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by dan sweeney | September 29, 2011 | Food & Drink
History often turns on the slightest of details. For example, where would we be if Joe Weiss had not suffered from asthma? According to the Weiss family’s history, it was that malady that brought the family’s patriarch south from New York on the advice of his doctor. The Hungarian immigrant initially settled in Miami proper before heading across the bay to Miami Beach, where he found the ideal setting and climate to combat his suffering. The year was 1913, and Weiss established a lunch stand next to a place that rented out lockers for tourists to change into the long bathing suits of the day. Five years later, he and his wife bought a small house, set tables in front of it and called it Joe’s Restaurant. And so began Joe’s Stone Crab, though the place didn’t actually serve stone crabs until a few years later.
|The iconic Joe’s Stone Crab sign|
“Stone crabs were introduced in the 1920s,” says Steve Sawitz, the current co-owner, chief operating officer and great-grandson of Weiss. “I don’t know whether we were the first to serve them. History was a different thing back then. There wasn’t widespread communication, so it’s possible that people were already eating them elsewhere. But we were probably the first place to really put them on the map, and I don’t think they were really well-known locally. But some of the fish and the hash browns recipes have been around for 100 years. The coleslaw has been around about that long, too. The Key lime pie is a recent addition, from 1968.”
By the time Weiss’ son Jesse took over the business, Joe’s no longer had a monopoly on the restaurant market in Miami Beach. Nevertheless, under Jesse Weiss’ guidance, the place entered a golden age of acclaim. So many famous people came to visit that, at one point, J. Edgar Hoover and Al Capone found themselves eating in the same dining room. Since then, Joe’s has been a veritable hot spot for globe-trotting glitterati. “The one that sticks out in my mind most is Muhammad Ali,” Sawitz recalls. “But there’s also Bill Clinton, George Bush, Sandra Day O’Connor, Coretta Scott King, Martha Stewart, Donald Trump, Billy Joel, Warren Burger and Ted Kennedy.”
Modern Family Business
Of course, while the establishment has consistently appealed to the A-list (onetime Miami Beach residents Madonna and Jennifer Lopez are fans), Joe’s has undergone myriad changes over the years, a great deal of them occurring during the stewardship of Sawitz and his mother (and Jesse Weiss’ daughter), Jo Ann Bass. They began their beloved takeaway business in November 1987, and shipping claws nationwide became a bona fide element by 1995. The pair has also added two sister restaurants with the help of their partners in Chicago and Las Vegas. But, says Sawitz, “The biggest change besides our size is that we started serving lunch in 1979.” Since then it’s been a midday Miami staple.
Back in 1998, Joe’s also hired an executive chef for the first time. “Chef André [Bienvenu] has upgraded the menu by leaps and bounds, and taken some of the pressure off the stone crabs,” Sawitz reports.
|Lunch regulars usually opt for aisle tables|
That movement away from stone crabs as the beall and end-all of the place has meant a much more successful off-season. “This summer we experienced a significant spike in business from our Mexican and South American visitors, as well as a lot of locals who don’t usually eat at Joe’s during the summer,” Sawitz says. “Breakfast at the takeaway has spiked, too.” The breakfast options reflect that move away from a crab centric menu, with omelets, cornflake French toast and a crab-free breakfast wrap all among the specialties. Crab lovers will still find plenty, however, such as Joe’s egg supreme—toasted brioche with layers of poached eggs and crab cakes, all dripping with a lemon hollandaise sauce. Given that variety and the reasonable prices, with most takeaway breakfast options costing less than $10, the demand is hardly surprising. A major part of Joe’s legacy is its staff: There just isn’t the kind of turnover emblematic of Miami’s more transient service industry. One waiter, Nat Allen, has been there since 1968, and 20-year stints are not uncommon. The average is about 13 years. “My niece’s husband has been with Joe’s since the early ’80s,” Sawitz says. “James Jones—we call him ‘Bones’—has been at Joe’s since the ’70s. He’s our seating captain. He got the nickname because he used to be a tall, skinny guy. Used to be. The name doesn’t really apply anymore, but it stuck.”
Opening day this October will mark the restaurant’s 99th season. In anticipation of the centennial, they’re working on a website dedicated to Joe’s memories. “We’ll have customers participate and contribute their own stories,” says Sawitz. “I have some friends who’ve worked with the historical society who can help.”
Indeed, Sawitz seems to have friends in all sorts of high places—just like his mother and his grandfather. But when asked which big name he’d like to see in the place who has yet to show up, he begs off. “I really love it when people come in with their families, and with the kids— you know, the average Joes.”