It may be a little hard to find... but the Smokin’ Tuna Saloon is worth the hunt!
Always eager to enjoy a great Key West bar with awesome live music and fresh seafood, I head over to the Smokin’ Tuna Saloon. While it’s a bit tricky to locate, its well worth the hunt, for the music as well as the innovative food and premium drinks. Walking down Duval Street, I look for Irish Kevin’s bar, cross the street and head down the alley known as Charles Street. While it’s only 150 feet off of Duval, I feel transported to a shaded tropical oasis. Surrounded by 3 historical buildings, it has a private feel, with 2 covered bars and an elevated stage all connected together by a large brick patio. A massive old tree provides cover. Some of you may remember this location in its previous reincarnation as The Alamo bar. Since this is Key West, the property is open-air to take advantage of our balmy weather. Unlike so many other bars in this compact town, the Smokin’ Tuna is spacious with plenty of room to spread out - it can hold several hundred people. A feature I really like is its lay-out. Divided into several areas, you can watch sports at one of the two bars, and at the other end of the patio enjoy a great view of the stage and musicians. Al fresco dining is available in the center of the patio or under cover inside the building.
Live music is this Key West bar’s specialty. Not surprising since 2 of the founders are well known for their musical history. Scott Kirby is a popular Key West Trop Rock singer and songwriter. Charlie Bauer is an island institution, being the manager of Hog’s Breath Saloon for 20 years. At Hog’s Breath, Charlie created a reputation for booking some of the best live music in Key West. His other claim to fame is as a founder of the Key West Songwriter’s Festival, now in its 19th year.
Getting a chance to talk to Charlie, I want to know about his ambitious plans as Managing Partner for the Smokin’ Tuna. Charlie got to know Scott Kirby over the years as Scott was a featured musician at Hogs Breath and they decided to open a Key West watering hole with an emphasis on live music, drawing on musicians they both know. Charlie likes to bring in Nashville’s best musicians and wants people to take a Key West vacation not just for fishing and snorkeling, but also as a live entertainment destination. There is live music every night, with a 6 pm show and a late show. Scott Kirby himself plays several days a week in season. Another local favorite, Caffeine Carl & The Buzz, frequents the stage in season.
Helping put Key West on the map as a top music attraction is the annual Key West Songwriters Festival. Naturally, the Smokin' Tuna Saloon is the Festival’s official headquarters. Don’t miss this event - 2014 dates are May 7th - 11th. With Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) as a partner and cosponsor, you know this festival is a must-attend event. With 5 days of more than 100 performers and over 30 shows spread across town, Key West will be rocking. Even better, most of the shows are free! To name just a few of the outstanding songwriters: Sara Evans, Anders Osborne, 2014 GRAMMY award-winner Kacey Musgraves, Robert Earl Keen, Kree Harrison, Rhett Akins, DJ DU, Matraca Berg, Tony Joe White and 2013 BMI Country Icon Dean Dillon. In the finest island tradition, there will be a huge Duval Street block party (200 block) on Saturday, May 10th with a free concert featuring Sara Evans and Love & Theft. Proceeds from this excellent festival will benefit the Shepherd Center SHARE Military Initiative for treating our soldiers injured in Afghanistan and Iraq.
While the music may take top billing at the Smokin’ Tuna, the food and drinks are also top shelf. Charlie shares that another partner is Pete Popovic, a chef who spends summers at his New Jersey restaurant and heads south to Key West for the winter. Anyone that frequents Ocean City and the Jersey Shore will recognize Smitty’s Clam Bar in Somers Point as a beach institution. Pete’s brought his most popular recipes and knack for fresh seafood to the Smokin’ Tuna. Since Charlie’s favorite food is pretty much anything that involves tuna, this is a partnership made in seafood heaven. I ask Charlie what his favorite dish is and he goes back and forth between Smokin’ Tuna Dip, Smokin’ Tuna White Bean Chili and Tuna Wasabi. Then he tosses in the Mac & Cheese with shrimp and truffle oil (the seafood in the Mac & Cheese varies - the lobster one must be mind-blowing). Wow, this is my kind of restaurant! And that’s before I even look at the specials featuring Hogfish (baked in your choice of 3 sauces), Mahi Mahi - prepared as sandwiches, fish bites or the classic fish and chips, Lobster Tail, and Shrimp, Scallops & Crab AuGratin. Plus there is the raw bar with freshly shucked oysters, stone crab claws and u-peel shrimp. If your preference runs to land-based, there is plenty to choose from - salads, huge1/2 lb. hamburgers, veggie burgers and grilled chicken sandwiches. No one will go hungry here, that’s for sure.
In Key West, drinking is raised to an art form and with the Key West Vacation Pass you will get a coupon for one free well drink or draft beer when you purchase one at the Smokin' Tuna Saloon (love the BOGO). So we talk about Charlie’s favorite boat drink - Rum Punch. At the Smokin' Tuna, its made with all natural ingredients and is a $5 drink special. Happy hour is a favorite past-time on our little island and Smokin’ Tuna makes the cut. Their happy hour is every day from 4:30-6:30 with 2:1 well drinks and draft beer. Draft beer includes their own Smokin’ Tuna Beer, Blue Moon, Yuengling and Bud Light. The bar is well stocked with well brands and premium brands. A recent addition to happy hour is $5.99 appetizers including Dip of the Day, Smokin’ Tuna Dip, conch fritters, several kinds of chicken wings, and soup & 1/2 sandwich combo with several choices. Not to be missed is the $5 drink specials: Margarita on Rocks, Rum Punch, Oak ’n Coke and the $6 Captain Morgan White.
Talking about all that food made me hungry so Jefe and I come back for dinner and sit at the bar. Matt and Laura are bar-tending tonight and we talk to them about the crowd favorites. For appetizers, Smokin’ Tuna Dip and the Shrimp Ceviche win hands-down while the $5 Margarita on Rocks and Rum Punch are the drinks of choice. Jefe decides to try the fried Mahi Mahi sandwich while I opt for the Smokin’ Tuna White Bean Chili and a serving of onion rings. My chili is amazing with big chunks of fresh tuna throughout. The sour cream topping contrasts nicely with the spiciness of the chili. Not too much heat, just the right amount to keep my taste buds dancing. The onion rings are perfectly prepared accompanied by a tasty spicy remoulade sauce. Jefe’s sandwich comes out with a big hunk of delicious Mahi Mahi and a huge pile of fries. Now this is our idea of paradise, lots of fish washed down with cold drinks.
Scott Kirby is performing live tonight and we wander over by the stage and enjoy his free show. This is Key West at its best - a fantastic singer/songwriter, great drinks and seafood enjoyed outside on a beautiful tropical evening. Its nights like this that remind me why so many people visit our little island.
On our way out, we stop by the gift shop. It’s a cut above, with high-quality fabrics and lots of designs and styles to choose from. There is much greater variety than the usual t-shirt, not to mention the fabulous Smokin’ Tuna Saloon logo. Not to be overlooked is the fun hats and bar accessories like can coolies, cigar cutters and glasses.
Sometimes it pays to explore the alleys…
Locals tip - Parking is tight to non-existent in this popular part of Old Town, even for scooters. Be prepared to park several blocks away and walk. Or better yet, take a taxi so you can take full advantage of the Smokin' Tuna’s well stocked premium liquors!
Smokin' Tuna Saloon
4 Charles Street, Key West, FL 33040 off the 200 block of Duval Street (between Caroline Street and Greene Street)
Bar: 10 am - 2 am
Raw Bar & Restaurant: 11:00 am - 10pm
Shows: Early show usually starts around 5 pm or 6 pm and late show around 9 pm or 10 pm. but this is Key West and times may change so check the schedule!
Smokin’ Tuna Mercantile Shop: 10 am - 9 pm
Be sure to use your Key West Vacation Pass coupon at the Smokin' Tuna Saloon to buy one well drink or beer and get one free. To take advantage of more great buy one get one free offers at some of Key West’s top eating and drinking establishments, use your Key West Vacation Pass coupons at the Palm Heaven Restaurant at the Double Tree by Hilton Grand Key Resort where you get the second entree free when you buy one entree; or at El Meson de Pepe Restaurant when you buy one well drink or beer and get one free; or at the Hard Rock Cafe Key West location when you get one drink and get one free ($5.90 value); or at the Rum Barrel Restaurant when you buy one drink and get one free ($5.50 value).