Joe’s Stone Crab, Miami Beach
July 2016 in Britain: political chaos, gloom and doom, a divided nation, worries about the future and even the heavens seem to be weeping incessantly. Whatever happened to summer, BBQs in the garden, cold beer and pretty summer frocks? Dressed in our jeans and jumpers, we’ve already segued into the second half of the year, the nights are gradually drawing in and in just about a month’s time Harrods will open it’s Christmas department and the countdown will begin, even though we’ve not even had the opportunity to get our flip flops out of the wardrobe! Well, thanks for nothing, ye weather gods!
Now Miami, here we’re talking! Glorious Florida where you wake up every morning to blue skies and sunshine, where everything is permanently bathed in a golden glow and the warmth infuses your chilled English bones! Sure, right now it’s official hurricane season, but serious hurricanes rarely occur and the rest of the time the living is certainly easy. I’m not denying that there’s also much to send a shiver down your spine, the Trump problem, the gun laws, the medical system, the lack of education, the poverty of large swathes of population, BLM and many serious issues besides, but when I lie beside my cousin’s pool in Coral Gables, all that is forgotten for a moment and my world shrinks into sun soaked, self indulgent bliss.
There’s small chic Merrick Park Mall, where you can shop till you drop for summery clothes that are prettier and cheaper than at home, casual and cute little restaurants for a quick and easy bite, the super trendy Design District (www.miamidesigndistrict.net) nearby, the beaches and fishing of the Florida Keys just down the US – 1 and, of course, fabulous, fabulous Miami Beach, half an hour from Coral Gables, just over the MacArthur Causeway.
South Beach is where the beautiful people congregate, the stunning young women with their model figures and their sun streaked or cornrowed locks whizzing past the Art Deco splendor on their roller blades and the cool dudes in their polo shirts, board shorts, Vans and aviator glasses. From real life stars of screen and sport to penniless wannabes, this is the place to hang out and sample Miami cool.
Smack in the middle of this, right on the beachfront is the famous, the legendary, the one and only Joe’s Stone Crab Restaurant. And don’t you know it, there’s a long queue of excited and hopeful looking diners snaking from the entrance out onto the beach promenade. I’m told that you can’t book a table and that normal mortals may have to wait for up to two hours to get a table. The place is so popular that they seem quite happy to do that. This, apparently is THE South Florida celebrity haunt and that it’s great for people watching. I can’t say I recognise anyone, even though supposedly this is where the likes of Bill Clinton, Madonna and Martha Stewart like to eat when they are in town, and, of course, they don’t have to wait for a table! Ian Fleming liked it so much that he incorporated it into his novel ‘Goldfinger’ as Bill’s on the Beach, where James Bond has the best meal he’s ever had. Surprisingly, it’s all very casual. Nobody has dressed up for the occasion and diners look as though they’ve come directly from the beach, dressed in shorts and little sun dresses, sand still in their toes.
It’s a huge joint, with one enormous room leading into another. 75 tuxedo clad waiters serve the diners and, so I’m told, they have photographic memories and never forget a good tipper. Clearly, I am with one of those, so we get led straight past the queuing hoi polloi who stare at us in wonder desperately trying to fathom where they might have seen our faces before, straight to our table. Now that’s a turn up for the books and I feel mighty special!
Joe’s was established by Hungarian immigrant Joe Weiss in 1913, initially as a fish restaurant, though some years later he came across the locally plentiful stone crabs and realised that the meat in their one big claw was tender, succulent and sweet and quite put the more northerly Maine lobsters to shame. Better still, stone crabs regrow this claw after it’s ‘harvested’, making it a very sustainable source of food. The claws are served with plenty of butter and Joe’s famous mustard mayo. It’s a messy kind of meal, so the restaurant thoughtfully supplies paper bibs to catch the juices and butter dripping off chins.
Claw crackers at the ready, the seven of us tuck in without much ado. There are seven orders of stone crab, accompanied by several more of hash browns, creamed spinach, stuffed clam, coconut shrimps, calamari fritti and, just to be good, a token salad to get through, plus a seriously good looking bread basket, so a meal here is not for the faint hearted! And for pudding, well what else but a Florida Key Lime Pie? The table groans and it’s a true blue American family feast, with stars, stripes and bells on!
Needless to say, in this location the shell fish is about as fresh as you can get, probably caught just hours earlier. The salad is forgettable, super finely shredded and drowning in an acidic vinaigrette, the deep fried items nice though perhaps a little too heavy on the breadcrumbs, but the crab claws are divine in their juicy meatiness coupled with the creamy tangy mustard mayo, the cracking and picking and poking adding anticipation and ritualistic enjoyment to the eating. The Key Lime Pie is no slouch in the dessert department either and, despite being full to the gills, it goes down supremely well.
Joe’s is not the place to linger over a coffee after a meal. The almost hectic background buzz makes it hard to have a conversation, the cavernous restaurant with its dark wood furniture and panelling blanking out the Florida sun and the scores of people yet waiting to be seated add a sense of urgency. You eat till you can barely move and then you get up and go. Nonetheless, it’s certainly a memorable experience, especially in the company of a fun group of people, cholesterol infused and calorific as it undoubtedly is. We pay around US$80 a head, expensive by American standards, for this very substantial meal, including various soft drinks, a few beers and a couple of glasses of wine, then we virtually roll home on our happy full stomachs, to have that much needed shot of caffeine poolside under the twinkling stars.