Monday, January 24, 2022

Wide open spaces

Raiford Starke, Chef Jack, and Joanie Griffin enjoying a satisfying snack. Photos by Jeane Brennan

Raiford Starke, Chef Jack, and Joanie Griffin enjoying a satisfying snack. Photos by Jeane Brennan

Joanie’s Blue Crab Café in Ochopee on Tamiami Trail hasn’t changed much since Joanie and her late husband bought the property almost 30 years ago. Traveling east about 40 minutes from Marco Island, Joanie’s is right around the bend from the smallest post office in the United States. My first introduction to Joanie’s, food wise, was the cactus salad. That was many years ago. Now days, along with good food, cold drinks and great Everglades’s ambiance, thrilling artists and “back road” talent play at Joanie’s. Raiford Starke performs regularly, as well as Pete Gallagher, Mark Wesley, and Mike Martin. Local art grace the walls and the wide expanse of the Everglades surrounds the perimeter. One could describe Joanie’s as a road-stop diner, similar to hundreds of other road-stop diners throughout America.  History, color, function, stories galore, love and life play out at road-side diners and Joanie’s Crab House is no exception.

As one drives out into the wide open space of the Everglades, it is easy to imagine years not too long ago well worn paths, Indian villages, and Model A Fords on primitive roads braving holes, ruts, and gators gracing the landscape. There might not be too many Model A Fords now and the holes and ruts of Tamiami Trail are minimal, but Indian villages, gators and paths from wild hog, bear, deer and other Everglades “residents” highlight the beauty and huge expanse of the Everglades. Dark harsh summer skies filled with lightning, wind and rain and, then, heat, humidity and mosquitoes, for some reason, still lure people to these furthest points of southwest Florida.

Even after all these years living and working in the Everglades, Joanie said, “I still love it. Boating into the ten thousand islands and being in this beauty is miraculous. I care and treat my guests and employees as family. Joanie’s is a place where you can come to, relax and be comfortable. I am fortunate,” Joanie continued,

Raiford Starke belting out one tune after another at Joanie’s.

Raiford Starke belting out one tune after another at Joanie’s.

“that guests who ate here 10, 15 years ago, still make a point to stop and say ‘hello’ and it is like old home week all over again.”

The day I drove out to see Joanie, Raiford Starke was performing. I am always thankful of my good fortune. While listening to Raiford belt out one song after another, Chef Jack, formerly of Havana Cafe, brought out a grilled portabella sandwich draped with roasted red peppers, sundried tomatoes, fried zucchini, olive oil and garlic. I wasn’t surprised when he mentioned that he has added an Italian flavor to the menu and daily specials. Most always on the menu are fresh fish specials, gator fritters, calamari, Joanie’s beautiful and colorful salads, sandwich choices and delicious fries galore. Chef Kenny is master of the kitchen on weekends.

It’s difficult to stay seated at Joanie’s place. Looking out the screen door into the Everglades is too beautiful for words and that sight could easily be one of the many paintings hanging on her walls. Dozens of pieces of art neatly placed were created by her sister, Jeanie Ortega. Dozens of bottle art hanging from the rafters were given to her throughout the years by a northern gentleman traveling through. Three times a year a German cartoonist drops in. Sometimes he brings his jazz band, other times friends and family or sometimes he’s just traveling by himself. Joanie now has, though, a collection of his cartoons pinned to his very own wall in the restaurant; cartoon art that he has sent and given her over the years.

It is always hard to leave Joanie’s Blue Crab Cafe and head back to city life. Joanie told me as I was leaving, “You couldn’t get me out of here with dynamite. I am glad I work here every day. I love it here.” For up to date information call Joanie at 239-695-2682. Address for Joanie’s Blue Crab Café is 39395 Tamiami Trail East, Ochopee, Florida.

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