It's 4:58 p.m. Friday, October 13, and in two minutes, Ed Witte will officially open Joe's Stone Crab for its 104th season. As the maitre d' at the iconic eatery, the 46-year-old with a wide grin and shock of black hair with the slightest hint of gray might very well be the most influential person in Miami Beach. He glances at the 100 or so names written on what looks like a scorecard. At any other Miami restaurant, the roster might fill the place for the whole night. But at Joe's, it's just the beginning of an evening that will likely include at least a thousand diners.
Sensing the hour is near, hungry patrons stop chattering at the adjacent bar and form a circle around Witte as if in anticipation of a curtain rising for a sold-out Broadway musical. Clad in a black dinner jacket, red bow tie, and silver-rimmed glasses, he prepares like a conductor standing at his podium.
At the stroke of 5, Witte approaches an old-school gooseneck microphone. "Welcome to Joe's. Welcome to our 104th season, and thank you for your support. Mr. Bob, Mr. Big Bob, your table is ready."
Big Bob doesn't answer. He was a regular who died this past spring, and staff decided to call his name first, maybe the greatest of Miami honors. "He's been coming for 27 years, as long as I've been here," Witte says. "He loved the horses. I would always ask him, 'Bob, got any good tips for me?' even though I don't gamble on races."
Death might be the only way to avoid waiting for a table at Joe's. The restaurant famously doesn't accept reservations, and Witte denies that a cash bonus can move a customer to the front of the pack. "I would have lost my job a long time ago if I took bribes," says the maitre d', who began working at Joe's in 1990 on a summer break from college in New Jersey. And he won't be swayed by sob stories either. When a woman and her daughter tell him they arrived directly from the airport after flying in from Canada, he responds, "I'll do the best I can to get you seated. It's about a 30-to-40-minute wait." An older gentleman smoothly palms a $20 into a handshake, and Witte turns him down with a polite, "No, sir."
The only people who sometimes receive special treatment are celebrities. "It's really hard to leave someone who's famous at the bar with people wanting autographs," Witte says, adding there are limits. "We asked Busta Rhymes to leave one time because he had on a sleeveless shirt. When he came in again, he was dressed very respectfully."
Joe's (11 Washington Ave., Miami Beach) is, without a doubt, Miami-Dade County's most iconic restaurant. It's two years older than the city in which it's located. Patrons and staff grow up and grow old together. Couples get engaged in the dining room, then take their children, then their grandchildren. A plaque in the front garden even notes that famed news anchor Ann Bishop's ashes were scattered here. The restaurant, started as a simple seafood shack in 1913 by Joe Weiss, is considered by Forbes one of the highest-grossing eateries in the United States. At Joe's, best known for its eponymous crustaceans, an evening of stone crabs and wine can reach well into the triple digits. However, the restaurant consistently draws praise for menu items such as fried chicken ($6.95) and chopped tenderloin ($6.95) — affordable options for people who simply want to experience dining at the famed establishment.
By 5:30, the initial rush is happily digging into fresh-baked onion rolls and sweet crab claws when Caron and Jim Litten, snowbirds from Michigan, walk in. Witte steps from the podium to hug Caron. "Welcome back," he says. Jim, a silver-haired man in his 70s, holds a framed picture of the couple dining at Joe's with a 10-year-old boy, surrounded by the smiling faces of servers and staff. "That's our grandson. He was just about 10, so that was 20 years ago." Jim points out a decades-younger Witte in the photo. "Who's this handsome man?" he says before commenting, "[Joe's] is about the people more than the food. We come in and they're always super busy, but they know us by name."
At 6:30, the bar has filled with a second round of guests. While he mixes cocktails, Jeff Reynolds, a curly-haired 61-year-old sporting a classic bartender's uniform of white shirt and black vest, shares some barbecue tips with a couple from North Carolina. "It's all about cooking the meat slow," he says while pouring another vodka and soda. Reynolds, a Rhode Island native, has been behind the stick at Joe's for three decades. It's his first day back from hiatus, pursuing dual passions of sailing and photography in Nantucket. "Between hurricanes and whales, I took 6,000 pictures." The time off, he says, allows him to recharge his batteries. "Once the season starts, there's no downtime."
Fellow bartender Brandon Saballos agrees. The lean and muscular 25-year-old Miami native began working straight out of high school. Seven years later, the restaurant's summer break allows him to seek adventure. Last year, he fitted a Jeep with solar panels and drove it to Alaska to see the Northern Lights. "It's the farthest you can drive from Miami. I lived out of the Jeep for three months."
At 7 p.m., the kitchen hums with efficiency under the watch of Andre Bienvenu. The larger-than-life, silver-haired Johnson & Wales graduate has been executive chef since 1998. The expansive kitchen employs about 140 people, he explains. "The cooks are 100 percent responsible for their stations. We track the sale of every item every single day." When dealing with 1,200 covers a day, the smallest waste can add up quickly.
Bienvenu notes the stone crabs they are serving tonight are frozen. The season doesn't begin until Sunday. He is bullish on the months ahead, even with speculation that Hurricane Irma might have scared away the sea life. "I think the stone crabs are going to be good."
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At 8 p.m., Stephen Sawitz, the chief operating officer of Joe's, rises from his desk and grabs a blue velvet blazer.He makes a right and then a left through the massive back-of-house maze — which includes prep areas, a bakery, and a shipping business — to reach the bar to greet a bunch of regulars.
The great-grandson of the founder of Joe's, Sawitz was born into the business. Earlier in the day, during a walk-through at the adjacent market, Joe's Take Away, Sawitz personally inspected everything, from the biscotti case to the bathrooms. At the restaurant's daily roll call — a combination employee mealtime and informational meeting — Sawitz made sure the waitstaff was familiar with new menus that depict vintage Miami Beach scenes. "Everybody in the world, it seems, wants to have the newest and slickest place," Sawitz says. "Miami is about trend and about cool, but a lot of places don't last that long. We're taking a contrarian position by honoring the past."
At 11 p.m., Witte calls the last name for the evening. In all, 1,100 people have been served the first night of the season, even before the fishermen have pulled up the first crab traps. The South Beach miracle has begun anew. "It's exciting," Sawitz says. "It's part of the mystery how we manage without knowing what the catch is going to look like. How we play the hand dealt by Mother Nature each year is the most interesting part of the job."
Correction: Because of incorrect information supplied by the restaurant's PR firm, Andre Bienvenu's beginning at Joe's was mischaracterized in an earlier version of this story. He began as executive chef.