If you were to design the perfect food, what would it look like, what would it taste like and how would it exist in the world around you? If you contend that there is no such thing as a perfect anything, you still might have to concede Florida stone crabs are very nearly perfect. Perhaps that’s why they’ve helped define Miami’s food culture by way of one special restaurant and a now century-old partnership that’s brought fortune and fame to both.
What’s so special about Florida stone crabs? Besides their firm yet flaky meat that’s sweet to taste, like lobster but not quite so rich, stone crabs are also a little magic.
The crustaceans are defined by their rock (or stone)-hard claws, black-tipped, plump, and full of the good stuff, but what separates them from their crab cousins is a distinct ability to regenerate said claws quickly and completely, when carefully separated from the carapace (body). Magic.
Stone crabs are hauled in from southern Florida waters by the boatload from October through May to be measured for legal size, declawed, and released to regrow more of the prized pincers. A single crab, with lifespans as long as eight years, can give as many as six or seven meaty claws all while enjoying a full life, interrupted only by the occasional divorce from appendage. A gift from the sea but one that uniquely keeps on giving.
For Floridians and those who seek its warm pleasures, stone crabs are as synonymous with the state as sunshine or college football. For the last several decades, a towering restaurant wrapped in pale yellow stucco and perched on the southern edge of Miami Beach has itself become synonymous with stone crabs.
Joe’s Stone Crab, or “Joe’s” to any self-respecting local, has earned its rightful place as gold standard in Florida Stone Crab culture. And with its doors having opened officially in 1913, is quite literally older than Miami Beach itself, which incorporated a full two years later.
Originally a lunch counter called Joe’s Diner, the restaurant was first opened by a Hungarian immigrant couple, Joe and Jennie Weiss. It wasn’t until the 1920s when the restaurant found its footing selling previously scoffed-at Stone Crabs. On a whim, Joe started serving them boiled and chilled with lemon and a (now famous) mustard sauce. Folks started coming in and they haven’t stopped for the better part of an astounding 105-year run and just last year Joe’s was ranked the second highest-grossing restaurant in America.
In 1931 after his death, Joe’s hyper-social son, Jesse, took over and helped cement his father’s legacy in the American food pantheon by courting influentials like J. Edgar Hoover, Gloria Swanson, Damon Runyon, and Al Capone. On any given evening, starlets and politicians could be found rubbing elbows and dipping claws in mustard sauce as cool jazz fought its way through hot Miami air.
The regal dining room with high ceilings and white tablecloths still invokes an era with rolling red Cadillacs and fat cigars and though it has seen an evolution over the years, it’s never been at the expense of its trademark vintage South Beach charm. To this day, during official season, plates of Stone Crab (sold at market prices) stream out of the kitchen with sides like conch fritters and creamed spinach as a perennial line at door grows longer.
As the legend of Joe’s grew, so did that of it’s cornerstone offering. Always famous for seafood, stone crab-specific joints began popping up in South Florida and, as October hit and northern air cooled, bands of snowbirds began hopping on trains and in cars from New York and D.C. looking for warm sand and sweet stone crabs to crack.
In 1943, Golden Rule Seafood opened its doors across the bay and south in a slightly more humble digs and has been mostly family-owned ever since. More recent additions to the Miami stone crab scene include Truluck’s, which slings stone crabs in a more upscale setting with pricing to match. For true titans, Truluck’s offers an all-you-can-eat stone crab feast with salad and bread for $79 every Monday, while the more understated Triad’s in Everglade City, a town which claims ownership of the birth of stone crab cuisine, lays out a similarly endless offer.
Many of the restaurants, including Joe’s, now own their own boats and fisheries to keep stone crab supply and quality under careful control. From catch, to cook, and finally to plate, Joe’s claims agency over the product at all times, something they know is becoming more and more important to even casual diners.
Stone crabs as a species offer a lot but demand a little extra in return too. Brian explains that while a softer blue or Maryland crab might splinter and cut you if not careful, a stone crab will absolutely break your tooth or jaw, so care is encouraged. He’s even recorded a video tutorial on how to crack a Stone Crab here and help out first timers.
Down in Florida, the stone crab craze is hardly a craze at all, if that somehow implies a beginning, furious middle and eventual fizzle, like with drop crotch pants or Cronuts. For stone crab in Florida, the furious middle is all there is and ever has been and it shows no sign of slowing. The’ve even named a local minor league baseball team the Charlotte Stone Crabs, just in case there was any confusion.
Each and every fall, Everglade City marks the start of stone crabbing season with a ceremonial blessing of the fleet that resembles a block party fit with with lively games and music. This past year’s was somber on the heels of a hurricane season which devastated much the region and hammered the fishing industry, but the town went ahead with it anyway; a tribute to the importance of stone crabs to their local livelihood and a true symbol of regional pride.
Back at Joe’s in South Beach, the fervor takes its own unique forms. The restaurant and its staff, many of whom have been working inside the walls for more than 30 or 40 years, brim with a pride all their own at the chance to talk about Joes’ legacy. Their dedication is as much of what makes Joe’s special as the crabs themselves.
Brian tells me stories of devotion to Joe’s from patrons, which quickly reach Victorian levels. “This one guy,” he remembers, “will regularly fly in all the way from Alaska for just a day or two, eat four straight meals at Joe’s, and fly home.” Another long-time regular and former pilot for the now defunct PanAm Airlines, Charles Sharp, has since passed on. Oddly, or so I thought at first, the restaurant has a picture of his gravestone hanging on their wall. Engraved in the stone just below Mr. Sharp’s name and birth/death dates reads one very simple quote, “I’d rather be at Joe’s”.
Header image courtesy of Joe’s Stone Crab Restaurant.