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Tampa Bay Times

Try these 3 iconic Florida restaurant experiences

By Susan Taylor Martin,

Joe's Stone Crab in Miami Beach ships stone crabs throughout the United States. [ MCP_ | Courtesy of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau ]

Tampa boasts two of Florida’s most iconic restaurants: Bern’s, consistently ranked as one of the nation’s best steakhouses, and Columbia, which pays homage to its claim as Florida’s oldest restaurant with its 1905 Salad. As you travel elsewhere in the state, here are three other legendary restaurants to try.

Joe’s Stone Crab, Miami

Joe’s is arguably Florida’s most famous restaurant. It’s the kind of place where decades later customers still vividly recall the first time they beheld those wondrous mounds of cracked crab claws.

“In 1975 I was 18,” wrote Buddy Mazzenga of Springfield, Pennsylvania, one of hundreds of customers who have contributed memories to the restaurant’s website. “(On a trip to Miami) we went to Joe’s Stone Crab and what I remember most was the waiter carrying a tray of claws that seemed like it was 36 inches wide stacked with claws 24 inches high.”

“Joe” was Joseph Weiss, a Hungarian-born immigrant who moved from New York to Florida for health reasons in 1913. He first ran a lunch stand on Miami Beach, then in 1918 he and his wife, Jennie, started what for eight years would be the only restaurant on the beach. Among the customers was gangster Al Capone, who went by the name Al Brown.

According to a history of the restaurant, Jennie heard someone mention that “Brown” was actually the gangster. One night she walked up to him and said: “Mr. Brown, you’ve always been a gentleman and anytime you want to come into this restaurant you can.” That so touched Capone that every Mother’s Day a truck pulled up with flowers and a banner saying “Good Luck Mother Joe’s.”

The restaurant attracted a well-heeled crowd, drawn by a variety of fish and meat dishes but no stone crabs. Joe was convinced no one would eat them until a Harvard scientist doing marine research in the area brought a sack full of live crabs into the restaurant one day.

“My dad threw the stone crabs into boiling water and that was the beginning,” Joe’s son Jesse recalled. “The bay was full of them! When we started serving them chilled and cracked with hashbrown potatoes, coleslaw and mayonnaise, they were an instant success.”

With the charismatic Jesse eventually taking over from his parents, Joe’s became a must stop for everyone famous who came to Miami — the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Gloria Swanson, Joseph Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover. It continues to attract celebrities but also tourists and locals celebrating special occasions.

The cavernous restaurant serves fresh stone crabs during the season, which runs Oct. 15 to May 1; frozen ones are available the rest of the year. Prices range from $49.95 for medium-sized crabs to $134.95 for jumbos. (The original price was 75 cents for four or five crabs.) The menu includes fish, steak and chicken dishes, and you can bring your own wine for a $20 corkage fee.

For those who can’t make it to Joe’s, crabs can be shipped overnight. Among the happy customers has been Karen Gordon of Salt Lake City, who wrote:

“Christmas Eve dinner at our house! Nobody ever comes to dinner for the company ham I fix! They do not come for the potatoes. Not even the presents! We’re from Utah. We have a lot of siblings and they all come for the crab! Thanks Joe’s for doing such a great job making our Christmas special.”

11 Washington Ave., Miami Beach.

O’Steen’s Restaurant, St. Augustine

O’Steen’s motto is “Famous Southern Fare,” and Southern it is with hush puppies and chicken gizzards. But this small, unpretentious restaurant is especially beloved for its fried seafood including oysters, shrimp and scallops with homemade sides and pies.
O'Steen's Restaurant has been a fixture in St. Augustine since the 1960s. [ Timmy Colee ]
O'Steen's Restaurant in St. Augustine is known for its fried seafood plattters. [ Timmy Colee ]

“If you think you have a reservation and want to pay by credit card you are in the wrong place,” reads one of many five-star reviews. “If you want great food from an independent restaurant, not a chain of restaurants, this is your place. Good food, good service and busy all the time because people like it so much.”

As an independent restaurant, O’Steen’s has a few quirks — it’s closed Sundays and Mondays and is cash only. Prices are moderate, with many seafood dishes under $20. There’s no beer or wine, only tea, coffee, milk, soft drinks and pink lemonade.

Osteen’s was started in 1965 by Robert and Virginia Osteen. He had worked at the Florida East Coast Railway until it went on strike. Figuring the strike wouldn’t end soon, the couple went into the restaurant business. The menu has remained relatively the same over the decades, and many of the employees have worked there for more than 20 years.

205 Anastasia Blvd., St. Augustine.

McGuire’s Irish Pub, Pensacola

If O’Steen’s is the epitome of an alcohol-free family restaurant, McGuire’s is the opposite — an establishment that touts its “feasting, imbibery, debauchery.”
McGuire's Irish Pub in Pensacola features traditional Irish food and live music. [ Dakota Parks ]

Opened in a shopping center in 1977 as a neighborhood pub, McGuire’s moved five years later to Pensacola’s original 1927 firehouse. The 615-seat restaurant is decorated like a turn-of-the-century New York Irish saloon. What makes it unique are the more than 1 million $1 bills signed by customers and covering almost every inch of the walls and ceiling.
McGuire's Irish Pub in Pensacola is decorated with more than a million $1 bills signed by customers. [ Dakota Parks ]
Almost every square inch of McGuire's Irish Pub in Pensacola is covered with $1 bills signed by customers. [ Dakota Parks ]

Adding to the touristy feel is a gift shop with McGuire’s T-shirts, caps, shot glasses and the like. But the restaurant, which offers live Irish music, won a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence last year. It has been featured on “The Today Show,” is in Florida Trend’s Hall of Fame and comes “highly recommended” by AAA and other travel guides.

Relative bargains are to be had early in the day — $9.99 lunch specials — and from 11 p.m. to closing time with half-price draft beer and house wine. The extensive menu features traditional Irish dishes like lamb stew and shepherd’s pie, and befitting McGuire’s claim as “one of America’s great steakhouses,” there are USDA-certified prime steaks.

Customers can also choose from among 20 types of burgers and try for the Alka-Seltzer Award. Eat three burgers and get a McGuire’s T-shirt — and an Alka-Seltzer.

600 E Gregory St., Pensacola. There is also a McGuire’s Irish Pub in Destin at 33 U.S. 98.

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