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The scene: It is often said that high turnover is very important to a restaurant's success in serving the freshest seafood. By that standard it is virtually impossible to beat Joe's Stone Crab. Ninety-nine years after it opened and immediately enthralled sun-seeking Miami Beach crowds, Joe's remains as popular as ever, serving 2,000 dinners on a busy night (and another 1,000 at lunch), with waits that can exceed two hours despite seating nearly 500 (no reservations). These crowds include many professional athletes, politicians and celebrities, and Joe's has served everyone from Joe DiMaggio to Al Capone, Frank Sinatra to Larry King. Joe's has grown, with a takeout storefront (Joe's To Go) now nearly as big as the original right next door, complete with fast food- style tables for those who need a quick fix. But for the full experience you have to eat in the actual restaurant, where diners are efficiently served by an army of about 70 tuxedoed waiters - most long-time veterans with good memories, no notepads and plenty of ordering advice.
The half Maine-lobster cocktail with rock shrimp salad is one of the most popular appetizers at Joe's.
As soon as you walk up, or more likely pull up to the busy valet-parking operation, you know you have arrived someplace notable. Joe's has a large Mediterranean-style facade, and you enter through a sizeable metal gate and archway not unlike the portico at many sports stadiums. The first stop is the maître d's stand, where the good or bad news about the wait will be dispensed. To one side is a large barroom, with a massive rectangular wooden bar in the center ringed by booths. The main restaurant is sprawling, two large interconnected dining rooms with smaller rooms and private dining rooms off of it, with tables relatively close together and a high level of energy.
Savoring Stone Crab at Joe's in Miami Beachstone crab on the menu, because people did not eat what was considered a plentiful but useless creature. Nearly a decade later, in 1921, owner Joe Weiss figured out how to prepare them, and the rest, as they say, is history. Today, stone crabs are one of the more sustainable seafood options, harvested by removing just one claw, which quickly regrows. In Florida, stone crab harvest season is from October to May, and while few restaurants serve the dish, many that do use frozen crabs in the off season. Joe' s never does, and by tradition simply takes it off the menu every Mother's Day (and then operates on a limited seasonal schedule in summer).
Stone crabs are served as a heap of cracked cold claws accompanied by Joe's signature mustard sauce or melted butter for dipping, and the four sizes range from medium to jumbo. This refers to the size of the claws themselves, not the dish, so an order of medium contains 8 claws, while the large has 5. The medium is nearly the size of a regular Maine lobster claw. The bigger the claws, the more expensive and the less work for the diner they are. Crabs prices fluctuate, but recently plates of the four sizes ran from $26-$72. Joe's does a huge mail-order business in stone crabs as well.
While first-timers inevitably make the crabs the main event, repeat guests and groups often order a plate of claws to share and opt for other entrees and sides. The menu is huge, with every imaginable take on seafood, including plenty of fresh fish, shrimp, scallops and lobster, excellent crab cakes and Alaskan king crab claws (which are very popular here), plus steaks, chicken and burgers. The signature dishes include the Manhattan clam chowder, cole slaw, hash browns, creamed spinach, and cold lobster cocktail, while many fans believe the Key lime pie, which skews towards the tart end of the spectrum, is the best you can find.
After my previous visit, a South Beach regular told me the best kept secret at Joe's was the incongruous fried chicken, so we made it a point to try it this time, It is fantastic, nearly as good as the best I have had in New Orleans and Memphis, featuring a crunchy, crispy breading and a moist, juicy interior. It is also insanely cheap - half a chicken, four full pieces, for $5.95. An entrée, it is less than a tossed salad or any of the sides, and in fact, the only thing on the entire menu that is cheaper is the 2-scoop ice cream dessert option. Our waiter explained that a lot of regulars order the fried chicken as a side: "They get some stone crabs, maybe king crab or crab cakes, and then throw on some sides, an order of fried chicken, hash browns and creamed spinach." If I was a local I'd make the fried chicken my meal as much as anything else on the menu, especially for lunch, and walk out both sated and having saved a bundle. However, if you visit Joe's for the first time, it should be to splurge on the unique and very hard-to-find stone crabs, some other delectable seafood, plus the full assortment of traditional sides.
What regulars say: "There is no restaurant in America I'd rather eat at. My preferred order is the lobster cocktail with sweet crab salad, lobster bisque, crab cakes and a slice of Key Lime pie. It is the gold standard and will render any other pie tasteless," said Michael Patrick Shiels, a popular Michigan radio personality who used to live in South Florida and regularly returns to Joe's.
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