What would Joe Weiss think? Would he even recognize it now? When he fried his first fish at his sandwich joint about a century ago customers had to take a boat from Miami to reach the sandspur-covered barrier island. Inside the rickety eatery, sweating profusely, hungry patrons swatted away ferocious sand flies.
Joe and his wife, Jennie, didn't get rich. That happened later, after the day in 1921 when a marine biologist showed up with something interesting in a bucket. "You ever eat these?'' the biologist asked.
Joe, born in Hungary, studied the hard-shelled critter and admitted he hadn't. In fact, he knew nobody who had eaten one and had no idea how to cook one. In the kitchen, he did some experimental boiling. Then he took a swing at the mystery product with a hammer.
Inside the broken shell was white, sweet meat better than any fancy Maine lobster.
That's how Joe's Stone Crab came to be. The Columbia in Ybor City is older, but Joe's is arguably Florida's most famous restaurant. For 100 years, America's rich and famous have strolled into the dining room. Frank Sinatra? Check. Madonna? Check. Muhammad Ali? Of course. J. Edgar Hoover? Him too. And on the other side of the dining room, only a few feet away from the glaring G-Man, sat a swarthy fellow with a prominent scar on his face.
Before we say more, we should tell you that Jennie Weiss managed the dining room and that by every account she was the toughest, most uncompromising woman in Florida. If she caught a male customer with a woman who wasn't his wife, for example, she tossed the cheater out. In an often told story, she once brushed off President Warren G. Harding's request for a better table and seated him elsewhere.
But that guy with the scarred face? She liked Al Brown, as he called himself. "Mister Brown, I must tell you something,'' Jennie told him. "If I don't like somebody, I don't allow them to come in here, but you've always been a gentleman, and any time you want to come into this restaurant you can.''
Mister Brown — known to J. Edgar Hoover across the restaurant as Al Capone — thanked her kindly. For years afterward, he had flowers delivered to "Mother Joe'' on Mother's Day.
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Joe and Jennie are gone, of course. But their fourth-generation kin are still running the South Beach restaurant. It's hardly a little shack anymore. The big Spanish architecture building at 11 Washington Ave. can seat 450 guests when it's open between Oct. 15 and May 15, stone crab season. At night customers sometimes wait hours to be seated. The crowd's a little thinner during the day.
You can't bribe the maitre d' to be seated faster. It's a firing offense, in fact. However, many old customers tip generously on the way out. Joe's maitre d's are known for their photographic memories. At least one takes copious notes about generous customers and keeps them in the drawer of his stand.
Of course, if you're a celebrity, you might be seated immediately. Bill Clinton never waits. Nor does Billy Joel or Jimmy Buffett, Martha Stewart or Coretta Scott King. Will Rogers didn't have to wait. Nor did Damon Runyon, who ate at Joe's when he wasn't thinking up scenes for Guys and Dolls on Broadway. "They sell claws by the carat,'' he once wrote of Joe's. Ian Fleming, who wrote the James Bond novels, was a great fan of the restaurant. In Goldfinger, he changed the restaurant's name to "Bill's on the Beach," where 007 ate "the best meal of his life.'' Sean Connery, a Joe's regular, might have said the same.
Last year Joe's grossed $33 million. Only the Tao Restaurant and Nightclub in Las Vegas took in more. The average tab for a Joe's Stone Crab meal is $80 per person. That includes claws, a couple of side dishes, a dessert, perhaps a modest glass of wine.
"I had my first meal at Joe's when I was 13,'' bragged Stuart Blumberg, sitting at his table near the bar recently. He's 76 now. He eats lunch at Joe's every Friday at the same table. Today he has salmon on his plate.
Some folks order fish or meat, by the way. But for most it has to be stone crab claws. Joe's boasts its own fleet of boats in the Everglades and the Keys. Refrigerated trucks deliver 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of claws, already cooked, to the restaurant alley every morning at dawn. Before lunch, Eugene Greene starts cracking them with his deft hammer. "It's an art,'' he explains. "If you hit them too hard you'll splinter the shell into the meat.'' He has been honing his skills at Joe's for 43 years.
Chef Andre Bienveno, a Joe's newbie — he has worked there only 14 years — oversees a staff of 100. "The idea is to make everything you eat, whether it's the spinach or the potatoes, memorable,'' he says.
In the kitchen, Esther Salinas has been baking Joe's signature apple pies for almost four decades. That delectable mayonnaise-mustard sauce for dipping the crab meat? Renele Sejour has been using the same recipe for three decades. Fifty gallons a day, in case you're wondering.
Dull work? Perhaps, but the benefits are good. A salary, profit sharing, three bonuses a year, your meals and a parking discount on parking-challenged South Beach. If you're a waiter, count on big tips.
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Rose McDaniel manages the dining room now but started as a cashier — in 1962. When she passes away, she expects to be buried on the premises. There's precedent. The ashes of a late waiter, Phil Grier, may he rest in peace, were scattered in the flower garden inside the restaurant.
Rose didn't know Joe, but she knew Joe's son, the late Jesse Weiss, who inherited the restaurant from his parents. As a young waiter his shining moment was the day in 1926 that Al Capone tipped him a C-note. Jesse rushed to the horse track and blew his hundred smackers on a single race. A compulsive gambler, he also enjoyed adult beverages and female company.
Jesse's long-suffering spouse — Grace Weiss was wife No. 5 and No. 7 — died in November at 98. Grace more or less raised Jesse's daughter, Jo Ann Bass, who owns the restaurant now with her son Stephen Sawitz, who grew up baking bread and apple pies and keeping Jesse's hands out of the till.
Out in the elegant dining room, it's chaos. At least that's how it looks. But general manager Brian Johnson, at Joe's the last 33 years, has things under control. He presents a smooth and elegant face to the public — to the waitstaff he's part drill sergeant. At the morning meeting he tells his waiters: "If the busboys put the tablecloths on crooked, you straighten them out. If a salt shaker is dented, you replace it. It's your store. Understand?''
There are 75 waiters, dressed in tuxedos. They're elegant and international in background. One, an Italian, speaks fluent Japanese should the situation require it. Others can converse in French, Spanish and Greek. Nat Allen, who has waited on tables since 1968, could speak gangsterese. He always waited on the late mobster Meyer Lansky.
Janine Ostow, a server for two decades, is famous for her grace under fire.
She didn't mind being followed all night by a Secret Service agent, but she did balk when the president, about to dig into his crab claws, asked, "Do I really have to wear a bib?"
"Yes, Mr. President,'' Ostow said, doing the honors. "You are in my house tonight, and I make the rules.''
George W. Bush left the restaurant with a spotless shirt.