Seafood and Florida go hand-in-hand, and no trip to Key West is complete without a taste of its best – conch fritters! There’s a reason why the tiny island of Key West, Florida, is also known as The Conch Republic – offering no shortage of restaurants, cafes, street stands and markets where you can buy and taste conch meat. We’ve done our digging (and a fair bit of tasting!) to be able to recommend the best restaurants and roadside shacks to head to for the best seasoned, best coated, most succulent and most popular conch fritters. But before our show-and-tell, let’s look into exactly what conchs (and conch fritters) are for those new to the pleasure of them!
What Is A Conch?
The conch (pronounced ‘konk’) is essentially a giant sea snail. Found in abundance in the Bahamas, Bermuda, and the Caribbean Sea, they are a declining population around Florida. Adult conch shells are strong, and for centuries they have been used as musical instruments, tools, weapons, jewelry, ceremonial objects and construction material, while conch meat was a popular source of protein even back in the times of the Arawak Indians, before Christopher Columbus sailed over.
Conchs are herbivores and live on sandy or muddy sea beds, vacuuming up tiny marine plants and algae. They boast a clawed muscular “foot” (called an “operculum”) for pulling themselves along, for righting themselves should they be overturned, and for providing a “lid” to the shell opening. Females are bigger than males, and at mating time they all gather in large crowds. Conchs lay hundreds of thousands of eggs in the sand and the young will stay in the sand by day (only emerging at night to eat) for the first year of their lives. Conch shells get thicker the older the conch lives, which can be anywhere from 7 to 30 years when not grabbed for fritters!
INTERESTING FACT: Conchs produce natural pearls that can be white, brown, orange or pink, though these are found in every 10-15,000 shells, and less than 10% are gem quality.
What Are Conch Fritters?
Conch fritters are the spiced, battered and deep-fried finely chopped meat (specifically the “feet”) of the queen conch. They are undeniably tasty- crispy on the outside, soft on the inside- much like clam or calamari. In short, conch fritters are a delicious must-try on your visit to Key West, Florida!
Is Conch Meat Healthy?
Yes. Conch not only has a sweet, smoky taste, it is a great source of protein, as well as essential minerals like zinc, magnesium, potassium, vitamin B12, vitamin E, and folic acid. It is also low in fat and calories – perfect if you’re aiming for a balanced diet.
So, Where Can I Get Conch Fritters In Key West?
Whether you’re a local or there on a visit, among the incredible choice of seafood dishes that will surround you on a walk through the Key West streets, conch fritters are not to be missed! And we encourage you to try both the classic style and some unique twists on the traditional favorites. From small family-run shacks to large restaurants with a sunset view, Key West has something to offer everyone looking for a delicious conch fritter. Read on for our list of the top 11 places to grab a great serving of conch fritters in Key West.
1. Louie’s Backyard
700 Waddell Ave, Key West, Florida
Open: 11.30am – 3pm, 5.30pm – 9pm
Louie’s Backyard, housed in a beautifully renovated Victorian building on the National Register of Historic Places, is something of a Key West institution. Louie Signorelli opened it with just three tables, but it has since expanded to three rooms and two enviable ocean-side decks for your elegant evening conch tasting with a sunset view.
Here, the waiters will help you choose the conch dish just right for you – and you can guarantee that whatever you order, it will be soft and packed full of flavor. If you’re partial to spice, our recommendation is their conch fritters served with hot pepper jelly and wasabi.
2. Conch Republic Seafood Company
631 Greene St, Key West, Florida
Open: 11.30 – Closing times vary. Call ahead on 305-294-4403
You can’t get better than Conch Republic – everything here is delivered straight to the kitchen from the historic fishing docks when their boat comes in!
Not only is the catch-of-the-day a reason to choose to dine here, but also its style and environmentally-protective policies. The open-sided building was part-constructed using salvaged materials from the old sponge warehouse, giving it a unique historic atmosphere in which to chow down on your chosen conch fritters. Pick a table near one of the restaurant’s two huge saltwater aquariums and watch some of the Florida Keys marine life up-close.
It can get busy here, and while food tends to be served fast and hot by the company’s friendly waiters, there’s no AC, so try to get a table near the edge with a breeze blowing through!
3. Two Friends Patio Restaurant
512 Front St, Key West, Florida
Open: Daily, 8am – 10pm
Popular with the locals and open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Two Friends started out as a saloon in the 1880s and even today keeps something of its original relaxed barroom atmosphere (and of special note is the fact they are multiple year winners for Best Bloody Mary in Key West!)
You’ll be shown to a table on the roofed patio, where you can people-watch the passers-by as you enjoy your delicious conch fritter experience. There’s usually live music in the bar to spice up your visit with true, fun, unique Key West style.
4. Sloppy Joe’s
201 Duval St, Key West, Florida
Open: Monday – Saturday 9am – 4am (next day), Sundays 12pm – 4am
One of Key West’s best-known restaurants, a former bootleggers and speakeasy, Sloppy Joe’s has been serving and entertaining customers since 1917. Its namesake, Joe Russell, was Ernest Hemingway’s fishing partner, who sold alcohol during the prohibition years before converting his speakeasy into a business.
Key West’s unique Sloppy Joe’s, named so by Hemingway, is decorated with Hemingway artifacts, Cuban tiles and jalousie doors – but you’ll not be there for the decor. Take a seat for some of the best hand-rolled conch fritters on the island – served with key lime dipping sauce!
Expect quality live music, a buzz of happy diners, friendly staff and an overall fun atmosphere!
5. DJ’s Clam Shack
629 Duval St, Key West, Florida
Open: Daily, 11am – 9pm
DJ’s Clam Shack, though small, has a well deserved reputation for its seafood and serving speed- and their large, flavorful and very filling conch fritters come with your choice of fries or coleslaw.
Tourists will love the bright, nautical-themed interior (and, perhaps, the signed poster of Guy Fieri).
DJ’s Clam Shack also has another location in Indian Shores, Florida, and three restaurants in New York, in case you get addicted to their great food and friendly service!
6. The Conch Shack
118 Duval St, Key West, Florida
Open: Monday – Friday 11am – 11pm, Weekends 11am – Midnight
The Conch Shack may be small, but it has a big reputation to make up for it!
Pull up a stool and enjoy your order of 3, 6 or 12 conch fritters with a side of people-watching. Why do we recommend these particular conch fritters, you ask? The Conch Shack has its own secret recipe – and it is hot – serving its fritters with either key lime aioli or pink sauce. Go beyond conch fritters and pick our recommendation here – the Conch Trio – a platter of cracked conch, ceviche, and conch fritters with fries. Note: The Conch Shack is cash only, so go prepared!
Tip – ask the servers to show you how to make an instrument of the conch shell for a fun (if not slightly Lord of the Flies-esque) memory!
7. Half Shell Raw Bar
231 Margaret St, Key West, Florida
Open: Daily, 11am – 10pm
Andrew Zimmern stopped by Half Shell Raw Bar while filming his Bizarre Foods Travel Channel TV show, which has only served to bump up its well-deserved popularity.
Opposite the restaurant is Half Shell Market, which supplies both this restaurant and other Pat Croce-owned establishments, and it makes for great watching as you enjoy your conch fritters at cozy picnic tables for a relaxing meal by the water. We recommend you head there around sunset as it can get hot inside during the day.
8. Eaton Street Seafood Market
801 Eaton St, Key West, Florida
Open: Daily, 11am – 9pm
Eaton Street Seafood Market will likely have a well-deserved queue out the door at lunchtime – and seating is exactly what you see in the photo: outdoors only and very limited.
A fresh seafood market that also offers an excellent lunch menu with generous portions, Eaton Street Seafood Market is housed in a unique white and pink Deco building a few blocks from the famed Duval Street. Buy and take away your conch to cook at home, or ask them to prepare it for you on-site.
9. Hogfish Bar & Grill
6810 Front St, Stock Island, Florida
Open: Daily, 11am – 10pm
This seaside, thatched roof venue is set away from Key West’s busy tourist scene, but that is just one of the things that makes Hogfish Bar & Grill a local favorite, and it is well worth your time discovering.
The restaurant’s fresh-caught hogfish sandwich is its best-known dish, but we are there for its equally praised conch fritters! Enjoy waterfront views and live music some nights for a fun and friendly local vibe as you dine.
10. Hot Tin Roof
0 Duval St, Key West, Florida
Open: Daily, 8am – 11.30am, 6pm – 9pm
Head to the Hot Tin Roof for a finer dining experience than those we’ve suggested so far, a restaurant housed in The Ocean Key Resort & Spa. Offering riverfront dining with a view of the Sunset Pier in Mallory Square, this is a conch fritter dining experience to impress!
Hot Tin Roof promises excellent cuisine and an equally impressive serving experience, with the restaurant team working seamlessly to make your visit one to remember as you relax in white leather seats, surrounded by hand-painted murals by late Key West artist Jeff Beal. Note that if you’re going there for a sunset dinner, you won’t be able to see the sun “sink” into the ocean – instead, it disappears behind a nearby island, offering an alternative kind of beauty.
11. BO’s Fish Wagon
801 Caroline St, Key West, Florida
Open: Daily, 7am – 9pm
Famous for its cracked conch sandwich and chill vibe, the name and streetside look hide a secret here. The sign reading “no shirt, no shoes, no problem” pretty much sums up the atmosphere you can expect, and if you’re looking for a down-to-earth, beachy Key West feel with your conch fritters, you’re in the right place.
The open-air BO’s Fish Wagon has been faithfully serving great seafood for 25 years, ever since owner Buddy Owen first started building up a name for himself.
Choose from three, six, or twelve fritters to match your appetite and enjoy them with key lime mayonnaise. Aim to go on a Friday night for the live music. You can bring your own drinks as they don’t serve alcohol.
How Are Conch Fritters Made?
Conch has a sweet, smoky flavor, similar to clam, and an almost crunchy texture. The meat is darker and tougher the older the conch was when it was caught. Fresh and farmed conch is sweeter and more tender than frozen, wild conch, which can be chewy.
The classic recipe for conch fritters calls for diced conch meat (removed from the operculum shell), and chopped onion, celery, and sweet bell pepper. To this can be added garlic, cayenne pepper, or hot pepper sauce.
Eggs and flour are added to the above ingredients to form a thick, chunky batter. Your chef will drop spoonfuls of this into very hot oil to brown on each side.
Conch fritters are usually served with a spicy dipping sauce that is mayonnaise-based.
Can I Buy Conch Meat And Make My Own?
Absolutely. Aim to get fresh conch meat sourced and selectively hand-harvested by local Key West fishermen. You can even order it online. At the time of writing you could get a pound of conch meat for around $30. When you buy conch meat, you get the foot, which is available at various degrees of cleanliness (50, 85 and 100 percent cleaned of viscera) – prices vary accordingly.
Is The Conch Endangered?
Once abundant, conch is now endangered, and commercial harvesting is banned in the United States. Major suppliers of conch are Jamaica – the Turks and Caicos Islands, which also exports farmed conch; Honduras; and the Dominican Republic. The Bahamas has a lot of conch but it can only be exported as a “value-added product”.
Conch are susceptible to overfishing because they are slow to move, slow to mature – taking up to (sometimes over) three years to grow to harvest size in the wild, because they live close to shore, and, during mating season, they tend to gather in large groups – making them easy pickings.
The development of improved diving gear and freezer storage has added to the decline of the conch fishery, while water quality has had an effect on queen conch populations in the wild. Reports by the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute claim the declining water quality of inshore breeding areas is a key deterrent to conch recovery along the Florida coastline.
The Marine Biology Learning Center reports that “80% of legal internationally traded conch is consumed in the United States,” and “conch populations continue to fall even in areas that are protected.” In 1992, seeing the population decline of the queen conch, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) added the species to their Appendix II list, a list that consists of organisms that may be threatened with extinction unless trade is strictly regulated. Queen conch was the first large-scale fisheries product to be regulated by CITES.
As conch meat is often compared to sweet clam meat, it may be possible to substitute clams for chopped conch if fresh conch is not available in future.
You can do your bit to protect the conch population by asking at the restaurant where and how they source their conch. Ideally, it should be harvested by hand, with fishing being local, selective, and controlled to reduce impact on the natural habitat.
We’ll leave you with this educational video on the conch, because, as delicious as they are to eat, and as pretty a souvenir their shells make, they are living beings worth our respect and ability to protect.
While we at Traxplorio do our very best to give you the latest information about these dining sites- life happens, weather happens, and property owners happen. We always recommend you go to the official restaurants’ web page and/or the relevant review page to check conditions, times, and prices (where relevant) before you head there with a rumbling tummy! Thanks for understanding, and enjoy your meal!