In a city that prizes flash and novelty, Joe’s Stone Crab has thrived for over a century.
Here’s the strangest, possibly the saddest, certainly the most unexpected sentence to ever leave my mouth: “I’ll have the cod.”
I’m ordering lunch at Joe’s Stone Crab and I’m very surprised to not be ordering… stone crab. Joe’s, the oldest and most famous restaurant in Miami, is also my favorite restaurant, by some distance. Every time I’ve been here, I’ve ordered stone crab. And I’ve been blissfully satisfied. Every time.
Stone crabs aren’t an obvious call. They’re kind of watery, kind of neutral in flavor. Stephen Sawitz, who I’m having lunch with, and who is the fourth generation of his family in charge of the restaurant, has called stone crabs a delivery device for mustard sauce.
I still love them, absolutely. I love the way they’re served cold, which differentiates them from lobster or, say, blue crabs, at least as we usually eat those crustaceans. Stone crabs walk along the ocean floor from the Carolinas to the Cayman Islands, but they are principally plucked off the southern tip of Florida, which matters, too. Stone crabs are our regional dish, Miami’s unique food.
There’s a smooth efficiency to the operation at Joe’s: the claws arriving pre-cracked, the tuxedoed waiters zipping around with a clockwork consistency that never feels robotic. The simple wood chairs and white tablecloths and the tile floor in the dining room all appear unchanged over the 110 years Joe’s has been open, though I know things have been updated. The place is classic, like a palm tree, like Coca-Cola in a glass bottle. A meal at Joe’s is one of the great pleasures of life.
Which is why I’d eaten here just three days ago. With my wife, on a Saturday night. We did the whole traditional thing. A gin martini and a Moscow mule in the bar as we waited for our table, stone crab claws, hash browns, no spinach for me please but yes to the coleslaw, and a couple beers, and yeah, a slice of key lime pie for the table.
“Joe’s has its own DNA. It has to grow, but the way we grow is by finding better systems. We always have to get better at what we do.”
Back now so soon, I feel obligated to explore the rest of the menu. The fried chicken is popular. Our waiter highlights the ginger salmon. On Sawitz’s recommendation I’m trying the cod, same as him, though he orders his fish “burnt, burnt, burnt. Burn it to hell.” (“It’s impossible to burn,” he says when I question what he’s doing. “It’ll be fine. They know me here.”)
I’ve returned to Joe’s, and am eating white fish with Sawitz, because I’d been asked recently what restaurant in Miami is trying to be the next Joe’s. Who’s trying to build something to be handed down for generations like Joe’s has been? The more I’ve thought about it, with the exception of perhaps Versailles in Little Havana, I don’t think anyone is trying to be the next Joe’s. That’s not to imply that people in Miami aren’t doing astounding things, in food and beyond, but just that the city can at times feel immune to nostalgia, a place bent more toward perpetual reinvention than on protecting its institutions.
“The Seaquarium?” Sawitz asks, mentioning the aquarium where dolphins and sea lions have been putting on shows since 1955, before quickly removing it from consideration. “Nah, nobody goes there anymore.”
After 102 years, Tobacco Road surrendered Miami’s first-ever liquor license when the iconic bar made way for a shopping mall. Burger King started here, and technically retains headquarters near the airport, but it’s really just a brand in a portfolio that has passed through conglomerates in Britain and Brazil before its latest stop in Canada. Crypto exchange FTX? We all knew how that was going to end.
“Miami is the flashy girl in a red dress,” Sawitz says. “What’s sparkling? What’s new? That’s all it seems to be in the restaurant world, too. It’s always the newest, latest, hippest, and hottest. And, you know, we’re not. We have to embrace who we are and not try to be who we’re not.”
One of the great things about Miami—and it really is a great thing—is how wide open it is. Move here, from Paraguay or Philly or wherever, and become someone else. Conjure up some scheme. There’s little to stop you, no establishment to fight through. It’s still a frontier. Opportunities abound.
Accordingly, it can feel like everyone is harvesting the city, extracting what they can before bolting. Or dying. Or, often, ending up in jail. “They build it to sell it,” Sawitz says. “My family, we’re almost Japanese in the way we think in terms of generations. We want to be open for 200 years.”
He mentions his nine-year-old daughter, and how she may take over the restaurant in time, if she wants. His grandmother ceded control of Joe’s to his mother who ceded the operation to him, though she stays involved at age 91. A different family member runs the take-out side of the operation. Another serves as chief financial officer.
“Back in the ‘60s they were thinking about this place in the ‘70s, the ‘80s, the ‘90s, about how to grow deliberately, methodically,” he says, explaining how the family accumulated land around the restaurant, a plot here, a small cottage there, when the beach was a rundown retirement endgame, God’s Waiting Room. That enabled them to expand the restaurant when the beach revived. Shipping crabs nationwide has become a profit center. A licensing arrangement enabled them to spread the Joe’s brand to Chicago, D.C., and Vegas, but in a way that ensures that the real-deal experience remains where it’s always been.
“We are heavily concentrated on the one restaurant that’s been in Miami, on Miami Beach, for 110 years,” Sawitz says. “There are phenomenal restaurateurs out there that are, you know, light years beyond us in a lot of ways. I get it. But Joe’s has its own DNA. It has to grow, but the way we grow is by finding better systems. We always have to get better at what we do.”
“Better systems,” Sawitz explains, means perfecting the routine facets of the operation. Payroll. The ordering systems, the accounting systems. “Ordering systems” involves analyzing what is served every night, every hour, to pinpoint not only how many crabs they’re serving, but how much of each ingredient they’re using in every dish. This data informs smart purchases of, say, parsley for the jumbo lump crab cakes.
“It’s those kind of things that help us manage time,” Sawitz says. “Then you can grow. Then you can train better. Then you can mentor better. It just frees people up to do things they should do instead of putting out fires all the time.”
Sawitz offers an example of touring musicians at a soundcheck. Incredible, experienced musicians like Aerosmith or Paul McCartney —he’s dating himself—go through the same sound check before every concert, as they have for decades. They play the same notes and monitor the same feedback to make sure the concert goes off as it should. That attention to detail, over and over, is what it takes.
“Miami is the flashy girl in a red dress. It’s always the newest, latest, hippest, and hottest. We have to embrace who we are and not try to be who we’re not.”
“I’m a firm believer in entropy,” he continues. “That if things are left on their own, without shoring them up, they will just disintegrate and become more chaotic.”
That sounds like a fine descriptor of Miami’s base state. There are systems and structures here. I get an electric bill every month. But fundamentally, naturally, it’s anarchy. Maybe this year, maybe 30 years from now, a beastly hurricane will hit us head-on and that will be it. Joe’s. The port. That new mall that killed off our favorite bar. All gone. We all live with this reality, are cosmically shaped by it, and deploy just enough magical thinking to ignore it and go about our business.
For Sawitz, there’s also the more immediate possibility that he personally could blow it, run it into the ground, or forfeit his legacy to some hedge fund that will beancount the DNA out of the building where his great-grandparents lived above the dining room. “I’m grateful that we’ve built a really good team,” he says. “But you can lose it. You can. There are no guarantees.”
He doesn’t want to lose it, he tells me. He doesn’t want there to be a fire sale, should he die tonight in his sleep. He’s still planning for the next century. “I would prefer, if I live to 95 or whatever, until my dying day, I would like to still be part of the restaurant. It’s part of my identity, whether I like it or not.”
The cod is excellent, by the way. Tender, flavorful, not at all burnt to hell, at least on my plate. Don’t know if I’ll ever order it again, though. Joe’s is a rare treat for me, a place I can’t afford to visit often. Crypto bros could eat here every meal before the implosion, but for me it’s a milestone marker kind of place. Whatever the anxieties of living in this city, I’m counting on Joe’s to endure.
As are many others. Joe’s remains among the highest grossing restaurants in America. Books have been written about how deeply people have bonded with the place. Why so much love for this one restaurant, the first ever on Miami Beach? Sawitz talks again about attention to detail, about focus, about deliberate, incremental growth. He starts to again mention the solid team he’s assembled but then stops abruptly, as if enlightened.
“Because it’s here,” he says. “It’s here to love.”