Adventures from Back of Beyond

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Once You're in, You're in

Joe's Stone Crab, a decades-old restaurant in Miami Beach, South Beach to be exact, is one of America's iconic restaurants. It's not just the claws (they don't serve the entire crab), which are served cold; it's the quality of all the other food. The delectable sides, the sauces, the desserts.

That, and the atmosphere. The place probably holds several hundred, and has a great raucous atmosphere. Loud and fun. On any given night the place is packed. It is probably the number one restaurant in the entire Miami area in which to see and be seen. For celebrities, politicians, and professional athletes, Joe's Stone Crab is a must.

And for us as first-time visitors, this restaurant was a definite must-see experience. I called about a week prior for reservations, and was told "no reservations" accepted at Joe's Stone Crab. Well, OK. We'd go on a Monday night. Not a real busy night in the restaurant world, right?

We arrived in South Beach in late afternoon, checked into the fine Betsy Hotel, where to our pleasant surprise, we found a nice bottle of champagne on ice, with two glasses, waiting on arrival.

We proceeded to drink that entire bottle up on their roof deck, overlooking Miami Beach and several huge cruise ships as they departed from the port of Miami to the open sea and their Caribbean destinations.

So, with half a bottle of champagne under my belt, we walked the mile or so to Joe's Stone Crab. By the time we arrived it was about 7:15 p.m., later than we'd liked. It was, we discovered, prime time.

People were milling about on the sidewalk, spilling out of the restaurant. A large bar and inner foyer waiting area were already packed to the gills with diners ahead of us waiting for a table.

Sharon proceeded to check us in. How long of a wait for a table?

"An hour to an hour-and-a-half," we were told. Ugh. No way would I wait that long.

So, on a champagne-fueled impulse, I got in line to talk to the hostess, really anyone I could find, to see what could be done. I had no idea what could be done, but I wanted to try something. Anything. I wasn't going to wait that long, and I definitely hadn't made it this far to not dine at the fabled Joe's Stone Crab.

I was several persons back in line, discouraged and hungry, when I happened to catch the eye of a man who appeared to be the head maitre d'.

I didn't know who he was, exactly. But he was impeccably attired in a tux, with a completely shaved head. He had the demeanor of someone in charge. He had a friendly face, the kind of face that just looked familiar to me, like he was someone I could be friends with.

A place this busy has lots of staff running around. I didn't know who this guy was, but of their staff I can tell you this : they were all men, and like many high end dinner restaurants, no women at all except for the hostess talking names. All were very professional, impeccably dressed, and went about their business efficiently.

So somehow, while standing in the hostess line, I happened to catch the eye of this guy. I tentatively smiled and held up two fingers, as if to inquire "table for two?"

To my utter amazement, he waved me over. I got out of line and walked to him.

He said, "wait here," and pointed to a spot on the floor near the entrance to the dining room.

I waited. Sharon wasn't around at this point, but soon returned. I told her what happened. She was amazed too. But, our maitre d' friend was nowhere to be found for a few minutes. I gave up, and got back into the hostess line.

Next thing I knew the maitre d' returned. We spotted each other and he again motioned me over. I got out of line again and walked to him.

This time he said, "wait here. I'm going to take care of you." Then he walked off again.

Sharon had witnessed all this, and there could be no confusing his intention this time. We were both incredulous. I was hoping he meant what we thought he meant. We waited a couple of minutes, and began thinking about the phrase "take care of you" and what that implies in a service profession.

There is no doubt what the phrase "take care of" means in a service profession. Yes, he'll take care of me, and I would then be obliged to take care of him. I'm thinking ka-ching ka-ching about now, but how much is cutting ahead 90 minutes in line worth? I started feeling a bit uneasy thinking about the appropriate amount. I had no idea.

The next thing I knew Sharon was walking into the dining room, loud and busy and raucous. I followed closely behind.

Everything was happening very quickly now. Our maitre d' friend passed us off to one of two assistants that actually seated people. As I walked past him, I tried to hand him a bill. He wouldn't accept it. He told me, "not now, afterwards."

Oh, my. The cost was going up by the minute.

As we walked into the huge dining area filled with busy tables, Sharon asked a question to the man seating us. I didn't hear the question, but I heard the answer:

"Once you're in, you're in." And he smiled at us.

I felt immensely relieved by that answer. I could relax, for now, and enjoy the dinner.

We were seated at one of the best tables in the house. Sharon, a former food service professional in a high end jazz nightclub, knows the restaurant business inside and out, and knows a good table when she sees one.

The meal was excellent in every regard. We had the crab of course, but especially memorable was the key lime pie, the best we had in all our travels through the Sunshine State.

After we finished dining and paid our bill, Sharon stopped at the restroom. I waited outside and got my bill ready to fulfill my obligation.

Sharon returned and we started walking out. We happened to pass our matre d' friend enroute and I discretely put the bill in his hand. This time he took it.

I thanked him profusely for a great dining experience and for taking care of us. He thanked me in return and mentioned in parting, "it was great seeing you again."


We would later debate the meaning of that. Was it said reflexively, or had he mistaken me for someone else? Perhaps a certain celebrity I am said to resemble?