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    When you go someplace on vacation, it is always difficult to know where you should go to eat your meals. Key West has hundreds of choices with varying levels of quality. But, as you will probably only be here for a short period of time, you want to experience the best you can. You may be interested in "local specialties", gourmet food, or ethnic meals; or maybe atmosphere is very important to you. Even when a restaurant has great food, the service one receives could spoil an otherwise wonderful dining experience.

    Many of the local newspapers publish restaurant guides with descriptions of an establishment's atmosphere and food, many times with accompanying sample menus. These guides can usually be found at the airport and in hotels, motels, and guesthouses. The descriptions in these books will give you an idea of what you can expect, but they are not a review by a food expert. The restaurants you read about in these magazines may be very good, but keep in mind that the owners are paying to advertise in the restaurant guides.

    Many vacationers rely on recommendations from friends, and some want to return to a restaurant they patronized on a previous visit to this area. Key West has an ever-changing population; some restaurants quickly fail and someone new is always trying to make their mark on the scene. Eateries often change hands and new management, and even new chefs, can mean a drastic change to food offerings and quality.

    All that being said, great food and dining experiences are there for your enjoyment. All of the major hotels have their own in-house eateries; some of them have two or three. There are also many fantastic restaurants spread throughout the town, many of them on small streets side streets and lanes, and several away from the main commercial area of town. Most of the familiar chain or franchise, and fast food restaurants are in the "new town" area of North and South Roosevelt Boulevard.

    Seafood restaurants will offer dolphin (mahi-mahi), yellowtail, grouper, snapper, cobia, conch steak and fritters, tuna, shrimp, and local crab and spiny lobster, when they are in season. In addition, they will usually have choices featuring scallops, oysters and clams.

    There are several ethnic style restaurants, including Italian, French, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, German, Slavic, and Polish. Cuban food is tasty and inexpensive and something you may not find back home.

    Some restaurants do not welcome children. If you need booster seats or highchairs, it would advisable to call ahead of time and make arrangements.

    The height of the dinner rush is at 8 p.m., although many restaurants start at 7 pm. Several of the large hotels have great Sunday brunches with complimentary champagne or mimosas.

    Enjoy your Key West eating experience! And, don't forget to pick up a cookbook or two along the way.

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