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.
5:15 p.m.: The first stone crabs are served to bibbed clientele. In the kitchen, general manager Stacey O'Bryan acts as expediter, red-penning menu items against tickets as if he works at Costco. This is a new system, instituted along with two computers that are stationed at the service bar. Old-timers hate the changes; they preferred yelling their orders through the window like diner staff. "This is not going to work," one waiter mumbles under his breath as he hoists a tray of shrimp cocktail to his shoulder, only to be stopped in his tracks so his order can be checked.
5:16 p.m.: Fifteen waiters cluster around the computers, competing to place their orders.
5:33 p.m.: Full house. Mike Frank mops the perspiration from his face. Maitre d' Sutton establishes a 45-minute wait for a table. He reveals the golden rule: A deuce or two-top (two people) is allotted about 40 minutes to eat; a party of six gets 50. It's the waiter's job to ensure that turnover happens when it should, without rushing the customer out. I dare you to try and linger, though.
5:40 p.m.: The first regular, an elderly gentleman, inches through the door. "Mr. Lowell," Sutton says, "used to own the Seville Hotel. He usually appears on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It's a surprise to see him tonight." Mr. Lowell tips both Sutton and Bones on the way in, though standard practice is for appreciative customers to give $20 handshakes on the way out. That way the tip is a reward for a job well done, not a bribe for speedy seating. Sutton, who has worked at Joe's for more than twenty years, will accept the money from Mr. Lowell, who's about as old as the restaurant itself. But he'll return the tips to anyone else, saying, "On the way out, please. On the way out."
5:58 p.m.: The wait for a table is one hour. At 6:30 p.m. Stephen Sawitz appears in the kitchen for the first time. He points out improvements, including the plastic bags in which the Manhattan clam chowder and stone crab bisque are now stored. Keeping them in a kettle makes the soup boil off, he explains. He says Joe's is attempting to become more of a seafood house than just a stone crab palace. In fact Joe's Seafood, Prime Steaks, and Stone Crabs is scheduled to open in downtown Chicago later this year.
6:45 p.m.: Seventeen waiters cluster around the cashiers, waiting impatiently for checks to be printed and charges to go through. Fifteen-year veteran Kevin Murphy takes it in stride, but hopes his customers understand the new system is causing delays.
7:00 p.m.: The wait for a table is 90 minutes. Sutton doesn't believe it will be longer than that.
7:10 p.m.: The wait for a table jumps to two hours. The line to give your name at the maitre d's desk extends fifteen yards or so into the bar, which is standing room only. Eventually I find a seat at the bar and watch the parade of first-nighters pass through.
11:00 p.m.: Closing time. Sutton will take no more names, but he still has quite a list to call. O'Bryan tells me the next day that the last patrons left well after midnight.
11:30 p.m.: Curbside. The valets should give the rest of South Beach some lessons: No one waits more than a minute or two for their cars. I get home only to lie sweating in bed in the dark. I realize despite the seven hours or so I spent at Joe's, I didn't taste a single stone crab. I fall asleep and dream of cold seafood.
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