By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
South Florida tourist agencies are gauging where the local economy stands by reading lines on comparative graphs. I got to thinking that a more accurate way to assess the matter would be by studying a real line -- like the one that forms at Joe's Stone Crab. Or used to form; since the renovation that took place six years ago, diners now wait for their names to be called while sitting at patio tables or taking part in the lively bar scene that occupies the restaurant's forefront. So I had to be content with compiling the waiting times instead, which, during the first two weeks of stone crab season were: one hour on a rainy Monday night, two hours for our return on a more clement weekend evening, and no wait at all when dining at opening time, 5:00 p.m. (arriving at this hour has always been the best way to get seated quickly here). G.M. Brian Johnson says the waiting periods are the same this year as in the past, and that although Joe's was "planning for a worst-case scenario," they've been "pleasantly surprised" by just how robust business has been. This doesn't gel with the dismal preseason slump being experienced by most South Beach restaurants.
My study was doomed to failure from the start, based as it was on the false premise that Joe's can be compared with other South Beach ventures. Joe's is anything but average. It has been an exceptional success story since 1913, when Joe Weiss opened the first eating house in Miami Beach and staked claim as the sole purveyor of what turned out to be a very popular crustacean. The continued good fortune of this family business is largely predicated on its legendary status (it was designated a historical landmark in 1975), which in turn has led to national recognition as thegastronomic tourist attraction on Miami Beach. But status and stone crabs aside, the consistent food, truly professional service, free parking (or just four dollars to valet), and surprisingly affordable prices (excepting the crabs) are reason enough for people to flock here.
And then there's the stately ambiance that only a restaurant large enough to seat 450 to 475 people can provide, a vintage environment that cannot be counterfeited: Bills get slickly slipped into palms, tuxedoed waiters whirl through the rooms with sizable oval trays of food held high above their heads, and the ebullient buzz of diners subtly occupies the air like the intangible gathering of ions before a thunderstorm. The diversity of clientele adds to the pleasantness of the unpretentious atmosphere -- not just a mix of locals and tourists but a mingling of varied races, ages, sizes, and income levels. It's difficult to imagine so sizable a dining room being any cozier, or so esteemed an establishment being any more inviting for the average diner.
11 Washington Ave.
Miami Beach, FL 33139
Region: South Beach
The back of Joe's menu cites the huge amount of food products used over the past year: 23,639 quarts of cream for creamed spinach, 69,833 pounds of cabbage for coleslaw, and so on. The visualization of these numbers doesn't exactly serve to whet one's appetite. The most important stat, of course, is the 550,491 pounds of signature stone crabs cracked and served with signature mustard sauce. (This menu has more signatures than the Declaration of Independence.) It's true that Joe's stone crabs come from the same waters as everyone else's, but they seem to taste a little fresher and sweeter; perhaps this is because of a subconscious awareness of how quickly they're being turned over.
An order of four jumbo black-tipped claws ("jumbo" being defined as those that weigh more than 6 ounces each) goes for $49.95; five large (3 to 6 ounce) crabs for $34.95; eight medium (2 to 2.75 ounces) for $19.95. This pricey delicacy obviously subsidizes the lower-priced items on the rest of the menu, but just the same it's unseemly that insignificant restaurants with ill-assembled little dining rooms and no track record routinely charge so much more than Joe's.
To wit: A pair of thick, juicy, sweetly charred pork chops, with what tastes like apple pie filling on the side, is $17.95. Rack of lamb: $23.95. Four slices of sautéed calves liver, all a bit more well done than the medium rare requested, topped with crisp curls of bacon, is a mere $8.50 -- less money than some places charge for an appetizer the size of a thumbnail. And the wide selection of wines, always reasonably priced, have been marked down by 20 to 25 percent, Joe's sole concession to troubled times.
Years ago I took a tour of Joe's kitchens, a labyrinth of prep rooms, meat rooms, fish rooms, crab rooms, pastry rooms, dishwashing rooms, panwashing rooms, and walk-in refrigerators and freezers so large that Admiral Byrd could've gotten lost in them. That the back of the house looks more like a food factory than a kitchen is fitting, as the meals that come from there exhibit a workshoplike uniformity.
That Joe's is the same as it ever was is overwhelmingly a good thing, though I wouldn't complain if they changed their seafood bisque. It tastes like a sherry-splashed cream of tomato soup and is too thickly pudding-textured. An alluringly seasoned Manhattan clam chowder was far better, as was a chopped salad of lettuce, tomato, red onion, black olives, carrot, cucumber, feta cheese, chopped egg, and honey-roasted nuts.