At first glance, the fence that adjoins the rather shabby building settled patiently at 806 Caroline St. in Key West is an enigma. White-painted boards stand taller than a man, blocking the action inside from the street like a fence is meant to do. But this fence is different. There are pairs of small holes in this fence, set at varying heights: some at adult height, some kid-height, some close to street level.
Obviously, they’re not wormholes. Or woodpecker holes. Or the lifetime achievement of a workaholic termite. These are manmade, created for a purpose. And that purpose becomes clear the minute anybody puts his face up to a pair of the mysterious holes and discovers he can see into the courtyard of Pepe’s Cafe & Steak House. They’re peepholes — quirky, individualistic, and typical of the casually enticing atmosphere at Pepe’s.
(The small ones near street level, of course, are for dogs and cats so they too can scope out the courtyard action. That little touch is also typical of Pepe’s.)
Above the door, an ancient sign reads “EAT Merita … Pepe’s Cafe … Complete Breakfast 75 cents.” At least that’s what it appears to say; the paint is faded and peeling, so it’s hard to tell for sure. Below, painted on a sort of wooden awning, is the legend “Established 1909 … Pepe’s Cafe … Eldest Eating House in the Florida Keys.”
In 1909, Commander Robert Peary reached the North Pole, and the Pittsburgh Pirates beat the Detroit Tigers to win the World Series. And at 202 Duval St. in Key West, José “Pepe” Pelaez opened his new restaurant.
He advertised it as a place “where you meet your friends over a cup of coffee.” It quickly became just that. A core of regular patrons grew up over the years, consisting of workers from the Key West Electric Company, city hall and fire station personnel, and reporters from the nearby newspaper office.
Homemade cakes and freshly cooked ham (often prepared by Pepe’s wife Ellie) were featured delights, and days just weren’t the same without a stop for some sustenance at Pepe’s. Even Ernest Hemingway, who lived in Key West throughout the 1930s, was a patron.
In the 1940s, Pepe Pelaez sold the business to Henrique Henriquez, who promptly employed Eduardo “Curi” Garcia. Initially the night cook at the popular eatery, Curi became known for his souse — a Conch soup made with tripe and pig’s feet. (Or maybe it was for the bolita he sold on the side. Saturday afternoons were crowded as gamblers gathered to find out the results of their bets.)
Many years later, the property Pepe’s occupied was sold and the establishment, much its faithful customers’ regret, shut its doors. That is, until Curi Garcia figured the island had been without a “Pepe’s” long enough. He opened Pepe’s Cafe on Caroline Street, in a small building that had originally housed a neighborhood store. The local Merita Bread distributor paid the $50 cost of the sign in exchange for an advertisement on it.
According to longtime locals, Curi generally kept Pepe’s open from 4:30 a.m. until 10 a.m. or later. Basically, when regulars spotted him up front asleep in a chair, that meant the place was closed.
Allan Miller, who came to Key West from Martha’s Vineyard, bought the restaurant from Curi in the 1970s. During his tenure, he opened up the low drop ceiling and added a homey fireplace. Slightly worn French doors now open out to the courtyard bar and dining area, and the old Formica tables have been replaced with wooden booths.
The current menu features hearty steaks, fresh fish and oysters instead of souse, but the undemanding neighborhood atmosphere established by the former owners remain.
These days, Pepe’s boasts a collection of historic photos and paintings lining the walls, a brightly-colored papier maché carousel horse dangling rakishly from the ceiling, and what is surely the Keys’ largest paddle fan. With its small main dining room and purposely funky brick-floored courtyard, the restaurant calls to mind Key West’s earlier days — and that’s exactly how the patrons like it.
Stop by for breakfast, lunch, courtyard cocktails, and homestyle dinners that include an amazing dish of steak smothered in pork chops, and discover Pepe’s historic magic for yourself.