make most of my costumes, and I taught myself to style my wigs. I like being self-sufficient.”
Originally from the Philippines, Maya moved to the U.S. in 1987. She discovered her love of drag a few years later and the rest is history!
These days, when she is not on stage, Maya loves the great outdoors, and enjoys camping, kayaking, sunbathing, swimming, and riding her bicycle around Key West.
Fun fact: Maya is an awesome wildlife photographer.”I enjoy taking photos of wildlife,” she said. “If I’m not working, I take full advantage of living in Key West. My companion is my Pomeranian. I love taking photos of sunsets, birds, and nature in general.”
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.”
“After visiting Key West for over 20 years this year was my very first Key West Pride it was absolutely fabulous! Something I will always remember,” said Robby Kaplarczuk on Facebook. “All of the work and everything that went into it was phenomenal. Thank you for a great time and a great week!”
Next year’s event takes place June 5-9.
Best Key Lime Pie
Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe
200 Elizabeth St. #A
This is the third year in a row that Kermit’s Key West Lime Shoppe has received the most votes from our readers for Best Key Lime Pie.
It has been long held that the Key Lime Pie was invented in Key West. Ask the customers of Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe, and they’ll tell you that owner and founder Kermit Carpenter has certainly perfected it.
But, as Kermit himself said, “Key Lime Pie is only the beginning.” For those not happy with just Key Lime Pie, Kermit’s also offers 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.
“When at Kermit's Key West Key Lime Shoppe you have to order to the Chocolate Covered Key Lime Pie on a stick,” writes one Yelp reviewer.
We recommend you try the Dark Chocolate Strawberry Key Lime Pie on a Stick!
Aside from making all things Key Lime for Key West, Kermit’s Key West Lime Shoppe is also a supporter for the Monroe Association for Remarkable Citizens, Inc., as well as The ARC Volusia, DeLand Training Center, organizations that advocate for those with mental disabilities.
Sister Season Fund
Sister Season Fund was founded in 2005 to assist a local resident in Key West with his rent and utilities due to an illness that prevented him from working.
“We have continued the mission ‘Locals helping Locals’ when someone is sick, or in an accident, through no fault of their own, and who also works in the Hospitality or Tourism industry,” said Board President Julie Hanson. “We are proud to be a 501(c)3 organization and have been able to help hundreds of individuals and families to the tune of over $400,000.”
Throughout the year they hold fundraisers and are always looking for grants.
“Thank you for recognizing Sister Season Fund,” she said.
“We are all volunteers."
Mr. Z’s Pizza
501 Southard St. at Duval
Since SFGN began including Best Key West Pizza, Mr. Z’s Pizza has won every year, three years now in a row to be specific.
Mr. Z’s Pizza opened in 2002, and since then it has established locations in Key West and Sanford. But no matter which place you order, customers can say each of Mr. Z’s pizzas have the same quality - amazing.
Their pizza choices include the Tomato Pie, White Pie, Roasted Veggie, Meatball, and Cheesesteak Pizza.
But you have to try their signature Cholesterol Bomb Pizza - the Key West location exclusive that comes with chopped hot dog, domestic ham and, of course, bacon.
Mr. Z’s also serves Stromboli, hot sandwiches, cold sandwiches, and salads.
Besides the Cholesterol Bomb, the Key West location’s menu options differ from the Sanford location with its inclusion of Sausage and Peppers with Red Gravy’ and five dollar Philly Jumbo Hot Dogs.
The Sanford location offers 8 piece hot wings tossed in their homemade sauces.
But, of course, it’s Mr. Z’s pizzas that take the cake. “As far as pizza goes... Whoa! One of the best pizzas I've had on the island. You must try Mr. Z's before you leave,” one Yelp reviewer writes.
207 Petronia St.
For owner Jason Dugan, Santiago’s Bodega was born out of a childhood quest for adventure. Since an early age he wanted to open his own restaurant.
Eventually that dream became a reality with Santiago’s Bodega, a tapas style dining experience inspired by Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, where the main character, Santiago, closely links his life's work as a fisherman with his own core values.
“This had to be one of the best tapas restaurant that I've been to in a long time. Everything from the service to the food was fabulous, said Yelp reviewer Jenn B. “Personally I would recommend the sparkling sangria to start off your culinary adventure. The burrata was heavenly and had a yummy pesto with it. The charcuterie and the cheese plates had such a great variety.”
While Stephen Webber added on Facebook: “The eclectic Tapas menu has something tasty for everyone. Try the stuffed dates - great last course as a dessert, the beef tenderloin, the shrimp and chorizo - these were our favorites. It very reasonably priced as well considering the high quality of the dishes.”
For those that don’t live in Key West Bodega’s has two other locations - Orlando and Altamonte Springs.