Friday, December 19, 2014

In Key West: Quirks, families - and money

KEY WEST, Fla. - The greeter at the Blue Heaven 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 was I missing it? Buzzless and cluckless?

Ah, but wait. Soon after I was seated at an inside table, a 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.' "

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, 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 hand-holders - a sign of change: A family of 12, all ages, all smiles and all beautifully dressed, is celebrating a birthday.

They may even be wearing socks with 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 the change 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," Weingarten says, "like little places where only the rich can afford to come play."

Which isn't altogether bad news for Weingarten, whose dinner entrees are priced 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 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 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, 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 drinks, though you won't see any hints of Hemingway.

"Hemingway was here in the '30s," bartender Nate Jones says. "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 gathering 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 by lottery. It's all so orderly.

Which is why the chickens are feeling the heat.

Remnants of an age when islanders kept chickens in backyards and sometimes trained them to maul each other for sport, the fowl roam more or less freely around town.

"Some people think they're a nuisance," says Kate Thompson, a "chicken lady" at the Chicken Store - a combination hen hospital and source for items such as stuffed animals that cluck. "Other people who have been here for a while, they like them because they're fun to watch and they eat all kinds of bugs - scorpions, termites, big old cockroaches, and things like that."

City officials, fearing what one instance of chicken-related bird flu would do to tourism (remember what SARS fears did to Hong Kong and Toronto?), approved a resolution last year ordering the poultry cooped. Exactly how that's to be done, given the estimated 3,000 elusive, ownerless critters dashing about, hasn't been explained.

So, things haven't gone entirely serious, or stuffily upscale, in Key West.

One afternoon in a bar on Duval Street, the island's thoroughfare, an Elvis impersonator is crooning "Cryin' in the Chapel" before an audience of four humans and a macaw named Malibu.

Performing down the street that night at the venerable La Te Da cabaret: Christopher Peterson, who changes gowns onstage (only the wigs are switched in private) as he glides from being Julie Andrews to Reba McEntire to Bette Davis. His impressions aren't dead-on - his Bette Midler sounds curiously like Vanessa Redgrave on helium - but his jokes (none of which can be printed here) are hilarious.

Key West remains a gay mecca. There is no shortage of rainbow flags, and tolerance remains the rule.

Looking around, there's no evidence of Hurricane Wilma, the strongest of the seven hurricanes that hit Key West in 2004 and 2005. Hemingway's house was unaffected, and Harry Truman's Little White House (open for tours) remains white and not so little. Days after Wilma passed, storm-weary Florida mainlanders were taking escape weekends here.

"It's our lifeblood to get up and running," says Jeff Brannin, general manager of the Heron House, a deluxe bed-and-breakfast a block off Duval. "We had to get it cleaned up and ready to go."

Which, more than anything, is what Key West has become: cleaned up. Duval Street remains a pretty good party, and at the Green Parrot, not far off the main drag, music still stirs the soul.

But freshly painted charm has overwhelmed the back streets' comfortable scruffiness. Shorts and sandals are still welcome at the finest restaurants, but more of the shorts are pressed and pleated these days, and the sandals are Birkenstocks.

There's a Denny's on Duval, and a Hard Rock Cafe.

What lingers, despite everything, is that indefinable essence that still lures to this place some of the planet's most interesting people.

"Route 1," notes poet/guide Ray Campbell, "ends right down here at Fleming and Whitehead. On one side of the street it says 'U.S. 1 ends.' The other side says 'U.S. 1 begins.'

"For a lot of people, Key West is the end of the road," Campbell says. "For a bunch of us, it's the beginning."


Getting to Key West

You can fly from Philadelphia International Airport to Key West, with one stop, on American Airlines, Delta, United and US Airways. The lowest recent round-trip airfare was about $382.

Or you can fly into Miami and make the 140-mile drive on the Florida Turnpike and U.S. 1.

Or you can take a Key West Express ferry from Fort Myers or Marco Island. The 31/2-hour ride costs $66 for ages 6 to 12, $144 for adults and $134 for those 62 and older. 1-888-539-2628; www.seakeywestexpress.com

More information

Key West

Chamber of Commerce

1-800-527-8539

www.keywestchamber.org

Monroe County Tourism

1-800-352-5397

www.fla-keys.com/keywest

Alan Solomon Chicago Tribune
Latest Videos:
Also on Philly.com
Stay Connected