(This column is the first in a hopefully semi-regular series about Keys places that have stayed mostly the same as things have changed all around them. Now and again it’s good to celebrate some of our islands’ stalwart businesses that have survived and thrived.)
In late 1979, Joe DaConda and Boyd Robbins signed a lease-purchase deal on a restaurant site that had started as a Royal Castle burger joint. After Royal Castle folded, it turned into a Chinese place called Kam Sum, and then morphed into Surf and Turf. They all failed, and by 1979, the site had been vacant two-and-a-half years.
On Jan. 15, 1980, the Cracked Conch Café opened in that very location. Sombrero Resort’s Bill King was their first customer. And ever since, the Conch has remained open every day — only closing seven days out of the restaurant’s more than 40 years in business. “Five of those days were right after Hurricane Irma,” Joe says. “Strangely enough, we still had a landline. People were lined up down the bar and outside the restaurant just to be able to call and let families know they were all right.”
Through all the other storms, the Conch remained open. “Sometimes we’d have to close for a bit if water got a little too high,” Joe remembers. “I forget which storm, but after one hurricane, we were the only place in town open for five days.”
The Cracked Conch has witnessed a good bit of Keys history. Joe also remembers the crazy days in the midst of the Mariel Boatlift. “There were people in here with briefcases filled with cash, tens of thousands of dollars,” Joe says. “They were buying passage for their family members in Cuba from local captains.” Crazy days, indeed.
The secret of Joe’s success at the Conch has to start with consistency. They’re always open, and the food is always good. I first ate there in 1984, loving their Cracked Conch Café sandwich at first bite. The conch is so good … but there’s a lot more to the restaurant than just the tasty mollusk.
The Conch is a great breakfast place (breakfast served until 4 p.m.). It’s a great lunch place. And it’s a great dinner-and-drinks place as well. “We got our full liquor license back in ’86,” Joe recalls. “After that, we were open every day until midnight. And we used to do our best business between 10 p.m. and midnight after all the other places closed. They just sent them here.”
These days, the Cracked Conch closes at a civilized 9 p.m. About 20 years ago, Joe revived the breakfasts he left out for a few years after getting the full liquor license. And sometime after that, Joe broke down and enclosed and air-conditioned the interior. But even in the summer, the Flying Iguana patio is still comfortable and popular.
No matter the time of day, conch is always on the menu. From the Conch Omelet and the Conch Benedict for breakfast, to the Cracked Conch sandwich and appetizers as well as two different conch chowders, to multiple tasty conch specialties for dinner, a conch-loving diner just can’t go wrong. There are plenty of other options for those who may not enjoy conch as much as I do.
Locals and visitors have raved about the Conch for decades, as in this online review: “I just wanted to let you know that without question, your Cracked Conch rivals the finest I’ve ever eaten. I’ve NEVER had better anywhere in the country. I’ve enjoyed conch on many Caribbean islands & none were superior to yours.”
Joe’s staff plays a big part in keeping the Conch a favorite of locals and visitors. As Joe relates, “We’ve had so many great staff members … cooks that have worked 30-35 years. And we’ve had waitstaff that have worked here, gone and raised a family, and have come back after the kids were grown!”
It’s good to know that throughout the decades of changes we’ve seen in the islands, the hammers still beat tenderness into the conch at the Cracked Conch Café in Marathon. The Conch is one of the places where you can go and still experience the Keys of yesteryear. For those of us who have been here forever and seen the changes, it’s just really good to have a place where nothing much has changed.