Dish

Crab Countdown

Friday, October 15, 12:01 a.m. Stone crab season officially begins. Crabbers are now allowed by law to pull up the traps they set days ago. But Hurricane Irene nibbles her lip in the Florida Straits -- where to turn? Her storm-force winds exceed 50 miles per hour -- too dangerous for commercial fishermen. Until she decides where to go, they stay put.

8:30 a.m.: Irene jogs east, dousing the Keys and literally keeping the crabbers at bay. On Miami Beach, where Joe's Stone Crab has been gearing up for its first dinner of the season, the eatery faces two difficulties: The supply of crabs is threatened, as is South Beach, which is beginning to feel Irene's effects. The flat streets are already flooding. But Joe's plans to launch as scheduled and co-owner Stephen Sawitz is allowing me to witness opening night from behind the scenes. The 87-year-old restaurant's kitchen has been renovated for the first time ever, and the tall, quietly elegant restaurateur is both excited and nervous. "We've made A-through-M improvements before," he says. "But this is the first time we've gone A to Z."

11:37 a.m.: New floor, ceiling, and wider doorways notwithstanding, the alphabet stalls at E when Joe's loses electric power. "Call back at four o'clock," a machine voice hastily tells me when I check on progress. Hurricane Irene is advancing steadily and her feeder bands are producing unsettling winds. I watch from my office window as the transformer that supplies my house with electricity blows up. Sparks singe the tree that has fallen across the wires. I call Joe's. No answer. The restaurant is supposed to open at 5:00; I'm due at 4:00.

3:30 p.m.: The most dangerous feeder band is moving through. I've been calling the restaurant every five minutes. No one picks up. I ask my husband to do me a somewhat risky favor: drive past Joe's on his way home and look for signs of life. He does. There aren't any.

4:00 p.m.: I don't go to Joe's. I have always equated Joe's Stone Crab with the post office -- neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow .... But while I did receive my soggy pile of bills and Williams-Sonoma catalogues, for the first time since the stone crab was discovered by Joe's founder Joseph Weiss (with the help of a visiting ichthyologist from Harvard) to be edible, Joe's does not open for dinner on the premiere night of stone crab season.

11:15 p.m.: By the power of a dying battery, I pull an article about stone crab season from the Internet. The Keys crabbers have come to certain conclusions: Many of their traps have been swept away, others stolen by poachers. Without a doubt, stone crabs will be expensive this year.

Saturday, October 16, 11:15 a.m.: Joe's electricity is restored.

4:10 p.m.: The crabbers are correct. This year's stone crab market prices have opened at last year's closing prices. At Joe's an order of large crab claws, five of them, will sell for $36.95. Jumbos break the bank at $49.95.

4:14 p.m.: I walk in on a staff meeting. Restaurant manager Brian Johnson is issuing last-minute instructions. Co-owner Jo Ann Bass, Joe Weiss's granddaughter and Stephen's mother, pops in and out of the meeting; Joe's couldn't get fresh bread from the bakery owing to the storm, and only 1000 pounds of fresh stone crabs have been brought in. The restaurant expects to serve nearly twice that amount tonight. The kitchen will supplement with defrosted crab claws. Under normal circumstances this practice would be sacrilegious. Irene has brought down the mighty Joe's.

4:20 p.m.: A line forms outside. The staff dons tuxedo jackets and lines up for inspection. Bones, one of the seating captains, brushes lint from the shoulders of a waiter, and chides another for wearing dull shoes. He discusses how to keep a jacket fresh with one server who has allowed dust to settle on his hem.

4:30 p.m.: Mike Frank, waiter and world traveler, gives me the inside scoop: You need ten years' seniority just to get Sundays off. Frank will not be on duty tomorrow because he's been at Joe's for seventeen years. He compares his job to working at the Chicago commodities market. You can tell he's as addicted as any broker. He won't reveal how much he makes. About 60 patrons mill around the courtyard, bar, and foyer, where maitre d' Dennis M. Sutton takes names. The waiters line up to receive customers. A turf war erupts between two of them. One is perturbed that the other keeps pushing a table into the space of his section. "That's what happens when five years' seniority meets fifteen years," one server quips.

4:59 p.m.: The first customers stroll in, glasses of white zinfandel or martinis in their hands. Their dress varies from hot pants to evening gowns, Hawaiian shirts to suits. The 450-seat dining room is already two-thirds full. In the kitchen, which is cooler than my house, the noise is already deafening, and the waiters squabble over bread baskets like so many pigeons.

5:08 p.m.: Salads and appetizers fly out of the kitchen on large oval trays. Clearly you need physical strength and good balance to hold your own at Joe's. But while there are more men than women, there are enough waitresses to satisfy the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

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