Come for the Food, Return for the Maître D’s
Joe’s Stone Crab has been an American dining institution since Joe Weiss set up a few tables on the front porch of his Miami Beach home more than a century ago. Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab opened in The Forum Shops at Caesars in 2004, carrying on the original restaurant’s commitment to fine dining and top-notch service.
Leading the charge are Joe’s veteran maître d’s, who shape guests’ experiences, from greeting to seating to goodbye—gentlemen who simultaneously bend over backwards and take no crap and make a thousand guests feel like old friends. Vegas Seven spoke with three of the maître d’s at Joe’s Las Vegas—Tim Molloy (12½ years), J.C. Duarte (11 years) and Thomas Johnson (13 years)—about managing chaos, building relationships and keeping the spirit of old Vegas.
Tim: I’ve been in this business for 40 years. I was a maître d’ for almost 20 years on a cruise ship, so I actually came with the experience. … I always say it’s like back in the days of old entertainment when a comedian or a singer started in a nightclub and they worked their way up through the ranks—it’s the same exact thing for a maître d’. A maître d’ is someone who works their way up through the ranks, knows the business intimately, but, more importantly, understands people.
J.C.: You only have maybe 50 seconds, a minute, to have that first impression with the guest. A lot of times we only have that moment and that’s what we have to do right every time. After that, it’s building the relationship. That comes with time.
Thomas: That’s what we’ve kind of done here, is build relationships with those folks, one table at a time. We have people who come here all the time. We make friends, we make relationships, we build on those, they bring their friends, they call us up and say, “Can you help a friend of mine out?” We help that friend out, now he’s a customer.
Tim: It’s that moment when the guest comes in and there is that recognition in the guest’s face—”Oh, great, he’s still here?” And all of us get that. They might not know our names, and it might not be a good thing that we’re still here, but they see us.
Thomas: I think the people who come here are different. When they come here, they are not the same as they are when they’re in Chicago or someplace else. They come to visit. So it’s all a big illusion here, it’s all a big theater, so people will be different, they’ll spend more here than they would anyplace else. Why? Because that’s what they’re supposed to be doing when they come to Las Vegas.
Tim: Part of the magic of Vegas is when you have that hookup, that person you know. What a great way to show off—to walk into a busy restaurant with no reservation and the maître d’ greets you and you say, “Can you get eight of us in?” and he says, “Yes, give me a minute.”
Thomas: Or I get that phone call—eight guys on a golf course, they’re saying, “Where do you want to go?” “Hey, I know a guy, he hooks me up so we get a table.”
Tim: People truly love to be entertained. It’s true that the two of us are probably the craziest, but I also have guests come in here and [say], “What’s wrong, Tim? You haven’t insulted me yet.”
J.C.: I listen to these guys and I am amazed sometimes at the things they say. But I tell you what: People remember them. A funny story about these guests: They have a reservation, they don’t make it under their names, they make it under “The guys with the ugly shirts.” These guys have a way of making fun of people in a good way, and they love it.
Tim: One night, it’s a convention night, prime time. A guy walks in, he has a table of eight. And he goes, “Tim, I’ve got more people.” And it’s packed. I go, “How many?” And he goes, “Thirteen.” I go, “OK, we can figure it out.” But he goes, “We want one table.” OK, half hour at the bar. He comes back, and it’s about 10 minutes, and he goes, “Tim.” I go, ”We’re working on it.” He goes, “Tim, you gotta understand, I’ve got a guy who’s worth $500 million with me—this deal is huge and he’s not used to waiting for a table.” And I say, “OK, I’ve got two billionaires back there and they all waited for their tables, so guess what? He’s going to wait too.” The guy just stood there a while and he says, “Yeah, I guess you’re right,” and he walks away.
J.C.: Craziest thing that ever happened … I went chasing after a guy who decided not to pay the check. I was pretty new, all of this was new. I started to chase the guy out onto the Strip. That did not go well. I was trying to take my jacket off and the guy was throwing punches at me, and security came around, and thank god it was out there on the Strip.
Tim: And it was pretty funny because everyone was on the radio looking for him: “J.C., where are you?” Finally we hear a little static and he says, “I’m outside.” We were just happy he came back alive.
J.C.: But the next day they obviously called me and said, “We have to have a little talk. We don’t do that at Joe’s. If a guest leaves, you let him go because you’re putting yourself at risk.”
Tim: One day a guest turns to Gabriel, who’s in the box [the maitre’d desk at the main entrance that looks like an elevated box] with me, and asks, “Does he ever smile?” And Gabriel said, “Sir, he is smiling.” We do get away with murder, but that’s part of the fun of coming to Joe’s. And part of the fun, I think, for our guests is the feeling of being welcomed back. It’s very genuine and honest because we’re all very honest. … The guests come in and they just love the atmosphere. It’s old Vegas—it’s how Vegas used to be.
Thomas: Even young people who didn’t know about that, they love that.
Tim: They tell you stories about when their parents or even their grandparents used to come here. And they tell those stories and they go, “Now I’ve got a story to tell, now I’ve got a place.”
J.C.: This couple came in last week, they went to a show, and all of a sudden they just showed up for the reservation. I said, “Was the show over?” And they said, “No, but we were afraid we were going to miss our reservation and wouldn’t want to do that.” It amazes me the lengths people go to to make sure they come to those and they enjoy the dinner at Joe’s.
Tim: Our goal is to pack the restaurant as much as we can, and it’s J.C.’s role to accommodate that pack. … Our job is to take the 600 reservations we have and turn it into 700—when there are no seats. This is where he is the master, where he can create something out of nothing.
J.C.: I come in every day and I write the reservations and what I need to do. And after a while, you may as well just take the whole piece of paper and tear it up because it means absolutely nothing. Everything changes.
Thomas: There was an evening [when] a gentleman walked up and he says, “I’m sorry, I don’t have a reservation. It’s my anniversary.” I say, “It’s your anniversary tonight? And you didn’t make a reservation?!” At the time, we had these small market price cards; I’m tapping him on the chest with this card and telling him, “You’re with this beautiful woman and it’s your anniversary! You cannot have this happening!” And one of our managers is walking by, he saw me whacking this guy and he just turned away because he didn’t want to have to reprimand me. But that man has not missed an anniversary here since: He calls me for a reservation every time, and we take care of him.
Tim: We like to think that we get away with a lot of stuff—but in a good way. It’s because we’re old. If we were younger, they’d knock us out.
Tim: J.C. had never been a maître d’. He’d been a waiter. Still, 25 years in the business, he knew what he was doing. One day, maybe we’d been working together for two weeks, I said, “Come on, Tonto, let’s get going,” and I said to somebody, “He’s my Tonto,” because someone had called me the Lone Ranger. What I didn’t understand is that tonto in Spanish is “crazy person.”
J.C.: It’s like an idiot.
Tim: So all night long, I’m calling him that. And finally he’s like, “Do you know what tonto means?” And I say, “Sure, the American Indian with the Lone Ranger.” And he says, “No, it’s idiot in Spanish.” So that’s how we started out—it could only get better.
J.C.: Like we said, you build on that relationship.
Thomas: Our guests are fun to be with, for the most part. We enjoy their company, they enjoy our company. I enjoy seeing them walk around the corner, seeing their names on a list, getting a phone call.
J.C.: A lot of people say, “I hate going to my job,” or “I have to go because I have to pay my bills,” whatever reason they give. Me, I’m happy. I put on this uniform, I feel good. I never say, “I have to do this.”
Thomas: Who wears a tuxedo to a restaurant job? I’ve been working restaurant jobs for 35 years and I’ve worn some … Ugh. But here I wear a tuxedo to work. It’s classy. I like to look classy.
J.C.: I just do what I need to do. I love that I am able to put all of these things together and take care of all of these people and move things around. It’s a challenge, and I like that.
Tim: I think that a lot of people walk away from the experience of Joe’s not just satisfied with the wonderful food and service, but they will often say to me on the way out, “We wish more restaurants were set up like this. From start to finish, we felt welcomed, we felt taken care of.” … They are just so happy. It would be great for other restaurants and celebrity chefs to realize that there actually is still room for frontmen. For our guests, it makes a tremendous difference.
Thomas: Anybody can serve food, but we give them the full experience, and they have a lot of fun. Wait—my phone is ringing. …