As Key West goes upscale, residents keep its flavor alive

Destination Florida


KEY WEST, FLA. / / The greeter at the Blue Heaven restaurant led me through the open courtyard's seating area toward the enclosed dining room.

The courtyard was crowded with diners. There was a wait at the bar for tables. There was a buzz.

But the dining room was buzzless. Some tables were empty.

Was I missing The True Blue Heaven Experience?

"Well, maybe," the greeter said. "But some people don't like the 'too much nature' thing -- the chickens and the cats. ..."

Chickens and cats? Just walking around the restaurant?

Can there be a more Key West dining experience than that?

And I was missing it? Buzzless and cluckless?

Ah, but wait. ...

Soon after I was seated at an inside table, a solitary cat found my dining room and sidled up to a woman at the next table whose hand left her girlfriend's long enough to give the cat a few strokes.

And at the dining room's little bar, seated confidently on a barstool like a regular, a large black Doberman-like dog calmly lapped ice water from a salad dish set in front of her. Alongside, also seated on a stool, was a man cutting into a steak.

They were a couple.

"She's a Bahamian mutt," the dog's date said between bites.

Who likes ... ice water?

"She likes anything that's not 'doggie.'"

(Inspired in this Land of Famous Writers, I rush to scribble: Guy walks into a Key West bar with his pet. "You serve dogs here?" Bartender says, "Nope. Just grouper, snapper, mahi-mahi. ...")

Key West may not be exactly what it was. Hemingway stopped refereeing boxing matches in what's now the Blue Heaven's courtyard 70 years ago. Into the 1980s the town was still a haven for dropouts, dopers, artists and writers and the aggressively nonconventional, and that, it remains.

But even here in the Blue Heaven -- among the cats and chickens and slurping dogs and same-sex handholders -- a symptom of change: a family of 12, all ages, all smiles and beautifully dressed, is celebrating a birthday.

They may even be wearing socks beneath their flip-flops.

Key West, where change is as much a part of its history as pirates, smuggling and hurricanes, is at it again.

"We're seeing a lot more families," says Alice Weingarten, the ebullient, much-honored chef / owner of Alice's Restaurant Key West on the quieter end of Duval Street. She came here in 1979, opened her restaurant 10 years ago and has seen it happening.

"It's gearing up toward what everybody says is going to happen in the next two years -- that this is going to be like Nantucket, like little places where only the rich can afford to come play."

Which isn't altogether bad news for Weingarten, whose dinner entrees hover around $30. It's sensational news for people who not that long ago bought humble two-bedroom, one-bath "conch houses" for a few thousand bucks and now have them on the market for (and this is not hyperbole) a cool million.

Marginal hotels are being converted into luxury resorts. Rustic lodgings are being converted into luxury inns. There are strong rumors that the town's lone youth hostel is -- like a lot of places here -- headed toward condo-conversion.

"It's different now than when I moved here," says Ray Campbell, 47, a storyteller / guide / poet who leads tours at the Ernest Hemingway House, one of the few unchanged remnants of old Key West. He moved here only four years ago. "A place like this draws people with money that want to make money."

For those who knew the Key West of yore, whatever yore is theirs, there are other bits of familiarity.

Sloppy Joe's, the bar where Hemingway famously loitered, is still Sloppy Joe's. Capt. Tony's Saloon, which was Sloppy Joe's before Joe (and the loyal and thirsty Ernest) moved a few yards away in a dispute over rent, is still pouring, though you won't see any hints of Hemingway.

"Hemingway was here in the '30s," says bartender Nate Jones. "We don't really care. We're more famous for Jimmy Buffett getting his start here than Hemingway."

Once, it was a short walk from Joe's or Tony's to the plain concrete pier that, some years ago, became home to jugglers and peddlers and fire-eaters who catered to tourists who gathered to watch the sunset.

It's still a short walk, but the whole "sunset celebration" thing has been spiffed up and formalized. Cruise ships dock there. Seriously expensive hotel rooms overlook everything, and crafters and performers get their spaces now by lottery. It's all ... so orderly.

"I don't know where the old pier was anymore," says Dennis Blankenheim, a youthful, tanned, bearded and long-haired 60, who has been living off his jewelry-making and wits mostly in Key West for 30 years. "Back in the '80s, that was the heyday. I mean, it was a party down here. We were making a lot of money, but we were putting it up our nose."

Today, Blankenheim and his lady of 25 years own a place across the channel on Stock Island.

"Both of us appreciate that we can invest our money in land," he says. "You got to acquiesce or die, you know?"

Speaking of which: The chickens are feeling the heat.

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