There’s a secret about Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami that’s so dangerous, so protected that the people who took me there for dinner do not want to be identified.
I could’ve chosen, of course, just to write about the meal like any other meal; focusing on the food instead of the secret, but the secret to me is almost as fascinating as the stone crabs are delicious. In fact, you’ll be waiting an hour and a half for stone crabs if you don’t know the secret.
See these people? They don’t know the secret.
Joe’s Stone Crab doesn’t take reservations. If you show up during stone crab season (October 15th through May 15th), you are going to encounter hordes of people clustered in groups, sadly eyeing the dining room and wondering why some people who step into the foyer are greeted with a kiss by the maitre’d and ushered straightaway to a table.
The answer is: $$$!
Here’s how it works. When you go up to the maitre’d stand, greet the maitre’d like you know him (it’s almost always a him) and when you shake his hand, attempt to give him $20. He’ll most likely say, “Get me on the way out.”
But once that transaction has happened, you’re golden. Suddenly you’ll be ushered to the front of the line and the maitre’d will use a walkie talkie to summon another maitre’d who will lead you to your table. The key, though, is that on the way out, you actually shake the maitre’d’s hand and give him the $20. If you don’t, you may very well be blacklisted.
If you find all of this unlikely, do what I did: stand near the maitre’d stand where people are exiting. Over and over again, you’ll see customers with $20 bills wadded in their hands approach the maitre’d, shake his hand and thank him for a wonderful meal. It’s a South Florida ritual.
Why do they take the money on the way out but not on the way in? Legally, on the way in it’s a bribe; on the way out it’s a tip. And that’s how Joe’s Stone Crab’s been doing things for 98 seasons.
As for the food, don’t go for the basket of bread, though the onion rolls are pretty tasty:
And don’t go for the chopped salad, which has some interesting things going on (peanuts, feta, olives):
You go for the stone crabs:
Glorious, sweet, succulent South Florida stone crabs.
I’ve spent a lot of time with opinionated crab people (see this video), but since most of them won’t read this far, I’ll let you in on a secret. I’ve had Baltimore blue crabs. I’ve had Dungeness crabs boiled straight out of the water. I think Florida stone crabs are right up there. You get so much bang for your buck; they’re closer, in taste and flavor, to lobster. But sweeter and more tender.
Dipped into the mustard sauce they give you on the side, this is some sublime eating.
And yes, the key lime pie has its good qualities too:
But you can get that anywhere. What you can’t get anywhere is a platter of fresh stone crabs like the stone crabs you get at Joe’s Stone Crab.
Just don’t forget to tip the maitre’d on the way out; or you’ll be waiting so long for a table next time, crab season will be over.