Over the years, Princess Caroline of Monaco, former Presidents Bill Clinton and both George Bushes and actors and singers like Sean Connery and Madonna have all flocked to the venerable Joe’s Stone Crab. They’ve come for the delicate claws, French-fried sweets, hash browns, Key lime pie and much more, served up with a century of tradition.
It all begins again at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, as the world-famous South Beach eatery swings open its doors for the season, celebrating its 100th anniversary.
“It’s an institution,” said Jo Ann Bass, 81, whose grandparents started the restaurant in 1913 and who now owns it with her son Stephen Sawitz and other family members. “To the outside world, Joe’s is a restaurant — an expensive restaurant. And the truth of the matter is it’s so much more than that.”
At Joe’s, it’s the family atmosphere and deep camaraderie among the staff — who hustle to serve the business people, bankers, lawyers, judges, artists and others who come back year after year — that helps make it distinct, insiders say.
Leonard Abess is a third-generation Joe’s regular, who has been eating Sunday-night dinners there since he was a child.
“It’s our favorite food,” said Abess, who plans to be there this Sunday. “The service is just outstanding, and the waiters have been there forever. There’s not a lot of turnover, so you get to know the people working there, which is nice.”
In fact, Joe’s boasts dozens of employees who have been carrying trays, cooking or managing the restaurant for decades, and many have brought in their own family members to join in the fray.
Sous chef David Salina’s mother, Esther Perez, has been making Joe’s apple pies for 28 years; sous chef Hector Lopez got his start when his father was a server.
And executive chef André Bienvenu has brought in his son, a Florida International University hospitality management student, to cook at night during the season.
“It’s really my employees that make me come back year after year,” said Bienvenu, 47, who has led the kitchen staff for 14 years. “In October, the freight train pulls in the station and you enjoy the ride.”
Tuesday marks the first day back at work for the bulk of Joe’s 380 employees, who, except for a skeletal staff, have been away for months. Joe’s season ended May 15, and it reopened a week later, with about 150 staffers, operating on a limited schedule through July.
Server Nathaniel Allen, 68, was among the hundreds who came back for “roll call” last Friday. Joe’s longest-tenured employee, Allen started as a busboy in 1966.
“It’s a home,” he said, surrounded by the hubbub of the kitchen. “When I started, there were less than 50 employees. Now there are almost 400.”
Ready to rock
During the offseason, the walls have been painted, the wood trim restained, an area of new flooring installed, and all 650 chairs redone with new paint and upholstery.
It’s all ready to welcome customers, including celebrities who can often be spotted among the crowds in Joe’s four dining rooms. Just in the past year, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Al Pacino, Robert Redford, and Billy Joel all dined there, said Joe’s General Manager Brian Johnson, who started in 1980 as a waiter. Others in recent years include Woody Allen, Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Prince Andrew, Martha Stewart and Mohammed Ali.