Joe’s Stone CrabMarch 19, 2018
Jack and Marcia Schnedler, our peripatetic contributors, have rarely missed a meal in a half-century of trotting the globe — including all 50 states and the District of Columbia, as well as all seven continents. They even ate lunch at a cafeteria in 1991 on Antarctica at the U.S. base on McMurdo Sound, just 800 miles from the South Pole.
A South Florida dining mecca in business for 105 years is the topic of this freshly baked dispatch from Jack with photographs by Marcia.
MIAMI BEACH — Four decades later, menu prices have risen like a runaway souffle. But Joe’s Stone Crab, the famed South Beach restaurant where diners can wait seemingly forever to be seated on a busy evening, still gets a visit most years from wife Marcia and me.
The latest meal, lunch last Saturday, marked a Schnedler anniversary of sorts — 40 years (and a few galaxies) since I wrote a glowing review of Joe’s for the Miami Herald. That 1978 review got framed and posted — in a corridor leading to restrooms at the sprawling eatery. Joe’s was still thriving in an era when the south end of Miami Beach amounted to a senior-citizen ghetto housing frugal retirees from the New York area.
My byline graced that well-traveled corridor for about a dozen years before being taken down. If nothing else, the inevitable rise of menu prices had put it well out of date. But my heart and Marcia’s continue to belong to Joe’s. Our 2018 meal reaffirmed that allegiance, in an era when South Beach has become an international tourist hot spot.
Restaurants are notoriously perishable, with quite a few going out of business before their first birthday. Joe’s is a dining Methuselah, having operated continuously in Miami Beach since 1913 — and pioneering the specialty of stone crabs in 1921. (The only eatery anywhere near that venerable in the Little Rock metro area is Franke’s, the cafeteria operation founded in 1919.)
More amazingly, Joe’s has been owned by four generations of the same family since Joe and Jennie Weiss opened the doors in the Model T era. They initially served only fish, then began to sell the previously unknown delicacy of stone-crab claws in 1921. A peculiarity of the stone crab is that one claw can be harvested and the crustacean returned to the sea to regrow the succulent appendage in about a year.
These days, stone crabs turn up when in season from Oct. 15 to May 15 even at a few Little Rock restaurants. But the crab claws that reach Arkansas typically fall short of the succulent freshness that Joe’s offers, thanks to the fleet of crabbing boats it has under contract as the delicacy’s largest single buyer. An industry journal reported that Joe’s ranked second among all U.S. restaurants for revenue in 2013 with sales of $35.3 million.
The restaurant was featured in the 1985 film The Mean Season. It is reputedly referenced in Ian Fleming’s novel Goldfinger as “Bill’s on the Beach,” at which James Bond ate the best meal he had ever eaten in his life. It was also in the comedy film Big Trouble starring Tim Allen.
Over 105 years, Joe’s has fed movie stars and other celebrities from around the world. The famous newspaper columnist Damon Runyon wrote a paean in 1940 that the restaurant has printed on a card for today’s diners to take away. Runyon observed facetiously that “visitors eat more of the stone crabs today, and that is all the more deplorable when you reflect that stone crabs are really too good for visitors.”
Joe Weiss’ son Jesse apparently played the largest role in bringing the restaurant to the prominence it still enjoys. Wikipedia reports that “a list of Jesse’s acquaintances, several of whom became lifelong close friends, forms a veritable Who’s Who of the 20th century.”
“Will Rogers was Will Rogers,” Jesse remembered in an interview late in life. “As homespun as anybody could be. I liked him a lot.” He knew Amelia Earhart. (“She was down to earth. You knew where you stood with her, there was no pretense.”)
He remembered movie star Gloria Swanson (“I thought she was this little doll. She used to come in here with Joseph Kennedy, who was her great love, but I didn’t know it then! Hell, I was worried about my own sex life.”) He knew J. Edgar Hoover. (“I was closer to J. Edgar Hoover than I was to anyone else. I used to call him Gatling Gun Joe.”)
Along with the ascending prices, another major change since the Schnedlers’ first visit in 1978 is in the makeup of the staff. Forty years ago, waiters and other out-front personnel were pretty much exclusively white men. Now the staff, uniformly deft and courteous as before, includes a mix of women, blacks and Hispanics.
Joe’s stone-crab prices vary with the size of the claws. This season’s tab goes from $32.95 for mediums to $89.95 for jumbos. If $89.95 for a main course leaves you gasping, it’s good to know that management continues its tradition of offering a few dishes at bargain prices. The prime example is a fried half-chicken for $6.95. I asked our Hispanic server if anyone ever ordered the chicken, and he said it was quite popular with family groups, who go for both stone-crab claws and the fried fowl.
This time around, Marcia and I both opted for the Cold Seafood Platter — a good value at $35.95 for a delectable and generous ensemble of stone crab, oysters on the half-shell, jumbo shrimp and half a Maine lobster. We also enjoyed, as always, the complementary basket of breads and rolls — a deluxe mix of a half-dozen varieties.
We felt too full to order what the menu justifiably bills as “Joe’s Famous Key Lime Pie.” I remembered that I’d saluted Joe’s in my 1978 review for delivering a superb meal time after time with gracious service in a cheerful setting. In 2018, I can truthfully offer the same praise.
As a postscript, if you have no plans to travel to Miami Beach, Joe’s will ship frozen stone-claw crabs to your doorstep. All you need is a robust credit card. An order feeding two people is $189.59, with prices continuing upward to $634.50 for 12 diners’ worth.