Skipping the line at Joe's Stone Crab

Even after 101 years in business, the seafood staple is still one of Miami's most famous restaurants.

Stephen Sawitz, the fourth-generation owner of Joe’s Stone Crab, sat at a table in his restaurant. Before him was a generous order of fried chicken, a rack of baby back ribs, a side of coleslaw, a lump of hashed browns the size and shape of a halved rugby ball (its steam and warmth held intact under a tea towel), and, on an oval platter, the main event: five large stone crab claws—“large,” in this instance, being a trade term, denoting what is actually the second-largest of the four classifications of claws on offer at Joe’s; the truly largest are called “jumbo,” the smallest “medium,” and the second-smallest “select.”

The large claws were not for Sawitz but his guest. “Don’t get me wrong—I love stone crabs, but c’mon,” he said, not needing to elaborate upon his unique occupational hazard, delicacy-appreciation fatigue. The ribs were for him, and the fried chicken was to share, because Sawitz wanted to get the word out—justifiably, it transpired—that Joe’s makes superior fried chicken, its brittle, crackly crust giving way to tender, briny meat.

His guest was engrossed in the stone crab claws, leaving the floor to Sawitz. Yet the restaurateur, whose surname is pronounced with a long “a” (SAY-wits), was stumped. He’d been asked why Joe’s has been a sustained success for 101 years—which is to say, two years longer than its home turf, Miami Beach, has existed as an incorporated city—and, surprisingly, he didn’t have a pat, predigested answer.

“Good question. Wow, let me think about that,” he said. A rangy, professorial man of 57, with thick, graying hair, he seemed more a product of his alma mater, Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, than of his cocoa-butter-scented hometown. Fortunately, Sawitz was soon joined at the table by someone more manifestly South Floridian, his good friend Bernie Yuman, a talent manager whose clients include the royal Estefans, Gloria and Emilio, and Muhammad Ali, who in his boxing prime used to train just up the road at the 5th Street Gym. Tanned and immaculately groomed, Yuman, an exuberant Miami Beach native and a Joe’s lifer, was ready with the sound bite that his buddy lacked.

“Emerson once wrote, Greatness is he who reminds you of no other,” Yuman declaimed from behind tinted eyewear. “The reason that Joe’s is as great as it is is because there is no other.”

Now we were getting somewhere.

Joe’s is indeed a remarkable place. It began its life in 1913 as a modest seaside lunch shack on the otherwise barely developed tract of land that would come to be known as South Beach. Five years later Sawitz’s great-grandparents, Joe and Jennie Weiss, Hungarian-Jewish immigrants, bought a bungalow nearby on what was then called Biscayne Street and is now South Pointe Drive, establishing it as both their home and their restaurant’s new location. Three years after that, they began boiling and serving chilled the claws of Menippe mercenaria, a thick-shelled crab indigenous to South Florida’s waters.

The flavorful claws—pinkish-orange with black tips, a lovely visual echo of another paradisiacal local species, the American flamingo—became a calling card, drawing a pageant of the 20th century through the restaurant’s doors: Al Capone, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, J. Edgar Hoover, Ann-Margret, the undefeated ’72 Dolphins, the LeBron-era Heat, Michael Jordan, various Kennedys, Bill Clinton, the elder and younger presidents Bush.

Joe’s, correspondingly, grew and grew. Its current complex encompasses not only the modest footprint of Joe and Jennie’s long-dismantled bungalow but also the better part of the city block where the old house stood, between Washington and Collins avenues. The restaurant now seats 450 and, in high season, from mid-December through March, averages 1,500 dinners a night. It has an apartment-sized walk-in fridge into which the day’s haul of more than 5,000 pounds of crabs is forklifted and a dedicated Key lime–pie baker, whose sole job it is to turn out 200 pies a day.

Yet the scaling-up has never come at the cost of a watering-down—nor has Joe’s ever endured a fallow tourist-trap period from which it needed to be rescued. While similarly legendary restaurants in other cities have faded into history (the Brown Derby, Toots Shor’s) or are muddling through the reboot process (Brennan’s, Tavern on the Green), Joe’s has simply kept on cranking—too busy to become a museum of itself. “It’s the crossroads of South Florida,” said the businessman and hotelier Jonathan Tisch, who was in town to keep tabs on his nearby hotel, the Loews Miami Beach. “You’ll always find politicians, athletes and celebrities there. I don’t even go for the crabs—my dish of choice is the blackened swordfish. You really go to Joe’s for the sense of community.”

Much of the camaraderie is attributable to Jesse Weiss, the son of the founding couple, a salty, cigar-chewing rapscallion who was the face of the restaurant for the better part of the last century. Jesse, who died in 1994, had an innate grasp of public relations—befriending such midcentury media figures as Walter Winchell, Howard Cosell and Jack Paar—and a gift for schmoozing, getting close to NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle and the league’s team owners just when pro football was in its TV-abetted ascendancy. (Three of the first five Super Bowls were played in Miami’s Orange Bowl, and Joe’s has been a preferred pro-athlete hangout ever since.) “Jesse was the fixture, the guy you always hoped you’d bump into,” said Don Shula, the Dolphins’ Pro Football Hall of Fame coach, in a telephone interview. During football season, Shula recalled, he often treated himself and his family to Sunday-night victory dinners at Joe’s, his mission “to eat as many stone crabs as possible.” (On the other hand, Shula noted, Bob Griese, his ’70s-era quarterback, always ordered the fried chicken.)

Jesse’s knack for pulling in crowds helped Joe’s transcend Miami Beach’s vicissitudes, which saw the area go from a glamorous Bond-movie setting in the early ’60s (where 007 caught Auric Goldfinger cheating at cards by the Fontainebleau pool) to an entropic scuzz-scape in the ’70s and ’80s, beset by blight, an aging population and fallout from the Mariel boatlift—before the boom times resumed in the ’90s. (The restaurant’s name even turned up in the Watergate hearings in 1973. Asked to disclose the contents of a tape from Democratic headquarters that she was furtively given to transcribe, G. Gordon Liddy’s former secretary, Sally Harmony, said, “The words I can remember from it are ‘Joe’s Stone Crab.’”)

Jesse Weiss knew personally from ups and downs; he was married seven times (twice to Grace Weiss, his widow and greatest love, who passed away last year at 98) and a heavy gambler. Sawitz, his grandson, recalled that his grandfather sent out waiters to place bets at the dog track across the street, the Miami Beach Kennel­ Club, due south. Its proximity lent the restaurant a certain Guys and Dolls feel. Asked if he remembered any real-life Damon Runyon characters sauntering in as customers, Sawitz replied, “We had Damon Runyon characters working here!”—his grandfather among them. Decades earlier, Sawitz explained, his grandfather had played an inadvertent role in fostering the Kennel Club’s very existence.­ Jesse’s parents had saved up enough money to buy all the land south of the then-Biscayne Street, a parcel that today would be worth a fortune. They deputized Jesse to carry out the closing. Instead, he blew the money on the ponies at the Hialeah Park Race Track, stalling the family’s dreams of real estate moguldom but ensuring their enduring commitment to the restaurant business.

“Ten or fifteen years ago, Senator Ted Kennedy was walking in here,” Sawitz sighed. “He said, ‘You know, my father had a piece of Hialeah.’ I said, ‘Yeah, and my grandfather helped put you through college.’ ”

Still, it’s Jesse’s raffish character that informs the Joe’s customer experience: fine dining, but not too fine. The staff wear hierarchically formal attire—black tie and red tuxedo jacket for the bussers, black tie and black jacket for the waiters, and red tie and black jacket for the captains and maître d’—but are otherwise unbound by the conventional strictures of white-tablecloth hospitality, doling out sass and love to customers as they see fit.

Tisch, for example, noted that the restaurant’s recently retired lunch-shift overseer, the grandmotherly Rose McDaniel, is “the only woman other than my wife who kisses me on the lips.” Jorge Lopez, the waiter who was attending to the Sawitz-Yuman-guest party, has his own shtick. Surveying the considerable quantity of unfinished food that remained on the table as he cleared, he asked the diner if he wanted any of it wrapped to take home. Told that home was, alas, a plane ride away, Lopez replied, deadpan, “Would you like me to look into e-mailing your food to you?”

The staff at Joe’s does not turn over quickly. Lopez, an immigrant from Chile, has been there for more than 30 years. McDaniel, the best friend of Sawitz’s mother, Jo Ann Sawitz Bass, worked the front of the house for over 50 years. The strapping James “Bones” Jones, the restaurant’s most widely recognized captain, got his start at Joe’s as a busman 43 years ago. Career waiters are the best waiters—intuitive, on the ball, invested in the theater of service yet unburdened by actual theater aspirations—and the Joe’s roster is deep with them.

Sawitz and his mother are acutely aware of the value of such continuity, providing the wages and benefits to ensure it. They’re also mindful of keeping the place accessible to the greater Miami Beach community, not just to the machers and millionaire jocks and future residents of the luxury towers rising along Biscayne Bay. Stone crabs are not cheap, running from $30 for a plate of medium claws to $90 for the jumbos, but the price of that four-piece fried-chicken entrée holds at a Popeyes-worthy $5.95, as does that of the chopped tenderloin, Joe’s bun-less version of a burger. “It’s something the family prides itself on, especially my mother: $5.95, no matter what,” Sawitz said.

Joe’s also takes pride in its sustainability practices vis-à-vis its signature offering, the stone crab. Most of the claws served at the restaurant come from the two fisheries the family owns directly, one in Everglades City, on the Gulf Coast, and the other in Marathon, in the Keys. By law, the crabs may only be harvested seasonally, from October through May. At the fisheries, their claws are carefully removed, boiled on-site, packed in ice and shipped to the restaurant for next-day consumption. (Increased demand has compelled Sawitz to do business with a few carefully selected outside fisheries; Joe’s has partnered with the hospitality group Lettuce Entertain You to open locations in Las Vegas, Chicago and Washington, D.C., though the Miami Beach original remains wholly independent and privately held by the family.)

Unique among edible crustaceans, stone crabs need not perish to be enjoyed as food. If returned to the water in fine fettle, with only one claw removed, a crab will adapt and the missing claw will regenerate. It’s possible that certain diners have, over a span of years, enjoyed multiple claws courtesy of the same crab.

It was suggested to Sawitz, as his guest ate a slice of one of the 200 Key lime pies that had been baked that day, that the stone crab’s regenerative powers might provide a framework for the answer that had eluded him—about why Joe’s has sustained its success for more than a century. He had talked about how each generation of his family had brought something crucial to the business: his great-grandfather, the spark of invention; his grandfather, the PR and people skills; his mother, the foresight to buy up nearby lots to accommodate the business’s expansion; and, in his own case, an entrepreneurial restlessness, a knowledge that, even as Joe’s must remain true to its identity, it can’t fall into nostalgia and complacency.

If ever there was a perfect confluence of family and species, here it was: the Weiss-Bass-Sawitzes have demonstrated an uncommon adaptivity, an ability to reinvent themselves and grow as needed…

“We have!” said Sawitz, warming to the idea. “We do reinvent.”

…just as the Florida stone crab is able to regenerate its claws.

Sawitz smiled. “That’s the metaphor!” he said. And dinner was over.

Joe’s Stone Crab is at 11 Washington Ave.; 305-673-0365; joesstonecrab.com.