Joe’s Take Away shop is beside the main restaurant

If Johnson had written down the names of every celebrity, sports star or elected official—including U.S. presidents—who cracked a claw at Joe’s, he’d have a list as long as Alligator Alley.

Joe’s Stone Crab, the classic restaurant oasis where Miami’s South Beach soiree sheds its swim trunks and thong bikinis and yields to tuxedoed servers, opened for its’ 111th season on Friday, October 13, 2023.

“It is Friday, the 13th, but everyone is lucky because Joe’s is opening!” said Brian Johnson, who has worked at Joe’s for 43 years—many of them in the general manager role he has described as “chief cook and bottle washer.”

Those who manage to secure a table at Joe’s Stone Crab on opening night, or any night, are lucky indeed, or patient. With no reservations, the wait for a prized table, after giving your name to maître d, Ed Witte, can resoundingly be described as tantric.

The setting in which to wait is exciting though, with a full dark bar and outdoor, fauna-filled courtyards. Fiction novelist Elmore “Dutch” Leonard and radio host Larry King probably never had to wait for a table, but if they did, they sure would have enjoyed the colorful people watching.

For those in a hurry, the 500-seat, white tableclothed seafood star has evolved over Johnson’s years to be accessible in creative ways, including an elaborate, adjacent take-away shop with dine-in capability and mail order shipping at JoesStoneCrab.com or 800-780-CRAB.

Cheers to Brian Johnson (left) from Michael Patrick Shiels (right)
Cheers to Brian Johnson (left) from Michael Patrick Shiels (right). Photo by Michael Patrick Shiels

An Early Endorsement for Brian Johnson

Early in his career, Johnson recalls serving “The Great One,” comedic television and movie star Jackie Gleason, who called him over to the table. “You’re gonna do great, kid,” Johnson recalls Gleason telling him. Even Ian Fleming’s 007 James Bond character described dining at Joe’s as his greatest meal ever.

If Johnson had written down the name of every celebrity, sports star or elected official – including U.S. Presidents – who cracked a claw at Joe’s, he’d have a list as long as Alligator Alley, which he’s driven many times to Naples to check-in on Joe’s fishing boats. 

“In less than 12 hours the crab claws go right from our fishery to our restaurant where the guys with the wooden mallets are cracking them by hand. All you have to do is peel them like a hard-boiled egg. Can it get any better than that?” Johnson asked.

Only by dipping the sweet, chilled crab meat into Joe’s creamy mustard sauce, I’d say.

Stone crab claws cracked
Stone crab claws cracked. Photo by Michael Patrick Shiels

Season on the Brink

Joe’s opening day is like an annual holiday that signals the South Florida social season.

“Stone crabs are seasonal. They go from October 15 to May 1,” Johnson reminded me. “That gives the crabs time to produce more claws. They are the only shellfish in the world that are not killed when brought up from the traps.”

One claw is removed and the crab is returned to the sea to regenerate a claw.

“We used to close for eight weeks – we only close for two or three weeks now – to put the restaurant back together. It is an older property and requires some T-L-C. You always want to look good when its stone crab season,” Johnson explained.

In the off-season and summer Joe’s operates in a limited capacity offering dinner five days a week and lunch three.

“Once the season kicks in, we go seven nights a week for dinner – opening at 5 p.m. until 10 or 11 p.m. – and lunches Wednesday through Sunday from 11:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. And Joe’s Take Away will be open seven days from 11:30 a.m. until 9 pm.”

Johnson worked every corner of the room for 43 years
Johnson worked every corner of the room for 43 years. Photo by Michael Patrick Shiels

Brian Johnson Retiring From Joe’s

“43 years is a long time. It is time to put my feet up and get a little bit of a breather,” revealed Johnson. He is retiring as general manager of Joe’s Stone Crab, America’s top-grossing independent restaurant, which is a family business. “The family has been understanding. Turn happens in the business. ‘Ms. JoAnne Bass is in her 90’s and that is my third generation. She totally got it.”

Many of the servers and staff at Joe’s have worked there for decades. They are famously paid well and treated well, so it is not at easy place to leave, even for Johnson.

“I will be around, but not very much. I want my crew and managers to step up and take over. They are going to do a great job because they have been working at it for a while. They will be on-point,” Johnson insisted.

Joe’s jumps. I have seen, and this is no exaggeration, a team of busboys turnover – completely empty and prep a new table with linen, cutlery, and glassware – in less than 30 seconds. It was like watching pit row at the Indy 500.

Joes Stone Crab key lime pie
The restaurant could just as easily be called Joe’s Key Lime. Photo by Michael Patrick Shiels

Enter “Pepe”

Jose “Pepe” Uchuya will succeed Johnson.

“Pepe is going to be bouncing back and forth from the Take-Away to the restaurant now. He is doing both,” Johnson explained. We have worked together for a lot of years. He is very capable and his knowledge is amazing.”

I have seen Uchuya calmly, and in a very friendly manner, oversee the many moving parts of the Joe’s Takeaway operation, which, itself, is a lively collision of a gourmet store, souvenir stand, bar, private dining room, and indoor/outdoor restaurant. He is an amiable gentleman who smiles…and yet sees it all. 

 Joe’s is an iconic South Beach destination restaurant.
Joe’s is an iconic South Beach destination restaurant. Photo by Michael Patrick Shiels

Next Gen Joe’s

Johnson, who lives in North Miami Beach, has a big family and many of them came in. “They teased me about retiring because I am the first one to do it.”

He’ has two dogs, a lady-friend, and head full of ideas, so Johnson has plenty to keep busy with. He has always been very community-minded.

“I might do a little consulting, but I am also going to do some teaching at the high school. 32 Dade County high schools have a program to get the kids into hospitality. Maybe I will feed them Joe’s famous key lime pie first thing in the morning. There is nothing like it!”

Read more of Michael Patrick’s work at The Travel Tattler and contact him at [email protected]

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