I had a friend who was disappointed in the Florida Keys. He thought the drive down the Overseas Highway passed too many tacky commercial establishments spoiling the natural beauty.
The Keys are an acquired taste, like beer.
Fortunately (or not), I’ve acquired a taste for both, and one of the things I love about the Keys is where authentic tackiness meets postcard views. And that is at the Florida Keys tiki bar.
Elsewhere, tiki bars hearken back to the 1950s romanticized view of Polynesian culture — carved wooden masks, hula-girl lamps, that sort of thing.
In the Keys, it’s more of a chickee-bar or cabana-bar culture and it’s all about being outdoors and overlooking the water, particularly at sunset.
Located two blocks off the Overseas Highway at M100, Skippers has a chicken building on an elevated deck with a postcard-like view of a broad canal.
While you sip your rum drink or craft beer, you watch fishing charters and diving boats come and go. If you’re really lucky, you might see the African Queen, the actual boat from the 1951 Humphrey Bogart movie, steam by and toot its iconic horn. It’s moored a few boats down the canal from Skippers and you can stroll by and see it after you eat.
And do eat. We had outstanding fish tacos and a yellowtail snapper sandwich. We’d love to come back and try the fish dip and conch fritters, which get good reviews.
In addition to the expansive area under the tiki building, there are comfy chairs around sandpits and a large air-conditioned indoor area. Skippers Dockside website.
For years, the big mermaid sign on US 1 at Mile Marker 82 in Islamorada, has said: Relax, you’re finally in the Keys. When people say “Florida Keys tiki bar,” lots of them are talking about Lorelei.
Beyond the parking lots, Lorelei’s decks, chicken huts, palm trees, and sandy waterfront create an expansive and outstanding place to watch the sunset. Lorelei’s is situated on a lovely mangrove-rimmed bay that is pretty to gaze upon any time of day.
On a hot but breezy summer day, it was easy to get a table at the water’s edge and watch the fish battling over bread crusts kids threw in the water as skinny needlefish darted by. An excellent fish dip and a draft of Key West Sunset Ale completed the experience.
Lorelei’s is located in a marina that contains an item that belongs in the Florida Funky Hall of Fame — a pink limousine converted into a boat, the famous Nautilimo. It’s parked next door to a mock pirate ship.
Unlike Lorelei’s, you have to know about Burdines to go there. To find it, you turn east on 15th Street in Marathon, wind past an old trailer park and stacks of lobster traps, and arrive in a large working marina in a protected harbor. The Chiki Tiki is up a flight of stairs, giving you an excellent vantage point and a superior breeze. Around you are fishing boats, yachts, and beat-up liveaboards. In the distance is the broken drawbridge to Boot Key. Across the water, Boot Key is all undeveloped mangroves, populated by the occasional wading bird.
On our visit, just before the start of lobster season, we watched as boat after boat stacked high with lobster traps headed out to sea — a happy sign that this paradise isn’t only about tourism.
Keys restaurants can be expensive, but Burdines is popular for its moderate prices and casual atmosphere — the view and wall-to-wall license plates comprise the decor. Our fresh dolphin sandwich and Fresh Cut Fries were excellent. Other visitors recommend burgers.
Card Sound Road is a toll road through the mangrove swamps where Miami-Dade County meets Monroe County. It’s a wild and remote location in the middle of a crocodile habitat, 15 minutes north of Key Largo.
Alabama Jacks is a popular place to stop on a drive down to the Keys to help acquire that laid-back attitude. It’s also a destination for motorcyclists, who stop for conch fritters, sweet potato fries, and live country music on weekends.
I’ve written a separate post all about Alabama Jacks, here.
Many Florida Keys tiki bars have great sunset views, but it’s hard to beat what you get from Sunset Grille: a wide expanse of water and the sun going down behind the elegant and iconic Seven Mile Bridge.
With its outstanding location, the Sunset can’t help being a touristy stop. The afternoon we were there, everybody was taking pictures and there’s a wall of souvenir T-shirts for sale. But it offers good sandwiches, a beautiful setting, and the essential Floriday Keys tiki bar experience. And at lunch, at least, prices are reasonable.
Sunset Grill gets and handles crowds. There’s a big bar and restaurant under a tall chickee structure with great views. A few steps below, there’s a pool with a bar and more seating overlooking the water and bridge.
Sunset Grille is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The lunch menu is moderately priced. (Sandwiches starting at $10.) Dinner is pricier with fresh seafood entrees from $20 to $30.
The Sunset Grille gives tourists the whole tropical fantasy drink experience with special $19.95 drinks for two, such as the Titanic, which comes in a 48-ounce fishbowl, and mojitos and other frosty tropical choices in souvenir mugs.
My take: You can’t beat the location and view. Enjoy breakfast or lunch, bring the kids for a swim or come for happy hour. This isn’t where to expect your four-star fine dining experience. Sunset Grille website.
This hard-to-find tiki bar is a favorite with locals, both for its funky, friendly vibe and its fresh, reasonably priced seafood.
With a waterfront setting, a big chicken hut, and open-air dining, Hogfish is casual and unpretentious; a t-shirt and flip-flops place with seating at long picnic tables. Those sitting dockside get a kick out of feeding the fish. (This is the best use of shrimp tails you’ll ever find.) On weekends, there is live music (and it can get loud.)
Hogfish is famous for two specialties – fresh Key West pink shrimp and a sandwich called the Killer. Neither disappointed. It also offers a good variety of craft beers.
Gilbert’s Tiki Bar, Key Largo (MM107.9 Bayside) — If you are anxious to get into the Keys, you have likely breezed right past this Keys institution. Are you missing anything? You betcha. This large palm-roofed tiki bar really rocks, especially on weekends as boaters making passage via Jewfish Creek pause for libation. Endlessly entertaining, this crossroads is tucked under the Jewfish Creek Bridge, linking the mainland to Key Largo. Gilbert rents rooms in case you can’t drive.
Island Fish Company Tiki Bar, Marathon (MM 54 Bayside) — Longest tiki bar in the Florida Keys, this party haven rests on a spit of sand that pokes out into the bay. Often packed to the palm fronds yet spacious and airy, this sassy saloon keeps buzzing all day long on weekends. The heliport next door provides continuous entertainment. Smack dab on the Overseas Highway, you can’t miss it on the bayside as you enter Marathon from the north.
Sugarloaf Lodge Tiki Bar, Sugarloaf Key (MM 17 Bayside) — When you are so close to Key West, few would think of stopping at the Sugarloaf Lodge. But those who do stop are in for a treat. Very laid back, the circular bar is nestled below a large palm-frond umbrella, overlooking a tranquil beach and bay. Nightly entertainment includes local musicians or trivia content, and every hour is happy hour. You might also consider making this your base for visiting Key West with rooms at the lodge competitively priced from $120 and up.
Geiger Key Smokehouse and Tiki Bar (MM 10.5 Bayside at the Geiger Key Marina). You’d never know this cool little tiki bar even existed until you get off the Overseas Highway on Big Coppitt Key at the Circle K (MM 10.5) and wander 1.3 miles south on Boca Chica Road to Geiger Road. I’ve never had a better version of shrimp and grits because these were delicious Key West pinks. We loved the laid-back tiki-bar atmosphere.
After dinner, we took a walk nearby on the closed roadway that runs between the beach and the US Naval Station runway at Geiger Key/Boca Chica Beach. It’s a lovely off-the-beaten-track place. Note: A little hand-made sign notes this is a clothing-optional beach. When we walked at sunset, there were few people there, all of them clothed.
Of course, we haven’t visited every tiki bar in the Keys: Thank goodness, there are places still to be discovered. Did I miss your favorite spot? If so, please leave a comment below.