“People call and say, ‘I have a three-hour layover, can I get in and out?’ ” Johnson said. “I say, ‘As long as your bags are checked, come on in.’ ”
When sitting President George W. Bush dined in 2006, the restaurant was only given three hours’ notice. Bomb-sniffing dogs roamed the dining rooms; sharpshooters were perched on the roof; and Secret Service agents and White House security officers stood at the doors, Johnson said.
Even for regular guests, a long wait is often in store, particularly on weekends, when the restaurant greets as many as 1,800 guests nightly. Patrons often fill the bar and garden areas on busy nights, waiting hours to be seated.
Next door, Joe’s Take Away offers a faster, more casual experience and takeout, staying open until one hour before Joe’s closes. It opened in its current location in 1995 and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Jim Heins is a fixture for breakfast at Take Away, eats dinner in the dining room at least once a week — and even moved from Coconut Grove to South Beach to be closer to Joe’s.
“I can’t wait [for it to reopen]. I’ve been jonesing for the fried chicken for five months now,” said Heins, who owns Latin Burger and Taco. “The staff all know you and take great care of you. It’s the best.”
Though Joe’s menu is varied, it is still best known for its claws.
“When anybody thinks of stone crabs, you think of Miami, and when you think of Miami, you think of Joe’s Stone Crab,” said Michael Sanson, chief editor of Restaurant Hospitality Magazine, a national trade publication. “It’s a legendary restaurant.”
Ranking as one of nation’s top-grossing restaurants, Joe’s amassed $33 million in revenue last year, with the greatest growth coming from Take Away and shipping, said Chief Financial Officer Marc Fine.
Joe’s also supplies its crabs to licensed restaurants, which are owned and operated by other restaurateurs. Called Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak and Stone Crabs, they operate in Chicago and Las Vegas, with a third, in Washington, D.C., scheduled to open next year.
Behind the scenes
Behind the scenes in South Beach, a corridor leads to a warren of cooler rooms — one each for produce, stone crabs, fish and meat — and prep areas where cole slaw is cut and potatoes are boiled. Oyster-shucking and stone-crab-cracking takes place in its own space, with refrigerated pass-through shelving. Upstairs, a full laundry runs with a staff of 10 to care for the restaurant’s linens.
Joe’s is a 24-hour, seven-day operation. A typical day begins at 6 a.m., when the wholesale division and the Take Away staff arrive. The dining room’s kitchen crew starts to filter in at 7 a.m., with the last staffers leaving at midnight or later. Then overnight, the cleaning crew takes over.
“Running a restaurant is like a new movie every day,” Bass said.
Last year, Joe’s served 350,000 patrons in its dining rooms, despite a rough year for stone crabs, when the supply was off statewide, Fine said.
It’s too early to know how this season will shape up.
“You don’t know until the traps go in the water,” Fine said.