A local TV station once asked me to comment on the restaurants its viewers had voted the best in South Florida. Joe's Stone Crab, now in its 102nd season, was an easy one. It happens to be one of my all-time favorite restaurants.
"We don't even have museums that old in South Florida," I told the reporter. "'Institution' doesn't begin to describe the tenacity of Joe's."
I love Joe's because it reminds me of the first restaurants I went to as a child, with its uniformed captains, maitre d's, waiters, waitresses and busboys. Joe's runs with a kind of military precision, each staff member all too aware of his or her position in keeping the wheels turning.
I love Joe's because my dad worked for more than 40 years in this kind of restaurant. To this day, he decries restaurants that don't supply trays and folding stands. Restaurants, he says, just aren't the professional places they used to be.
Then, there's Joe's, which is the only restaurant self-respecting fans of stone crab claws and Key lime pie ever need to visit.
I'd had stone crabs at another restaurant just a few days before my most recent trip to Joe's, and they were fine. But they weren't great. What is it about Joe's specimens (market price; $59.95 for five large claws the night I dined) that makes them so much better? Is it the care with which they're cooked? The meat never sticks to the shells. They're arranged like flowers on the old-fashioned heavy china that Joe's still uses. They're ice-cold. The mustard sauce can't be beat. If you're new to South Florida and don't know a stone crab claw from a blue crag leg, go to Joe's.
But there's much more on the menu, including some very fine steaks. They're hand-cut and aged in-house and then cooked in cast iron and finished with beef butter. There's a 1-pound smoked beef rib ($20.95) and baby back ribs ($27.95, full rack). The menu lists where each meat item was procured: filet mignon from Kansas, lamb chops from Michigan, rib-eyes and strips from Nebraska.
I can't go to Joe's without sharing an order of fried chicken ($6.95). For anyone who says Joe's is too expensive, come and eat half a fried free-range chicken for less than $10. You won't be disappointed. At lunch time, a chopped (tenderloin) steak is on the menu for $6.95. I like to start with fried oysters ($12.95), lightly breaded and fried, served with tartar sauce and a nicely spicy cocktail sauce.
At dinner, Lyonnaise potatoes ($9.95) are the way to go, with crispy shredded potatoes served from a warm baking dish. Fried asparagus ($11.95) is breaded in what must be bread crumbs and Romano and served with garlic lemon aioli. You'll be eating this aioli on bread.
Did I mention that Joe's has one of the best bread baskets around? Onion rolls, salt sticks and sliced rye bread are just a few of the carbs.
I love Joe's creamed spinach ($6.95), with its big dose of nutmeg. I like the grilled tomatoes with spinach stuffing and melted cheese ($5.95). I'm not a fan of the sweet-and-sour coleslaw ($7.50), but my tableful of co-diners finished off the entire serving.
And then, there's Key lime pie ($7.95), icy cold but never frozen, with the right amount of sourness and sweetness. It gets a big dollop of whipped cream. I have been known to visit Joe's takeout counter, where you can buy an entire pie. The brownie sundae ($9.95), however, is best eaten in the dining room.
I understand why Joe's can frustrate some diners. If you're not a regular, you'll wait, sometimes for two hours. Thankfully, the bar is a comfortable place with big cocktails and friendly bartenders.
Stay calm. Have a drink and watch how a century-old restaurant continues to delight.
Joe's Stone Crab
11 Washington Ave., Miami Beach
Cuisine: Seafood and steaks
Hours: Dinner daily, lunch Tuesday-Saturday
Reservations: Not accepted
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Boisterous
Outside smoking: No
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: $7 valet at dinner, $5 lunch