Key West, Florida has been attracting people from all over the world for over five hundred years. Ponce DeLeon may not have found the fountain of youth there - or anywhere - but that does not stop people every year deciding they want to live in the sun where life moves slower and far more relaxingly. There are more people on this list than just beach bums and bartenders. Some of the most talented chefs, both domestic and international, have turned their back on the cutthroat world of city-centric high end dining and turned their attention to the tropical destination of Key West.
The centerpiece for this revolution can be found on Front Street, directly across from historic Mallory Square. Located in this space for more than 30 years, one of Key West, Florida's hottest restaurants was recently rated number one by readers of Zagat's guide. It did not get this designation simply because of the outdoor dining patios and casual elegance, but instead by introducing a style of dining that would take both the island and the world by storm.
Called New Island Cuisine, it is a tropical take on fusion cooking. Most fusion cooking starts with familiar items as the main course - chicken, steak, pasta or seafood - and marries it with authentic ethnic spices, providing a middle ground between a traditional style of cooking, say Latin American or Asian, and your standard, run of the mill restaurant fare. New Island Cuisine turns this on its head by using traditional methods of preparation as taught by the most prestigious cooking schools in France and around the world, and using them to prepare dishes made with native ingredients and spices.
Surrounded by water and 120 miles from the mainland, many of these dishes feature locally caught fresh seafood prepared with tropical fruits and paired with traditional island side dishes from throughout the Caribbean. Although the island may be casual and its residents laid back, this method of cooking is taken very seriously, reflected by the number of chefs working in the Key West restaurants who have been nominated for James Beard awards and other industry recognition.
They say that the sincerest form of flattery is imitation, and if that is the case than the owners and staff should feel extremely flattered by the number of other restaurants that have embraced this style of cooking as well. It is possible to dine out every night on a week's vacation, never visit the same Key West restaurant twice, and enjoy superb examples of this island-centric style of dining. However, everything always has an originator, often imitated but never duplicated. The fountain of youth may still elude you, but enjoying a fantastic meal of New Island Cuisine on your tropical vacation where it all began just might make you feel young again after all.
Jack Terry is a freelance travel and lifestyle writer who lived in Key West for several years. http://www.rooftopcafe.com