Scientists agree that early man developed a taste for sugar as a means of survival. The “sweet tooth” is an evolutionary adaptation that ensured our ancestors consumed sugar-rich, calorically dense foods that fueled them to travel vast distances, outrun predators and make love.
Key West‘s pastry power couple, Dani and Len Johnson of Better Than Sex dessert restaurant, have been honoring and elevating that survivalist sweet tooth for nearly 13 years. What began as a pocket-sized drinks-and-dessert experience on Key West’s Petronia Street has expanded to a larger, but equally intimate, local space, plus locations in Savannah, Orlando and Dallas. A Los Angeles outpost is slated to open when that city emerges from lockdown.
But success wasn’t instant for Better Than Sex. “We were open for about a year before we really had any business. We were dead,” said Len. “It’s the people here who got us to where we are now. We’re here; we’re blessed to be here. We never want to forget that.”
A spirit of adaptation and evolution has carried the couple through its slow start, Hurricane Irma and a global pandemic. With 60 reservations on the books the night of the initial shutdown in the spring of 2020, Better Than Sex immediately pivoted to take-out, something the couple previously had resisted. “I was apprehensive because I couldn’t stand the thought of our pretty desserts getting smushed into a box,” Dani said. “You don’t get to sit in our dining room and have the whole experience, with the exceptional service, the lighting, the décor. But COVID made it OK. Everybody is just happy to have this indulgence at home.”
Although the restaurant has returned to its usual hours and dine-in service, Better Than Sex still offers individual desserts to go, as well as 6-inch celebration cakes, miniature versions of its most popular desserts, which are available for nearly immediate pick-up.
To further enhance the takeout experience, the couple also designed Spark Cards, a series of questions meant to inspire intimate conversation while sharing an enchanting dessert at home. (Personal favorite: If you were to be described as an ice cream flavor, what would it be?)
Better Than Sex radio, a Sirius station played at all BTS locations, is now available to home diners, and the restaurant’s almond and aphrodisiac-scented Romance candle, handmade by former employee Emily Shipman of Bella Laine candles, is available in the expanding retail space.
Clearly, the Better Than Sex crew — and clientele — celebrate change. Eight years ago, when the restaurant was moving to its current Simonton Street location, the couple relived the legend of Sloppy Joe’s by asking guests and staff to raise a glass and a chair. “We have pictures of guests and employees walking with chairs on their backs down Duval Street, wheeling refrigerators,” Len said, laughing at the memory.
The couple had initially envisioned a fondue restaurant. That plan was quickly extinguished when, as Dani remembered, “We had a fondue party at our house and almost caught the place on fire.”
Retiring, reviving and revising are all part of a typical life cycle for the restaurant’s dessert menu. “The Better Than Sex, a triple chocolate bread pudding, has been on the menu since day one. I’ve revised it four or five times because I love it,” Dani said. Her perennial favorite remains Man Flowers, a dark chocolate layer cake made with double chocolate stout and served with house-made Irish cream ice cream.
She and her pastry team’s newest experiment is a totally vegan dessert — vanilla bean cake layered between passion fruit mousse with strawberry coulis and freeze-dried raspberries. The restaurant also now offers the gluten-free Caress My Carrot cake.
“Sick of sugar? Never. Sometimes I get burned out being in a kitchen, but our people keep it alive for me,” said Dani, the self-taught pastry chef. “From the beginning, we’ve tried to treat everybody as a person and the job they do for us as a gift.”
Last spring, COVID restrictions forced the couple to cut back to a skeleton crew. When the restaurant could reopen for dine-in service, “We were like, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got to get our people back.’ Nobody had left. Everybody waited.”
Dani and Len remain as devoted to the island community as to their staff, and Key West remains the spiritual home of the brand. “Better Than Sex was born here,” said Dani. “This was the right place to start because creativity is allowed and welcomed. Key West lets you be you.”
Skip dinner entirely, or save plenty of space for the sweet and satisfying combination of desserts, drinks and double entendres.Better Than Sex, 926 Simonton St., and open for dine-in and take-out Wednesday through Sunday evenings. Find them online at betterthansexdesserts.com or on Facebook @betterthansexkw.