By Melissa Bryant
I take my seat next to Stephen Sawitz, COO of the legendary Joe’s Stone Crab eatery and great grandson of its iconic founder Joseph “Joe” Weiss for an interview. We gaze up at a large vintage photograph hanging over the dining area picturing Joe and his wife Jennie standing on a dirt road in front of their modest seafood and specialty diner in 1918. The pastoral scene resembles a more tropical version of Grant Wood’s American Gothic oil painting (without the pitchfork). Thom Mozloom, a longtime family friend of the founding family who has joined us for lunch, remarks on how South Beach back then looked nothing like the “sexy” Miami we know today. This is because when Joe’s Restaurant first opened after the turn of the century, it was one of the first businesses to exist on the island of what was then unincorporated Dade. Stone crabs were not on the menu. Instead, locals and fishermen came in for a taste of Joe’s fish sandwich and fries.
All In The Family
“About 101 years ago, my Hungarian-born great grandfather, Joe Weiss, was a waiter in New York,” said Sawitz. “He was an asthmatic and his doctor recommended he check out a warmer climate. So he borrowed $50 from his life insurance policy and took a train down to scout out Miami Beach. I remember him saying he chose South Beach because he could breathe better.
“Joe dreamed of opening his own restaurant one day. First, he would run a lunch stand at Smith’s bathing casino, a winter resort spot where vacationers would rent lockers to change into their swimsuits — the long ones with the stockings so iconic to the period — before going in the ocean or pool. His wife Jennie, a restaurant cook, and son Jesse eventually came down by train. In 1918, the family moved into a bungalow near the casino on Biscayne Street — a home that soon also became Joe’s Seafood.”
For eight years, Joe’s was the only restaurant on the beach to serve seafood This attracted a diverse crowd of patrons and social elite, including Will Rogers, Amelia Earhart, Gloria Swanson, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and notorious Chicagoan mobster, Al Capone, who dined under an assumed name, Al Brown. Joe’s son Jessie once said, “My mom was a tough old broad. She reminded me of some of those old Zane Grey books, where the madam is tough as hell but all heart. If she didn’t like you, she wouldn’t let you in. Let’s say a man was married and coming in with his wife. Then, another time, he’d try to come in with his girlfriend — out! She’d just as soon say, don’t bring your tramp friends in here.” Jennie knew of the nefarious rumors surrounding “Mr. Brown.” One day she said to him, “I must tell you something. If I don’t like somebody, I don’t allow them to come in here, but you’ve always been a gentleman, and anytime you want to come into this restaurant you can.”
“That’s basically how the restaurant operates,” said Sawitz. “If you’re behaving, you’re fine.” Capone showed his gratitude by sending Jennie a truck full of flowers every year for Mother’s Day.
Moving on Up
As Joe’s popularity rose, the couple decided it was time to expand. They built Joe’s current location with an apartment upstairs where the family lived. Today, the apartment is used as an administrative office for bookkeeping, but Sawitz can still remember spending time upstairs with his grandfather Jessie. “I can still picture him fast asleep on that bed with a book lying open on his chest and wearing disheveled glasses.” It’s also been said that Joe’s grandmother would watch the dining floor from her apartment window, and if she saw empty plates sitting at a customer’s table too long, she’d personally go downstairs to take care of it.
“Stone crabs became known in the late ’20s because my great grandparents brought them into the restaurant. They were a very unique item to South Florida because they were pretty much only found down here,” said Sawitz. “We were the first restaurant serving them that I know of. Fishermen didn’t know what they were or if they were even edible, so they just left them in the water.” In 1921, entrepreneur James Allison built an aquarium at Fifth Street and Biscayne which opened on New Year’s Day. Allison invited a Harvard ichthyologist down to research the mysterious crustacean. The marine scientist visited Joe’s one day for lunch and brought along a burlap sack full of live stone crabs. “Have you ever cooked these?” he asked Joe.
He hadn’t. But in an effort to try, Joe threw the crabs into a pot of boiling water. It worked! “In addition to boiling stone crabs, Joe came up with something that’s just as important: the mustard sauce for dipping,” said Sawitz. “It is the exclamation point for the stone crab. Our recipe for the mustard is so simple it’s not even funny and it has stayed the same all this time. Here are the ingredients: Hellmann’s Mayonnaise, Colman’s dry mustard powder, Worcestershire sauce, A1 Steak Sauce, light cream, and salt to taste if you’re inclined.”
Joe’s diners are so in tune with these distinct flavor profiles, they are usually the first to point out a deviation in the recipe. “Imagine how you would react if Mickey Mouse changed something,” Sawitz joked. With Miami in constant flux, it’s comforting to know that Joe’s Stone Crab will always remain true to its roots as a tried and true local family establishment.
Stone crab season runs from October 15 to May 15 – during which getting a table is well worth the wait at Joe’s Miami Beach
location at 11 Washington Ave., Miami Beach, FL 33139. But if you can’t wait, there is a takeaway service nationally and internationally.