The Everglades: Joanie’s Blue Crabs, 60 Miles from Civilization
By Jeff Klinkenberg
After a rigorous morning of fly fishing, swamp wading, bird watching, airboat riding, snake examining and, if I’m lucky, a little skinny-dipping, I get hungry. When I’m in the western Everglades, I head for Joanie’s Blue Crabs for vittles.
I’ll be honest. Joanie Griffin’s eatery isn’t the best restaurant in Florida. You can eat tastier meals a few miles away in Everglades City. And you can eat gourmet dinners in Naples and Miami.
But when I can, I choose Joanie’s. With so much of Florida a little generic these days, it’s always a treat to find an old-fashioned Everglades joint still thriving, unchanged, exactly the way I remembered it from my last visit: dimly lit, air conditioned by the breeze blowing through the open window, a waitress wearing her hair in a beehive who calls me honey. At Joanie’s, housed in the oldest standing building in the Everglades, I would be disappointed if the floorboards didn’t creak.
Of course, it’s where Joanie holds court. Born in Florida in 1939, Joanie practically grew up in the Everglades fishing and hunting with her late husband. She’s Southern, warm, and often barefoot. But if you complain about her vittles, or how slow they show up on the table, you may encounter an edge. “If you want fast food, mister,’’ she tells an abrasive customer, “ya’ll better go to Miami.’’Miam-maw, which is how old-timers like Joanie pronounce it, is 60 miles and a half-century away.
Over the years I have eaten my way through her menu, which means blue crabs, grouper, frogs legs and, my sentimental Florida boy favorite, lima bean stew. Nosy, I once opened her freezer during a kitchen tour and noticed a frosty cottonmouth water moccasin snake coiled in a plastic bag. I blame the reptilian discovery for my reluctance to ever order Joanie’s famous “Swampy Dog’’ frankfurter.
She assures me that only once has snake appeared on the menu. That was after an ambitious cook harvested a road-kill rattler from the Tamiami Trail and decided to try out a new recipe. Joanie couldn’t bring herself to eat any, though the skin of the diamondback hangs on the wall to this day. So do deer antlers and alligator skulls, wild hog tusks and stuffed bass. What did you expect? Picassos?
Joanie’s, you see, is a melting pot of a place. Patrons include men in cowboy hats who say “ain’t” and tourists in berets who speak with German accents. I’ve chatted with anglers stinking of fish, Miccosukee Indians on their way to the reservation, and motorcyclists who needed to get out of the rain and then stayed until Joanie kicked them out.
I don’t like to leave, either. Things happen at Joanie’s that never ever happen at other Florida restaurants. For example. I was calmly eating lima-bean stew at dusk one evening when a black bear showed up at the back door hoping for a handout. We shooed it away.
“The bears try me,’’ Joanie told me on my last visit. She showed me her bear-proof garbage bin. Then she showed me the chewed-up kitchen doorknob. Finally, she showed me her restaurant’s newest addition, the bear-discouraging electrified fence that guards her back door. “He’s not getting in here,’’ she said.
Joanie’s bravery can be contagious.
Next time I’m in the Everglades, I guess I’ll have to order Joanie’s famous Swampy Dog.
If you go…
Joanie’s Blue Crab Cafe
39395 Tamiami Trail E, Ochopee, FL 34141
Photos by Peter W. Cross and Bonnie Gross for VISIT FLORIDA
Be sure to check out additional Everglades stories by Jeff Klinkenberg: visitflorida.com/en-us/everglades.html