It’s tough to be objective about Joe’s Stone Crab, at least for this faithful fan of the Miami original since a first visit in the 1970s. The lure was the stone crabs, a rare Florida delicacy available only from October through May—Joe’s, quaintly, closed for the out-of-season months.
That was then. Today Joe’s is big business, so big that it opened a Washington outpost on Tuesday night with a guest list of 1,500, which has to be some kind of record for a DC restaurant opening.
The festive crowd, lubricated with premium brands of spirits and wine, feasted on platters of stone crabs, steak, crabcakes, oysters, and hash browns. If they wanted more, they got more.
Joe’s turned from big to bigger business thanks to a partnership that began more than a decade ago with Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, a Chicago-based restaurant group that operates, according to the group, more than 90 restaurants, including Mon Ami Gabi in Bethesda and Reston.
LEYE opened the first Joe’s franchise, in Chicago, with an embellishment to the name. Joe’s became Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab—not a bad move, given that parts of the country that aren’t Florida are more familiar with steak than stone crabs. Plus, steak allows the restaurant to be open year-round. Chicago was a success; Las Vegas followed.
Joe’s announced its arrival in Washington last October, and Joe’s fans (I’m not alone) jumped with joy. The location seems like a winner: the old Union Trust Bank Building at the corner of 15th and H Streets. At the time, LEYE’s Mike Rotolo said in an interview that building out Joe’s in the vaulting bank space would “pay homage” to the bank design, and it did, with a stunning, solid, classic interior featuring lots of wood, marble, and leather.
“We’re like Joe’s 2.0,” Rotolo said.
At the opening soiree, both the downstairs and upstairs bars were stacked with the best-known brands, including Maker’s Mark, Buffalo Trace, and Bulleit bourbon; Dewar’s and Jameson Scotch, Bacardi and Captain Morgan rum; Grey Goose vodka; and Bombay gin. A buffet upstairs offered stone crabs, steak, oysters, shrimp, and ceviche.
The lines were long, so if guests preferred to be seated and served, they could sit at tables downstairs as waiters brought ice-filled bowls topped with the same seafood assortment, then steak and potatoes, and spinach—and don’t forget Joe’s beloved Key lime pie. As long as you wanted to keep eating, the staff kept bringing food.
For well-funded seafood and steak lovers who want a piece of Joe’s, that ambition can be realized. Joe’s is looking for investors, at $50,000 for a full share or $25,000 for a half.
At least one fan of the crab legs said he was approached at the party with a chance to invest, but though he comes to Washington often, he said, “I’m not here enough” to take that step.
The investor model is common practice for some of Washington’s high-end restaurants. If nothing else, it gives the investor some bragging rights. To this day there are players who like to boast they were “founding investors” in the Washington Palm.
As for who attended the opening, it was too packed to tell, and the restaurant would not release a guest list. Suffice it to say that such a large guest list had to include many of the usual suspects, plus a number of Joe’s fans—with the exception of those well-off or just plain smart enough to be in Florida, perhaps at the flagship Joe’s. To them I say, you may have the heat and sunshine, but at least we now have our own Joe’s stone crabs.