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6 new restaurants with sunset views, barbecue, and fine dining shine in Cape May and Wildwood

Some of this season’s most vibrant new restaurant energy can be found on the Shore’s Southern end.

The scallops with bacon lardons, cauliflower, romanesco, squash purée, plumped raisins and verjus vinaigrette from The Lookout Restaurant at the Cape May Ferry Terminal in North Cape May on June 17, 2022.
The scallops with bacon lardons, cauliflower, romanesco, squash purée, plumped raisins and verjus vinaigrette from The Lookout Restaurant at the Cape May Ferry Terminal in North Cape May on June 17, 2022.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

The climactic moment arrived when the Sun God cast one final burst of fire across the Delaware Bay and its light beam caught the plumes of smoke dancing over my Tobacco Road cocktail. Did the edible mermaid floating atop my wife’s cocktail at The Lookout actually just wink? It could have been my imagination, but another fun beach day was in the books. And one thing was crystal clear: Even if this massive octagon of a restaurant perch beside the Cape May-Lewes Ferry hasn’t yet hit its full stride as the Shore’s buzziest new opening, it certainly is the biggest and most dramatic.

That includes co-owner Jack Wright’s anxiety.

“We picked the worst year to open three new restaurants, you know, with epic equipment shortages, a staffing shortage that’s the worst it’s ever been, the cost of proteins up 40% and menu prices rising only 5 to 10%. It’s insane!” says Wright with a nervous chuckle.

The Exit Zero publisher, retailer, and restaurateur, who already operated the popular Exit Zero Filling Station in Cape May, won the contract with his partners to open a cluster of new dining venues in the Cape May-Lewes Ferry Terminal that’s taken $3 million and two years to complete. The massive project, involving 500-plus seats through four concepts on multiple levels has been undergoing early adjustments all season as staff changes and later-than-expected openings shake out. There are plans to transform the property into a sprawling bayside park and entertainment center, complete with shopping village, this fall.

The Lookout is already a spectacular location to dine beside a sunset view, with seriously fun cocktails and food that’s better than I expected.

Perhaps it’s a trend? Despite my skepticism that a pretty perch rarely brings food better than an afterthought, we ate at several new restaurants this summer where dinner was just as charming as the vistas of blue-and-white striped beach tents and tall masts bobbing in a marina. This was especially true near the Wildwoods and Cape May on the Shore’s southern end, where some of this season’s most vibrant new restaurant energy can be found.

And my enthusiasm isn’t limited to fancy big-ticket dining. There’s a stellar new barbecue corner in North Wildwood. An indie BYOB in Cape May where a veteran local chef finally embarking on his owner-operator debut. Just as exciting: a beachside hut serving roasted oysters, locally sourced ingredients for its lunchtime menu, and Instagram-reserved “block parties” when the sun goes down.

Read on for a tasty summer beach trip.

The Lookout, 1200 Lincoln Blvd., North Cape May, 609-551-4209;

The Exit Zero Ferry Station opened last weekend with 224 seats between its casual indoor-outdoor spaces and a quirky menu of Brit-style curries, burgers, and Disco Fries similar to the Cape May original, plus fried rice, spaghetti, and Cajun shrimp penne (”literally all over the map,” Wright says). But the second-floor Lookout managed to open its 120-seat octagon dining room and patio for fine dining just in time for Memorial Day. No sooner did Wright begin having second thoughts about the early menu, which leaned too traditional — lobster bisque and à la carte steaks — for him.

“Much more of a steak house than I wanted,” said Wright, who’s in transition with head chefs and aims to make the dishes both less predictable and a better value. These composed entrées, though, still ring in from the high-$30s to $50-plus for the chops.

We visited The Lookout before its metamorphosis began, but chef de cuisine Nick Mullavey is up to whatever changes are asked of him. He delivered an excellent crab cake with corn salsa, classic clams Casino, and a dry-aged Indian Ridge strip steak among the most flavorful I tasted at the Shore. (All are still on the menu). Salmon Wellington is the signature entrée, but I opted instead for local seafood and wasn’t disappointed: five huge scallops posed over heirloom cauliflower laced with lardons, golden raisins, and verjus vinaigrette. Pastry chef Emily Newton even inspired me to re-embrace crème brûlée with its silky custard, a freshly caramelized crock topped with sweet-and-salty candied pretzels.

What’s really missing is also in the works: an interior makeover to soften the cavernous room with a big plaid rug, banquettes, a central fireplace, and window treatments to mute the noise. Until then, good luck chatting with your dinner date about that lovely view.

Swine Bar, 231 W. 10th Ave., North Wildwood, 609-297-5238;

The secret to running a great restaurant with a view? Focus on running a good restaurant.

That’s been Bill Bumbernick’s credo at the Swine Bar, which he installed last year on the deck above The Surfing Pig, his North Wildwood barbecue hit. And unlike the hours-long lines for ribs at his smokehouse, the Swine Bar, despite its cheeky name, is one of the few places at the Shore one can reserve a table for a leisurely meal with a sunset marina view.

The swanky 72-seat space has retractable wind screen walls that gaze out across the bay with a jazzy soundtrack that casts a mellow vibe as you sip through well-made cocktails (try the aptly smoky Notorious P.I.G.) or a wine list featuring Bumbernick’s favorite Burgundies and Sancerres (ideal for the raw bar).

Massive chilled shrimp scented with cardamom pair with mango slaw and a chile glaze for perfect start. And this season’s new chef, Jeremy Palumbo, has deftly taken the baton to build on existing favorites, like the pork belly and scallop app, and added others polished during his 12-year tenure as a sous-chef at Peter Shields Inn. The pork tenderloin over creamy polenta was outstanding, as was the sirloin steak ringed by a vibrant emerald chimichurri atop baby carrots and mashed potatoes. A perfectly roasted halibut balanced on a savory berm of potatoes and pancetta, ready to swipe through ivory streaks of truffled aioli that radiated across the plate.

This isn’t innovative cooking so much as that it simply showcases prime ingredients in their best light, with friendly, knowledgeable servers guiding the way. All the more impressive: When the dark wind screen was lifted to reveal the less-than-stellar conditions of a misty, cool evening, we still felt as if we’d had a special meal.

Wildwoods BBQ, 701 New Jersey Ave., North Wildwood, 609-600-3292;

Long before they were partners in one of the region’s best new barbecue spots, David Gill and Joel Romano were best mates in kindergarten in Canberra, Australia. That explains the singsong accent encouraging me to grab a Miller High Life from the cooler beside the register (”Yeah, they’re free,” deadpans Romano). It also explains the Australian beef sausages made from fatty brisket trim at this smokehouse in North Wildwood, a fast-evolving town that, with Swine Bar and year-old Trio nearby, is having a redefining food moment.

Those deeply smoked links scented with cumin and herbes de Provence are just one of the specialties that help this funky picnic table corner with graffitied walls stand out. Romano, the longtime chef at the Goat’s Beard pubs, has planned for years to team up with “Gilly,” a rock musician (half of The Junkie Twins with brother Anthony), who also honed his pit master’s craft at Hometown Bar B Que in Brooklyn.

They installed a refurbished J&R rig in a former roast beef shop, and it’s been rocking out stellar slow-smoked meats — pepper-encrusted brisket that glistens, incredibly tender pulled pork; tawny-skinned chickens still moist from a lemony bay brine. But it’s the more unusual items I can’t stop thinking about, like the smoked cauliflower fried to a tempura crisp. Or the deeply smoked beets over tzatziki with dukka, a crushed pistachio, peppercorn, sesame, and garlic seasoning that also adds a Mediterranean crunch to the outstanding ribs. And then there’s a fantastic smash burger topped with a rail of smoked pork belly that flies off the sides of that patty like a bacon surfboard. Hang ten fingers on that beauty, and take it for a ride.

Is a burger joint in the future for this duo, too?

“This,” says Romano, “is just a starting point for us.”

406 Beach Ave., Cape May, 609-408-1933;

Mia Chiarella’s transformation from Wildwood Pasta Princess to the Steak Queen of Cape May has featured heartbreak — but also a stirring comeback. The third-generation chef of the Chiarella’s restaurant family lost both parents to illness within a five-week period when she was 28 — just as her star was rising after appearing on Anthony Bourdain’s The Taste. “I was the only one left,” she said.

Financial and personal troubles followed.

Now 34, Chiarella is on a better path. She quit drinking and found love with Joe Schulte, 50, her fiancé, co-chef, and partner at year-old Primal by MIA. Their L-shaped BYOB wraps around an arcade on Cape May’s Promenade with unobstructed views of the beach, whose colors are beautifully echoed in the dining room moss wall created by local artist (and Primal server) Robin Altman, which also keep noise down. But the main event is a menu that eschews the big plate pastas Chiarella’s family used to be known for in favor of quality meats and seafood off the wood-fired hearth Schulte built himself: “We were thinking ‘bonfire at the beach!’” he says.

The bone-in rib-eye was a stunner, cooked perfectly inside the caramelized crust of a fragrant rub Chiarella blends from cocoa, curry, and cinnamon. A thick slice of halibut was equally fantastic, its moist flesh imbibed with the smoke of ash wood. This couple roams globally for ever-changing inspirations, including a zesty braised squid that also included duck sausage, olives, shrimp, and grapes in a tomato sauce spiced with gochujang. Chiarella’s Italian roots make a faithful cameo, too, with a roast pork belly served over broccoli rabe in garlicky broth that is essentially a deconstructed pork sandwich.

“We’re not reinventing the wheel here,” Schulte says. Chiarella and her partner have instead reinvented their culinary selves.

309 Beach Ave., Arkoteria, Cape May;

Devotion to local ingredients, from oysters to perfect radishes and the daily catch off nearby docks, is standard in the best restaurants at the Jersey Shore, like the Ebbitt Room and Beach Plum Farm, where Matthew Crist, 40, and Joshua Liwoch, 32, spent time cooking. So it makes sense that such spontaneous seasonality should also guide the menus at Block Party. The fact their current project is a pastel pink shed in the Arkoteria food court across from Cape May’s beach only adds to its allure.

This isn’t standard food court fare. While I waited, they started me with an amuse-bouche of baby Napa cabbage spears cradling nuggets of lightly poached tuna belly, sourced from Tyler Hoffman’s excellent Hidden Gem Poké Bowls stand across the way. Then came a half-dozen New Jersey Salt oysters, roasted with Parmesan ramp butter and a tingly splash of 28 day-fermented habanero-honey hot sauce. Dewy fresh black bass with slaw anchored the daily fish sandwich. Tacos featured duck confit with tortillas made from fresh-pressed masa.

An irresistible smoked cheddar dip was a reminder that Block Party knows its sweet spot as a destination for picnic-ready beach snacks. But just take a look at the details of the veggie dishes here, like the vegan cashew “cheese” sandwich with roasted lion’s manes sourced from Wood Song Mushrooms, or the intricate “crunch salad” brimming with meticulously cut Stone Circle Farm produce, and you’ll find the kind of craft and creativity that should be coveted in summer eats.

I can’t wait for their series of BYOB nighttime events to start in early July, when the string lights come on and they begin passing a prix-fixe menu of half a dozen small plates to the first 30 who sign up on Instagram. That’s when the block parties of Summer 2022 will really begin.

413 S. Broadway, Cape May, 609-849-9255;

The name is inspired by an Italian cheese. Fresh pasta is a fixture. And it occupies an old building that used to be a spaghetti house called Godmother’s. But with a menu that also features tuna poke bowls, steaks, and the occasional curried accent, Grana BYOB is not an Italian restaurant.

“I’m just trying to confuse people,” jokes chef-owner Carl Messick, who’s simply combined some favorite things into his first venture as an owner-operator.

Messick, 40, is long overdue for the opportunity to run his own show after 12 years at the Peter Shields Inn, following stints at Black Fish and the Ebbitt Room. He’d hoped to go with a more relaxed feeling for the dining room. But the quick turnaround before summer was too tight for major renovations. So he’s fallen back on crisp white tablecloth formality and stuck to some familiar upscale pleasures he knows his old Peter Shields clientele will appreciate: “People are on vacation, you can’t get too crazy.”

That cautious instinct extended a bit too much to the seasoning, at times, with dishes that bordered on bland. Was there really any curry in the cauliflower soup? Could someone have salted that fine “carrot-finished” Santa Carota steak … just a little bit?

Those are easy fixes as the kitchen gets its footing. Grana already has the elements of a winner in place, including house-extruded pastas like the orecchiette with crab in a light wine sauce, or the heartier fusilli with sausage and mushrooms in a sauce enriched with egg yolks and goat cheese. A beautifully roasted duck breast fanned into pink slices over barley with a cumin-spiced carrot sauce, reassured me that yes, this kitchen does know how to season its food. So, there should be no confusion here. A good meal at Grana is definitely within reach.