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Joe’s Stone Crab opens for season

Visitors James Burgess and fiancee Ciel Kim waited all afternoon for stone crabs at Joe’s. The verdict: “It’s excellent. Better than the crab in Kuwait,” said Burgess, who until recently lived in the Middle East.

The couple — stranded in Miami after missing a flight from Kuwait to Sarasota — heard about South Florida’s near-century-old institution and came for lunch, only to find that on opening day, the Miami Beach restaurant wouldn’t open until dinner.

“We waited six hours because we heard it was so good,” Burgess said.

Because the official start of stone crab season isn’t until Monday, the crabs served Thursday were frozen from last year’s supply. But that didn’t stop Burgess and local fans from getting an early jump on satisfying their cravings.

Fisherman in the Florida Keys and the Gulf Coast will start harvesting the crabs on Monday, which will arrive at Joe’s Stone Crab Tuesday. Lunch services also begins on Tuesday.

Prices opened at the same place where the season closed on May 15, ranging from $25.95 for medium claws to $71.95 for jumbos. Prices for the official start of the season will be set next week.

“I imagine we’ll be pretty close to that,” said Stephen Sawitz, chief operating officer of Joe’s and the third generation of the family to run the restaurant. The family also owns a fishery in Marathon and one in Everglades City. “But I have to listen to the fisherman and hear what they have to say. Of course, they want it to be higher. It’s really a compromise and negotiation.”

This season is a special one for Joe’s, 11 Washington Ave., which is gearing up for its 100th anniversary celebration. The lunch counter that Joe Weiss started in 1913 has grown into an approximately 450-seat restaurant that today has become a national icon.

The centennial kicks off in January and runs to Oct. 15, 2013. Fans are invited to share their favorite Joe’s Stone Crab memories on the website www.joesmemories.com. The best stories could result in free dinners. Preliminary plans for the anniversary also include a documentary film, a book and some collector’s memorabilia.

But one thing it won’t include is a big anniversary bash.

“Out of tens of thousands of customers, how could you do an invitation list?” Sawitz said. “Too many people would be offended.”

Stone crab sales at Joe’s and elsewhere took a hit during the recession, as consumers passed up luxury items. But last year, Joe’s sold 300,000 pounds of stone crabs in Miami Beach — with another 100,000 in partner restaurants in Chicago and Las Vegas, Sawitz said.

Roger Duarte, owner of George Stone Crab, is banking on business climbing this year. Last year he sold about 25,000 pounds of crabs through home delivery, which he guarantees 24 hours from the ocean to your door. This year he’s also expanding with the opening of My Ceviche, a seafood counter and delivery service dedicated to Miami Beach in partnership with Chef Sam Gorenstein. They’re already taking pre-orders for Tuesday delivery online at www.georgestonecrab.com.

“People will eat more stone crabs that last year because the economy has picked up,” Duarte said. “When people come to Florida this is the first thing they want. Florida is represented by stone crabs and oranges.”

Miami Herald staff writer Marsha Halper contributed to this report.

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