Can’t Miss #1: Meandering through Marathon, turn off the Overseas Highway at 15th Street oceanside and end at Castaway Waterfront Restaurant & Sushi Bar, an unassuming locals’ joint tucked away among seafood markets and old-Keys shanties. As well as unrivaled breakfast, lunch and dinner menus, offerings include the malicious-yet-delicious lionfish — the hottest “fresh from Keys waters” addition.
Order it “wrecker” style in a sauce of capers, garlic, butter and diced tomato, or prepared as ceviche or atop a sushi roll. An avid diver and spearfisherman, Castaway owner John Mirabella takes aim at the predator during recreational dives for fresh-catch lionfish, and other species like wahoo, grouper and cobia. Diners can make easy Open Table reservations in a few clicks at jonesn4sushi.com.
Can’t Miss #2: No meal is complete until it’s topped off with melt-in-your-mouth Key lime pie. Off the beaten path, Burdines Waterfront Chiki Tiki is a Marathon locals’ secret, and this affordable eatery (also in the 15th Street neighborhood) credits its popularity to word of mouth. The view from the wraparound balcony is one of the best in Marathon too, with Boot Key Harbor and the oceanside inlet on either side.
Burdines’ tuna poké is super-fresh and the generous portion of brined French fries is magnanimous — but the fried Key lime pie, a chimichanga-like plateful of tangy sweetness, is unavoidable and made with enough tastes for three people (or one person, if sharing something this good just seems wrong). A frozen slice of handmade pie is wrapped tightly in a large flour tortilla, then fried a golden crunchy brown. Slice open the tortilla crust to find perfectly cool, sturdy bites of pie, and smear them through light cream sauce and cinnamon sugar. Call 305-743-9204.
Can’t Miss #3: Gary Graves of Marathon’s Keys Fisheries, a bustling waterfront dining venue, market and wholesale fishery on 35th Street gulfside, dreamed up the signature Reuben that blends lobster meat, homemade Thousand Island dressing and freshly baked bread into a seafood sensation. This famed Lobster Reuben makes even stubborn New Yorkers abandon traditional corned-beef Reubens for their seafood “cousin.”
Try the stone crab claws during season (Oct. 15 to May 15), peel-and-eat Key West shrimp and savory conch chowder. As well as being a favorite spot for locals and visitors, (where the “upstairs bar” is ideal for enjoying sunset while shucking and cracking shelled seafood), Keys Fisheries ships fresh seafare including the famed lobster Reuben to those craving a taste of the island chain. Orders can be placed at keysfisheries.com.
Can’t Miss #4: The tagline at Hideaway Café, behind Rainbow Bend Resort at mile marker 58 on Grassy Key, is “the only thing we overlook is the ocean!” Keys residents and visitors salivated for this intimate, romantic bistro to reopen — and it did recently after several months of renovations.
Its reputation remains strong for the house steaks cooked to perfection, whole roasted duck á la Hideaway and the fresh fish catch du jour prepared to order. Owner Robert Gray has cultivated a cult-like following, his no-nonsense restaurateur experience unrivaled as he greets guests like they’re family. Make Hideaway Café a bucket-list dining experience or a delicious return to the sleepy surrounds. Visit hideawaycafe.com.
Can’t Miss #5: Next door to Dolphin Research Center at mile marker 58 on Grassy Key, the S.S. Wreck & Galley Grill is where friends gather and guests dine on ample platefuls of nachos, Cajun-seasoned or coconut-smothered seafood, surf and turf dishes, gator, frog legs, catfish, homemade Key lime pie and more.
Many handcrafted dishes are topped with house-made sauces or dressings, prepared with decades of experience by “Billy” the chef, whose name everyone knows. Steve and Stephanie, the “S.S.” of the rustic Tiki hut-covered eatery, are hands-on owners who believe in a casual, welcoming atmosphere where diners never leave hungry and can enjoy a cold beer, good conversation and some sports. It’s a winning recipe among loyal locals and visitors. Visit wreckgalleygrill.com/.