The trepidation would arrive like clockwork along with the hunger pangs, right on time for supper. What kind of dodgy seating situation would we encounter if we ventured out tonight?
Our first experiences with outdoor dining at the Jersey Shore had been problematic, from mask-denying hecklers to careless restaurateurs and clueless fellow diners. So, as noted last week, we indulged in fantastic takeout. But as New Jersey’s al fresco restaurant reopening segued from its opening days into subsequent weeks, I found several places that are approaching their responsibilities seriously to create relatively safe experiences. For a dining scene that depends on just a few months of business, getting this right is essential to a restaurant’s survival and the health of its customers and staff.
And with the best examples from Long Beach Island to Cape May, I saw it in the details, from clearly posted pandemic-era rules (“no mask, no service”) to contact-minimizing systems, table spacing beyond the six-foot minimum, and deliberately brief service interactions to minimize mutual exposure.
At the new Black Eyed Susans Tavern, even the doors leading to the restrooms inside were purposefully left ajar so folks wouldn’t have to pull one open. Little things resonate! Especially as operators resort to filling whatever open spaces remain available — tented parking lots, alleys, beaches — to keep summer restaurants viable.
I can’t say I’ve yet fully embraced outdoor dining. My thoughts continue to evolve on whether it’s a good idea long term for the industry and its workers, especially as COVID-19 numbers rise. But my early explorations found several places at the Shore that appeared to both meet and exceed required safety guidelines, peeling back my trepidation just enough to recognize some of the beauty in restaurants I’ve always appreciated. Young talents pushing boundaries with a pop-up. Existing operators stepping up ambitions. New life for a classic. And handmade food that’s realized one immigrant’s lifelong restaurant dream and still connects her vividly to family abroad.
Takeout? Most of these places still offer that. (Summer Salt and the Deauville Inn do not). But if you’re ready to eat out, four of these five places are doing it right.
A second act for Black Eyed Susans was inevitable since chef Christopher Sanchez and Ashley Pellagrino opened their hit BYOB in Harvey Cedars a decade ago. So when the opportunity came this fall to buy the former Plantation (190 seats plus a liquor license), they undertook an ambitious move, renovation and concept makeover to prepare for summer liftoff.
Their beloved tuna tartare — fished during a full moon, mounded beside rouille and sparked with preserved lemon, pine nuts, and smoky bonito? Check. A new pizza oven and pasta extruder to fuel their casual new tavern menu option? Check.
Debuting inside a tent on their parking lot? Not in the plans. Black Eyed Susans has made the most of it with nearly 100 seats scattered between potted plants over artificial grass, and a diligent staff modeling the mask-on policy, delivering fruit-infused wine popsicles, and giving space while customers check off selections on single-use paper menus.
Get that tartare, but also the colorful pickles, honey-dappled ricotta with crusty sourdough, black garlic Caesar, and clams Casino with house-smoked bacon. Sanchez still makes one of my favorite crab cakes, its sweet lumps barely bound with herbs over remoulade.
The new pastas and pizzas still need refining — less cooking on the noodles, a little more on the pies, inspired by a working visit to Joe Beddia’s kitchen. The new oven hadn’t yet hit peak roasting powers. But the well-crafted toppings — fennel sausage with caramelized onions, Jersey tomato sauce, and Doe Run’s St. Malachi; or the white clam pie bright with preserved lemons and crunchy bread crumbs — gave me confidence. The ingredients are in place for Black Eyed Susans’ summer liftoff toward a bright future.
Black Eyed Susans Tavern & Restaurant, 7908 Long Beach Blvd., Harvey Cedars, 609-494-4990; blackeyedsusanslbi.com
The farm-to-table trend has, at times, felt like hollow marketing. But at the Summer Salt pop-up dinners hosted each weekend in front of Isabel’s Bakery & Cafe in Avalon, the chicken on my plate was raised — and dispatched — by the same woman who took my order, farmer Heather Sedlacek (whose last name in Czech coincidentally means “little farmer”).
She currently barters some of the chickens she raises for access to land in West Cape May where she launched Bayleaf Farm & Hospitality with her husband, Connor Dore. He’s the chef (and Diving Horse alum) who plancha-roasts these excellent chicken legs to a juicy crisp alongside an array of mix-and-match accompaniments, from farro risotto to Parmesan-crisped potatoes, or, also for my plate, a briny tumble of steamed local clams.
There are nods to Dore’s North Carolina roots, some pimento cheese-stuffed peppers and garlicky shrimp à la plancha. But this menu is largely built around beautiful Jersey ingredients cooked simply — like the gorgeously seared fluke or scallops with flavorful sauce options (try the chermoula or grilled rosemary beurre blanc).
The collaboration with their friends, sisters Rhianne and Justine Lowe, who own Isabel’s and encouraged this lovely pop-up partnership after many meals together, has fringe benefits, like the crusty baguettes and house-churned butter, bread pudding, and fruit pies for dessert alongside a deep chocolate tart.
Sedlacek and Dore recently bought 23 acres nearby to add more poultry varieties to their farm and, someday, bees, pigs, and a bed-and-breakfast, an investment in agriculture they believe more sustainable than a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Dore will surely keep cooking. But the food on his table will remain as close to the farm as possible. Summer Salt pop-up at Isabel’s Bakery, 2285 Dune Dr., Avalon, 609-796-2096; summersaltavalon.com
If you should be so lucky, La Doña herself will make your guacamole. I’m talking about Lucy Covino, who owns this festively colored patio restaurant in Cape May. She propped her guac station six feet from our table and deftly scooped and mashed avocados — plus a pinch of salt, squeeze of lime, kick of jalapeño, cilantro and onions — into creamy green molcajete magic. The native of Oaxaca is picky about avocados (”from Mexico only!”), wrapping them in newspaper until they’re densely rich and ripe. Yes, fresh guacamole is common, but Covino’s knowing touch makes a difference.
The handmade care is a recurring theme across the menu of this four-year-old restaurant. The mole negro, with 27 ingredients, is cooked to her mother’s recipe. The chorizo is so good because she makes it from a blend of dried chiles and fermented pineapple skin tepache. The black beans gain depth from avocado leaves her mother dries on her porch in Mexico, then ships to New Jersey, along with cumin, chiles, and epazote.
“They have taste,” says Covino of her beans, explaining why even the burrito, a dish I rarely order was so delicious.
Covino will be familiar to fans of Andrea Trattoria, the Italian restaurant she owns in Millville with her Neapolitan husband, Andrea Covino. But creating La Doña was Lucy’s dream. And while their Andrea’s has remained closed during the pandemic (the Sea Isle branch co-owned by her brother has reopened), the fact all of her 72 seats are al fresco means that La Doña — the woman and her restaurant — are poised to shine. La Doña, 31 Perry St., Cape May, 609-884-5503; ladonamex.com
This Irish powerhouse has gone parking lot pub in a big way. And while it’s impossible to replicate the vintage decor and 350 seats built into the Gaelic rehab last summer of the old Mac’s Seafood in Somers Point, the fake grass beneath the tented tables beside Josie Kelly’s Public House is green enough to still draw hundreds of diners a night.
Despite those crowds, owners Kathleen and Dermot Lloyd have done a fine job maintaining table space and line management, and putting contact-free logistics in place so you can sip that refreshing Pimm’s Cup or creamy draft of Guinness from a proper social distance. The tawny beer-battered fish and chips hasn’t lost its textbook crisp.
But this summer’s true bonus is new chef Michael Brennan, the young star between versions of his Cardinal Bistro, who’s brought culinary ambitions and a lighter touch. Yes, the classic shepherd’s pie is still great. But dishes like grilled halibut over red pepper relish with a minted pea sauce, or the “Fab Cakes” that offer a satisfying vegan twist to crab cakes with hearts of palm and artichoke stuffings over succotash, show there’s potential to explore a more contemporary pub personality.
I’m sorry I just missed the new grilled lobster over curried carrot puree. But I devoured enough Irish chocolate cheesecake and buttery Craic pie to know I’ll be back. (”Craic” is Irish for “good times.”) No matter when that is, or if we’re still dining in the parking lot, I hope Brennan’s fresh influence lingers.
Josie Kelly’s Public House, 908 Shore Rd., Somers Point, 609-904-6485; josiekellys.com
The Deauville Inn is one Shore classic that needed to be reborn. I ate such a forgettable seafood meal at this 19th-century behemoth years ago, all I remember is that it was expensive and tired. Still, nearly 800 people a day can flock to its sandy, sunset view from Whale Beach beside Corson’s Inlet in Strathmere. The crowds may be enough validation for the multimillion-dollar investment health-care mogul Tim Fox (of Fox Rehabilitation) spent refurbishing its wall-to-wall carpeted frump into a polished beach club.
All those people, though, are what give me pandemic pause, judging by the crowds that clogged the long bar counters just beyond the entrance, some overly tight tables with guests seated closer than six feet apart, and a general lack of awareness once customers got deep into their orange crush cocktails and “totchos” platters of tater tots smothered in creamy she-crab bisque and bacon.
Once we negotiated a more isolated table (picnic tables on the beach are quite well-spaced), I saw the Deauville’s potential. Fox hired the firm owned by Bar Rescue’s Jon Taffer to run the operation (“we’re not a Bar Rescue!” Fox insists), and its corporate blitz of five executive chefs have created a massive menu that delivered solid quality despite its catchall size. I ate one of the better strip steaks I’ve encountered down the Shore, beautiful local scallops over sweet corn, and a spot-on rare yellowfin. My overcooked burger was an unexpected brick on a layup.
But a good frozen cocktail and a sunset can offer some genuine consolation, and by the time my straw slurped bottom, the bay was glowing golden, and it was impossible to deny this Shore classic had been given some much-needed new vitality. The Deauville Inn, 201 Willard Rd., Strathmere, 609-263-2080; deauvilleinn.com