Cell phone in hand, I make my way through D.C.’s crowded rush hour streets. Amid the teeming bodies, I’m attempting to walk and type, tying up loose work ends. My clothes wilt in the late August humidity; my hair hangs limply around my face, the morning work of the blow dryer and straightening iron long forgotten. I may arrive harried and in shambles, but I don’t care. I’m going to my favorite restaurant in D.C. Nay, one of my favorite restaurants in the world. And everything’s all right.
D.C. is one of the few lucky places (Las Vegas and Chicago, too) to have a Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab. A version of the original, famous Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami, the D.C. Joe’s runs more toward a swanky steakhouse vibe than beachy cool. Paul’s family lives in Southern Florida and it had long been our intention to visit the original Joe’s and hob knob with the host of celebrities and athletes who frequent there. A visit never materialized on any of our trips to Florida, so we decided to master our own fate and go to our local Joe’s. I can count the better life decisions I’ve made on one hand. Since our first visit, we’ve returned to Joe’s countless times. An embarrassingly high number of countless times, actually, relying on it for birthdays, anniversaries, and celebratory (and non-celebratory) meals of every stripe. Now that I work down the block, it’s even an option for impromptu happy hours.
I arrive and a maître de offers to take me to my table. We walk past the happy hour crowd packing the large wooden bar and high top tables. Enormous, ornate marble columns break up the bar area and light streams in from the large windows. I feel like Lorraine Bracco being guided by Ray Liotta through the Copacabana’s subterranean passages and back kitchen to emerge stage side at their restaurant seats. We pass the bar, turn a sharp right, and walk through the parted draperies into the downstairs dining area. Much like that classic Goodfella’s Steadicam shot, a visit to Joe’s always feels like that to me—tying together scenes from a bygone era, moving from the modern world outside to a Rat Pack-era steakhouse replete with white linen table cloths, plush private banquettes, dark mahogany wood, solicitous wait staff, and bars stocked with row-upon-row of gleaming liquor bottles. Cue Tony Bennet’s “Rags to Riches,” and prepare to see Sinatra and Dean Martin sharing a shrimp cocktail and clinking martini glasses. Much like Scorsese’s Karen in Goodfellas who in that scene gets her first tantalizing glimpse of her beau Henry Hill’s world of luxury and back alley deals, Joe’s was one of the first truly expensive, classy establishments Paul and I ate at and each time I go I recall the wonder of being in, and being able to afford, such a place.
The waiter guides me to our four top. Paul and our friends N and NP are already seated waiting for me. This is their first time and we can’t wait to show these Joe’s virgins the score. As we review the menu, we pass around the bread basket. A variation on the Parker House roll for Paul, jalapeno cornbread for me—best not to mess with tradition. N tries the crackly cheese cracker and pronounces it very similar to an Indian papadum. We sip freshly made mojitos and old-fashioneds. Joe’s mojitos are perfection—generous chunks of ice, smooth quality rum, a few sprigs of whole mint, and just enough sweet syrup. They’re favorites of ours and no matter how many other drinks we try, we always return. For round two, I break course and order another favorite, the Hemingway Daiquiri. Hemingway didn’t fuck around when it came to booze and this mix of rum, maraschino liqueur, and fresh lime juice is one of the few cocktails I know will put me on my ass quickly, if not well-paced.
Our superb waiter Warren, a dead ringer for comedian Kevin McDonald, offers to bring us a tray of stone crab in order to compare the varying claw sizes. We marvel at the positively prehistoric Colossal claws and decide, both for budget and belly room, to each order one large claw. N, a vegetarian, starts with an order of the cottage potatoes—thinly sliced, fried potatoes covered in parsley and flaky sea salt. Pro tip: Joe’s creamy, spicy mustard sauce goes with everything, not just stone crab. It jazzes up cottage fries, it makes steak sing. When the waiter comes to remove our sauce along with the stone crab shells, I have taken to hiding the tiny silver ramekins, so they too don’t go in the back with the assorted detritus of our meal. Paul assures me they’ll bring me more, if I ask. But I don’t want to take any chances.
For our mains, the table convinces me to try the bone-in filet mignon. With its crisp sear, salt-and-pepper crust, and medium rare interior (even rarer near the bone), the order doesn’t disappoint. Paul selects the Alaskan King Crab roll weighted with chunks of sweet, tender crab delicately dressed in the thinnest whisper of lemon and mayo.
N orders vegetarian tacos, which are good, but I’m too busy in meat and seafood Shangri-La to give veggie tacos any mind. NP orders surf and turf, a classic Paul and Kathleen order. It comes with a modest filet and a lobster tail, both cooked to succulent perfection.
For the table, we split tomatoes baked with spinach and cheese, macaroni and cheese, and creamed spinach. The macaroni and cheese blends 4 types of cheese and its molten interior is a joy to behold. The surprise best side comes from the spinach which is decadence in its purest form, as the greens have yielded to the nutmeg and the heavy cream and any bitterness has transformed into something unctuous and warm and satisfying. Transitioning from cocktails, NP selects a Cab and Paul and I both drink light, crisp Beaujolais to break up the fatty heaviness of the meal.
Much like the 1960s businessmen who used to inhabit places like this, slurping a dangerous number of martinis and unabashedly eating artery clogging red meat, we’ve given ourselves over completely to the mores of the era. We order, not one, not two, but five slices of pie. Half slices, of course, as we’re all watching our girlish figures.
Since being introduced, Paul never wavers from ordering the chocolate fudge pie with its layers of thick ganache-like filling and lighter mousse; I’m a devotee of the luscious, mouth puckering key lime. N and NP ordered the Boston cream, the peanut butter, and the banana. We find blending bites of each pie stole the night—chunks of real banana combined with the whipped peanut butter pie prove a stroke of genius.
Stuffed full, we pay the check delighting in Joe’s participation in the Lettuce Eat program’s bonus points. We earn 3x times the points on our meal meaning we have plenty of dollars to use for future Joe’s purchases. And, with a wedding anniversary happening in October, we’re sure to be back to Joe’s soon.