Despite its location on the oft-elusive Fitzpatrick Lane, in the commercial heart of the cruise ship district and behind the Hog's Breath Saloon, El Mar seafood restaurant quickly became a favorite "find" among locals who have enthusiastically been spreading the word about memorable meals in a neighborhood not always frequented by locals.
"El Mar, obviously, means 'the sea,' so the restaurant is all about the essence and romance of the ocean that surrounds us on Key West," said owner Karem Kramer, who opened El Mar in February. "We serve fresh local seafood, and every little detail here on the interior has been done by locals."
From the plumbing contractor who installed new pipes, to metal maritime sculptures, blue-hued artwork and a Jim Nash mural that adorn the walls -- all was done locally.
The echoes of the sea extend to El Mar's sushi bar, which is lined with miniature fish bowls that house colorful betta fish.
El Mar General Manager Frank Weatherwax also maintains impeccable aquariums in the restaurant, one of which houses an eye-catching electric blue crawfish and a shy albino one.
Red, Fred, Moe, Larry and Curly are the sushi bar betta fish that captivate diners while sushi master Chef Tomo deftly slices and sculpts sushi and sashimi platters that defy gravity and delight customers.
"We've got one of the best sushi bars in the Florida Keys and the best prices," Weatherwax said, describing El Mar as "a Caribbean, Carolina and Cajun seafood restaurant with an amazing sushi bar."
Weatherwax is originally from St. Croix, with some time under his belt in the Carolinas and Louisiana -- hence the plans for a weekly crawfish boil, and a $20 all-you-can-eat special on Alaskan snow crabs.
The addition of El Mar's sushi bar, Chef Tomo and Executive Chef Alex Christmas has prompted Kramer and Weatherwax to revisit their menu and fine-tune the selections. The new menu will be introduced this month, and will still feature some dishes that have already carved out a place among local favorites.
The fish tacos, seafood salad and all-you-can-eat Alaskan snow crab legs all will remain on the menu, along with other popular items, like the lobster bisque and some pasta dishes, Kramer said.
"We want to create a local, family atmosphere that everyone has had a hand in creating," said Kramer, a native of Honduras who has lived in Key West for 20 years.
She also owns Exit Realty on North Roosevelt Boulevard -- clear across the island.
"That's why I have my tiny little Smart Car," she said of the frustration borne of multiple crosstown trips each day.
And a side table at El Mar often doubles as a daytime desk for Kramer.
But when the work is finished each day, she also enjoys one of the restaurant's popular sake-tinis -- martini-inspired cocktails made with Japanese sake and served ice cold.
The sunset saketini mimics the colors of a Key West sunset, and the taste of the islands, with mango puree as one of the main ingredients.
"We also do a homemade sangria, with either red or white wine," Weatherwax said, adding that the daily happy "hour" is from 3 to 7 p.m.
"This being our first summer, we don't have anything to compare it to, but so far the year has been wonderful," Kramer said. "We've been busy every day, and once everyone finds us, they keep coming back."
El Mar is closed on Wednesdays, and will be closed for a week later this month.
"It's just for a week," said Kramer, emphasizing the restaurant's return. "We'll be closed, but we'll be back and with a new menu before the end of August.