Joe’s Stone Crab and the Art of Un-Fine Dining

Sexy Restaurants, Status Culture, and Why American Kitsch Never Goes out of Style.

Alexa Economacos
November 14, 2023

Leafy courtyards with outdoor tables and a stone fountain flank the main entrance, demarcated by a small red neon sign—“Joe’s,” scrawled in cursive—directly above where I stand. It’s lunchtime on a Wednesday. A plaque emphasizes the “casual but neat” dress code and I momentarily doubt if my outfit qualifies: jeans, low heels, and a t-shirt. I purposefully didn’t wear anything that would imply effort, for what I know to be a certain kind of tourist trap. I’d historically only ordered Joe’s from the takeout outpost next door, and yet the inside doesn’t surprise me: elderly chic, not so much referencing the past but stuck in it, per the retro garden chairs. The dining room is all-over mahogany; sturdy, sensible china; starched, white tablecloths; tiled floors; ladder-backed chairs with leather cushions; effusive waiters in tuxedos, and diners in bibs. There are no vibes or tasteful paintings, just food and tables. Even so, it’s packed.

Miami is known for coarse glamor, an obviously arduous attempt at refinement that is nonetheless considered trendy because it draws relentlessly from whatever is most popular at the time. So why has Joe’s sustained its reputation as the city’s legendary mainstay, a requisite recommendation for newbies, despite being, ostensibly, the opposite of fashionable?

The delicious irony of Joe’s is its physical location, situated in an enclave of South Beach teeming with swanky eateries—including Forte Dei Marmi, Milos, INTIMO, Papi Steak, and RED—that cater to flashy followers. Joe’s is the virgin face in a sea of plumped and chiseled clones. It is confident in what it has always offered. Not just good food, and not old-money luxury, precisely, but something closer to Lily Pulitzer than Loro Piana: old-money, American kitsch, which never goes out of style.


As the name itself suggests, Joe’s Stone Crab is a straightforward establishment. Created by the eponymous Joe Weiss and his wife Jennie in 1913, Joe’s began as a casual counter serving fish sandwiches and fries. In 1921, an ichthyologist suggested Joe try cooking the local stone crabs, which nobody knew were edible. After some experimentation, boiling and then serving the crabs chilled alongside hash browns, coleslaw, and mayo proved a winning formula that has lasted over a century. Joe’s morphed into a Miami staple and nationally renowned dining destination, attracting a gamut of public figures, from Al Capone and Amelia Earhart to Will Rogers. The menu eventually grew to include a range of conventional dishes—burger, Caesar salad, crab cakes—but the star is still the humble stone crab.

While its ritzy clientele has largely dwindled, Joe’s remains a go-to for wealthy, usually older natives as well as tourists of both the well-heeled and corny variety. The space adheres to a recognizably outdated niceness: Joe’s inhabits a slice of the past, an island unto itself on the literal island of Miami Beach, untouched by trends and conspicuous extravagance. It still lives in the area’s well-maintained Art Deco heyday, pre-Depression and then pre-war, along with the pastel hotels on Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue lit up neon. Joe’s is kitschy in a different way, of course—less stylized than its neighbors, but just as intentional in its nostalgia.

New expats or a Gen-Z tourist crowd seeking seafood would likely instead flock to Sexy Fish, a stateside outpost of the London original, featuring overpriced and minuscule portions; thumping perma-club ambiance; a gargantuan topless mermaid relief along the ceiling; a similarly massive octopus sculpture clinging to the adjacent walls; and a central cluster of fish-shaped chandeliers, gossamer tails trailing mid-air. But with sexy comes competition: glitter is bound to dim once a shinier counterpart inevitably arrives.


In the popular imagination, Miami’s substance is its surface. Tanning, spinning, shopping, clubbing, stripping—life here orbits a doctrine of beauty, and the restaurants follow suit. Dining out is about being seen, preferably in a setting that compliments your new outfit, or nose. By dutifully surfing shifting trends, this vision of Miami maintains its glitzy glamor, a brand of disposable newness that is never actually disposable, because it is so adaptable and tenacious. It just revolves. Groot Hospitality, for instance, a prominent Miami-based restaurant group, takes the title of “group” quite seriously; they churn out spaces so similar that it takes concerted effort to distinguish them from each other. They have perfected the nouveau riche aesthetic with environments of mass-produced luxury—velvet banquettes, marble bar countertops, moody lighting, gilded everything. Even the Northeast transplants with less homogenous design choices coast on hype, scarce reservations, and photographable ambiance. The food and service often fall to the wayside. If you have waited all month for your 8 p.m. table, you are more likely to forgive when the hostess forgets to fetch you at the bar thirty minutes later, or when the kitchen runs out of the Dover sole special at 9 p.m. Instances like these aside, “luxury” dining experiences in Miami have become, mainly, forgettable.

The real tragedy is not ostentatiousness, but replication. In the past few years, companies like London-based Caprice Holdings and Philadelphia-born STARR Restaurants have expanded to the 305, bringing a loud aesthetic that is designed to feel archetypally Miami yet is not unique to the city at all. Many of these “new” restaurants make you wonder why anyone would shell out the money to bask in a dimly lit dining room duplicated from its counterpart in New York. I venture to say it’s not worth it. But who am I to shoot down the appeal of comfort? If the New York stockbrokers or West Coast techies want their Sadelle’s and Carbone in the evening, or Sweetgreen and Salt & Straw during their lunch break, who am I to judge? Their new tropical paradise now feels like home. My home, however, feels unrecognizable.

The truth is, Miami’s formula has always been equal parts glitz and kitsch. In the reception area at Joe’s, a Romero Britto painting hangs on the wall opposite the hostess stand: it depicts a multicolored, striped, and polka-dotted stone crab over which “Joe’s” is emblazoned in red glitter. Britto created the piece as a gift for Jo Ann Bass, third generation of the Joe’s founding family, to commemorate the restaurant’s 100th anniversary in 2013. Britto himself is synonymous with a bygone Miami heyday—a particular brand of early aughts Lincoln Road excess that went hand-in-hand with True Religion or Ed Hardy and has now evolved into an excess of a more contemporary sort. Britto’s work is Miami-specific, both in and out of style. Joe’s shuns the kind of spectacle that made Britto a household name, yet the artist is known to dine there regularly. The painting’s proud presence within these antithetical environs is a fascinating nod to another demographic with which Joe’s coexists.

Miami has always been called a playground, and just like a playground, there are different types of children who come to play. What many have in common is that Miami is their socially acceptable place to act out: the Spring Breakers, the corporate chameleons, and the finance bros, who come for long weekends, in a rush, or at least in pursuit of one. They long for the exact brand of flashiness that their home city taught them to scoff at and nevertheless colonized elsewhere, creating environments just a flight away where they can misbehave without running into their employers. They work hard during the week and spend their leisure time just as aggressively. They require obviousness, in the style of Sexy Fish, to synaptically signal that the fun can begin.

And then there are the old money patrons, the sort who vacation often and slowly, who can take their time resting, who have a designated wardrobe of resort wear. Every day is a little like vacation, so their vacation doesn’t have to announce itself with glitter and gold, or stick out so much from regular life. They’re at home anywhere, even on holiday, because they take them so often. It also helps that everything feels like it belongs to them regardless of where they go. Their tastes are as old as their cash: classic, recognizable. Their unfashionableness is a power statement.

They don’t need sexy. They just need Joe’s. Like a stone crab, its niceness is wrapped in not niceness, which is what makes it so nice.


At Joe’s, it’s not the atmosphere itself that draws in droves of customers, but the message its old fashioned, utilitarian elegance sends: we are committed to giving you a great meal. And we know you’re not coming for the aesthetics.

The food is objectively delicious—and expensive. Innate in the no-frills fare is a respect for tradition and a corresponding refusal to bend to the refined staples that have overtaken restaurants across the country. The health-conscious boom of the mid-2010s didn’t make it here; you won’t find kale on this menu. You’ll start off with an old-school American bread tray. No organic, grass-fed butter in a custom mold—just wrapped diner packets in a green-rimmed white bowl. The only modernisms on the table are paper straws and Truvia packets nestled with the Splenda (a throwback that calls to mind my mother’s South Beach Diet days). If you ask for espresso, your server will offer you black coffee. The seafood salad features thick slices of cucumber and beefsteak tomatoes; no heirloom, cherry, or grape varieties in sight. But it’s undeniably fresh, crisp, perfect.

At the end of your meal, you will be charged a whopping $34.95 for that salad, handwritten on a retro paper check. Perhaps justified, as the servers make a show of giving you your money’s worth by bringing out a tall cup packed with lobster, shrimp, and stone crab before flipping it out onto the awaiting greens. And if you indulge in the signature stone crab meal with accouterments—creamed spinach, coleslaw, gloriously greasy hashed brown potatoes—you’ll be short at least $77.95 and up to $162.95, depending on the size of your crab claws and your dining party’s willingness to splurge.

What makes it so kitschy? The straightforward seafood menu and the restaurant’s location some meters from the water? The bright lighting? The broad smiles of everyone working, wide above their bow-ties? Regardless, it feels like you’re in a Frank Sinatra movie, someone on the verge of breaking into song. We’re hearing a lot these days about subtle, old-money luxury, and how its cashmere sleekness distinguishes itself from glaring Gucci belts. But old-money resort style isn’t minimalist. It is confidently utilitarian. Salmon shorts, boat shoes, polos, and in Miami, stone crabs. Enjoying, not performing, a vacation. We cringe at function so readily displayed, but Joe’s taught me that well-fed people don’t worry about who is cringing.


During my solo outings at Joe’s to write this piece, I felt out of place amongst the crowd, which was mostly older groups. I wondered what the staff thought of me, a woman in her mid-twenties choosing to eat here above a bevy of trendier options. I figured maybe this was a statement. That my values run deeper than image. That I am a practical person, spending money on substance over style.

I wanted to know who these practical people were. The bar staff showered me with stories about their memorable regulars, most of whom come at lunchtime on weekdays but not weekends. There’s an eccentric older writer named Andrew who will accompany his exceptionally fashionable mother Bernadette, or “Bern” as the staff fondly calls her. And then there’s “The Jims” or simply “The Guys,” or more comically, “The Chowder Society,” whom I learn occupy my current seat at the bar every Friday at lunch. These men, a group of ten that varies depending on who is off at their summer houses up North, are in their seventies to eighties, mostly retired, successful doctors and lawyers, and always begin their Joe’s experience with cocktails at the bar before moving to their table for (you guessed it) a round of chowder. Of course, Joe’s isn’t completely removed from the scene: many restaurant regulars include A-list culinary icons, including Martha Stewart, Guy Fieri, and Bobby Flay, who (according to the staff) make it a point to stop by Joe’s every year during the South Beach Food & Wine Festival.

The familial rapport at Joe’s extends to staff dynamics. Back in the restaurant’s early days, founder Joe Weiss would drive staff members of color home after work, since discriminatory Miami Beach laws policed their post-sunset whereabouts. Joe’s also provided employees health insurance, pensions, and profit sharing in the seventies. This ethos has persisted, as most Joe’s employees have worked there for decades; in fact, Cello (the bartender Marcello’s preferred nickname) jokingly calls himself a rookie after twenty years. There’s a palpable warmth amongst the crew that runs this ship. Words of affirmation—“you’re the best,” “great job there”—float through the bar and dining areas at any given moment. Maybe I noticed the welcoming spirit at Joe’s not because it’s necessarily exceptional, but because it’s so rare in Miami at large.

At Joe’s, preferential status isn’t bestowed on those decked out in Balenciaga, or who arrive at the valet stand in a Range Rover. Everyone who walks in is treated like family, even the cargo-clad middle-Americans who would be shunned at any other establishment of an equivalent dollar bracket. Joe’s is both a tourist bucket-list checkbox and the local spot where you know you’ll be taken care of. And Joe’s is, quite literally, a family affair: four generations later and it is still owned by the original Joe’s great-grandson, Stephen Sawitz. In light of these roots, you are treated as kin. Every patron who enters the restaurant is asked by the host and then by their server if it is their first time. If so, they are promptly briefed on the menu standouts (“We have a very famous key lime pie. Very famous”) in a way that is evidently rehearsed but feels personal and genuine. The immediate camaraderie Joe’s offers to its customers makes it clear that the title of “regular” is open to all.

My own family’s trusty neighborhood locale was an Italian trattoria on a corner of Sunset Drive in South Miami, not far from the newly renovated Sunset Place mall. That restaurant saw us grow up. When my parents divorced, they would alternate chaperoning my brother and me to our weekly rigatoni pomodoro, penne al salmone, and tiramisu—stable ground in our disrupted adolescence. It was un-fancy in a similar vein to Joe’s, white tablecloths elevating an otherwise bare-bones space: nice enough for a family meal after a ballet recital or graduation, but not so formal that you would be frowned upon for dining in your school uniform, as I often did. The restaurant is no longer there. I don’t remember exactly when it closed; we moved from South Miami in 2014, and the food wasn’t outstanding enough to merit a drive. It couldn’t master the dichotomy of a local venue like Joe’s that is always worth the effort.

Interestingly, despite the waiters knowing our respective orders every time we dined, my family never got anything for free at the Trattoria. Yet after just one conversation with Joe’s bartender Cello, during which we discussed our shared heritage and his recent trip to the Galapagos with his young sons, he gave me a second glass of white on the house. “From one Ecuadorian to another,” he said.

What’s funny is that it is Joe’s exclusivity—the price of its food and the absence of spectacle, filtering out the tacky flash-hunters—that permits its egalitarianism. The host doesn’t have to look you up and down, too cool for words, because he already knows you came looking for the right thing.


I left Miami nearly a decade ago, and have lived in New York, London, and now Los Angeles, all cities replete with tantalizing restaurants competing to be the most coveted reservation. I’ve been a part of those countless waves clamoring to try the next heavily photographed dish. We humans are conditioned to want what is difficult to obtain. We want to dine at the referral-only restaurant that doesn’t list their number online (looking at you, Bohemian). We want to say we ate the two off-menu pastas before one of the chefs fell into public disgrace (and you, Horses). Much like with romance, our senses are more heightened by mystery than accessibility. There’s pride in earning the thing.

Joe’s appears to be the kind of place I would typically avoid, embarrassment associated with unabashedly enjoying a restaurant so good and staid the recommendation has become basic. Yet, while many restaurants have lost the neighborhood spirit or never captured it to begin with, Joe’s has preserved it for a staggering one hundred and ten years. I thought it was an inherent gravitation toward restrained elegance that led me out of Miami. A disinterest in all the status games. Intentionally or subconsciously, I wanted to differentiate myself from the city that raised me, or at least part of it. But even if I physically escaped the crass extravagance, I learned I couldn’t escape status. That’s the game even the regulars at Joe’s play, precisely by not playing it.

During one weekday lunch rush, unclouded blue fills the arched windows in the front dining room, framing the body of an orange building that rises high above patrons digging into their stone crabs and cheesy stuffed tomatoes. That skyscraper is but one of many luxury residential developments that have come to dominate the oceanfront. Unlike the shiny condos, Joe’s doesn’t ask you to be anything but yourself. Come as you are. You’ll be treated like a member of The Chowder Society, and you will eat well.

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