Wait a minute ... was that salty tang in the air a little bay breeze wafting by my table?

For far too many years, we’ve been almost exclusively indoor diners. I’m not naming names. But certain members of my family have long expressed a fondness for precision climate control and a reluctance to embrace the wildlife buzz of the great outdoors. So, it was with great delight this summer that my posse surprised me with a willingness to eat al fresco.

It’s most likely because, this year, we came across so many smartly appointed venues where outdoor dining simply made sense, from a new double-decker fun house on Long Beach Island to sunset views in the Wildwoods, morning eggs Benedict by the bay in Ocean City, and cafe seating at a tasty Italian newcomer ideal for watching Margate’s sidewalk life pass by. With the sounds of the sea in the background, the sun on my shoulders, and a breath of fresh air kissing our plates, these meals channeled the flavors of summer better than any indoor table ever could.

The bartender pours martinis for cousins Gabrielle and Jonathan Howarth at the second floor deck/bar at Bird & Betty's in Beach Haven June 20, 2019.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
The bartender pours martinis for cousins Gabrielle and Jonathan Howarth at the second floor deck/bar at Bird & Betty's in Beach Haven June 20, 2019.

LONG BEACH ISLAND

Bird & Betty’s

The rumble of a Skee-Ball speeding down the runway toward the bull’s-eye. The pulse of a live band rocking from a pink neon-lit stage. The crackle of a wood-fired oven roasting Neapolitan-style pizzas in 2½ minutes flat. The cheer of diners toasting daiquiris from the second-floor deck and downstairs patio as the sun sets over Little Egg Harbor Bay and Morrison’s marina. A lot is going on at Bird & Betty’s, the massive new restaurant and bar that replaced the Ketch in Beach Haven. But the Tide Table Group, which owns six other restaurants around LBI, including the Black Whale and Parker’s Garage next door, knows what it’s doing.

They’ve transformed this venerable hall, which is the oldest tavern on the island, dating to 1904, into a destination with something for everyone. There are vintage boardwalk games in back where competitive table tennis, shuffleboard, and billiards pop all night long. There’s a lively martini bar scene on both floors.

And it turns out that B&B isn’t just playful, it’s tasteful, too, with more scratch cooking than I’d expect from a 220-seat beach town juggernaut. Chef Kyle Baddorf (Amada, Volver, Ambra, and Double Knot) has made the handsomely tiled Pavesi pizza oven the centerpiece of his menu, turning out impressive pies with leopard-spotted crowns and complex, slow-fermented dough. The Margherita was spot-on, blushing with Jersey tomatoes and torn basil, but next time I’m going for the marinated clam pie over Parmesan crema that the friendly ladies beside me were devouring. (“Want a slice?” they offered, somehow noticing my pining glances.) I would also return for the still-warm, pulled-to-order mozzarella, or, for something completely different, the freshly fried shrimp toast laced with pickled chilies.

There are sandwiches and bountiful salads for lighter options, such as the generous crab Louie served with butter lettuce leaf wraps. You can dine on some serious plates, too: a meaty pork chop over stewed white beans; pappardelle tangled with aromatic shreds of braised lamb; a juicy whole branzino roasted and stuffed with fingerling potatoes. But one of the best dishes of my two weeks at the Shore was also this menu’s splurge: a split whole 1.5-pound lobster broiled with Calabrian chili butter atop braised collard greens and tender chunks of meaty pork belly. Bird & Betty’s, 29 Dock Rd., Beach Haven, 609-492-3000; birdandbettys.com

THE WILDWOODS

The Surfing Pig

If you sold your tech company for a fortune, where would you like to spend your days? For Bill Bumbernick, the answer is clear: on a dock in North Wildwood with a big smoker whispering magic to some brisket and a bar that gazes out onto the bay like a breezy South Jersey slice of the Florida Keys. Of course, there’s a lot more to the story, since Bumbernick sold his software firm, Alteva, in 2011. The cross-country road trip with his young family. The 43-acre farm they subsequently bought in Gloucester County and transformed into a CSA called Cecil Creek, serving coveted private dinners. The charter boat business called Hog Wild, etc. But this friendly restaurant and bar with country music two-stepping over the stereo has been Bumbernick’s prime focus since he sold the farm in 2016. And the Surfing Pig is the kind of casual but carefree place that, as my wife likes to say, “makes you feel like you’re on vacation.”

This is assuming, of course, that you don’t mind the hour-plus beeper waits during prime times. But the draws here are legit, from the resort-style drinks (the pineapple-spiked Jim’s Sea Breeze; the obligatory Wildwood Orange Crush) to a menu that covers its basics with integrity. There’s lots of crab in the crab cakes. The broiled scallops are simply done but come sweet from the day boats nearby. The blackened mako bites are a lip-teasing starter, and even the old chain restaurant cliché, coconut shrimp, take a big step over the freezer-to-fryer competition because, here, they’re homemade.

The real reason to visit, though, is the BBQ meats that emerge from their slow-ride in the big Southern Pride smoker, pink smoke halo rings intact. A thick and juicy rare slice of smoked prime rib is one of the unexpected gems on the menu. But the 14-hour brisket is Bumbernick’s pride. My personal pit favorite was the rack of tender St. Louis ribs. They’re a perfect vehicle for the sweet and tangy “Klepto Sauce” that’s so tasty, customers used to steal squeeze bottles of them off the table — until Bumbernick bottled it for sale. Hey, the tech tycoon didn’t earn this bayside BBQ haven by giving the secret sauce away! The Surfing Pig, 231 W. 10th Ave., North Wildwood, 609-522-9000; thesurfingpig.com

The Dock

The tiny borough of West Wildwood (pop. 566) is an island enclave off the inner coast of Wildwood that was mostly unknown to the wider world until its impressively dysfunctional Shore town politics — a “monstrously tangled web of feuds and nepotism” — burst into public view this spring. But it now has a considerably more savory point of interest with one of the sweetest hidden gems of casual outdoor Shore dining: the Dock.

The Dock really is just that, a covered deck with seating for 49 that overlooks the aquatic frolic launching from Spray Dock Marina into the Post Creek Basin. But the reason to visit is chef-owner Andrew Steiner’s fresh menu of sustainable fish ceviches and tasty tacos. Steiner, who also owns North Wildwood’s Establishment at 100, has embraced the limitations of this BYOB and the small kitchen here, converted from a garage. The menu focuses on local seafood sourced from a purveyor on the island.

Half the menu is raw, featuring well-chilled oysters on the half-shell and ceviches in three distinct flavors. We loved the Asian-inspired ponzu sauce that bathed the ruby chunks of tuna and white mahi-mahi in soy, lime, and sesame oil spiced with the tingle of Steiner’s house-fermented sambal. I was equally impressed with the lime-splashed coconut milk-aji chili broth that added island richness to the super-sweet local scallops laced with red onions and radishes. Each one comes with a traditional chunk of sweet potato and freshly fried chips for scooping.

Steiner benefits from well-established relationships with farmers. He showcases ripe Jersey produce with appealing salads, such as the crimson rounds of Jersey beefsteak tomatoes dusted with queso fresco and a chili-lime vinaigrette; or the irresistibly blistered long hots scattered with tomatoes and cubes of manchego; or the roasted sweet white corn basted in ancho-chili butter. Even the hibiscus tea, which sits as a deep purple layer beneath the pale, tart “limonade,” is steeped from Jersey-grown flowers known as “roselle.”

Steiner’s best relationship, though, is surely with the local Mexican woman who sells him the fabulously earthy hand-pressed white corn tortillas that take his tacos to the next level. The fillings themselves are very good, too. And there is something for everyone, with tender achiote-stewed chicken, Korean-flavored steak, blackened rare tuna with avocados, or, my favorite, the seared fish taco of the day (mahi on our visit) served beneath a smoky tumble of cuminy charred corn salsa. But it’s really how it all comes together — the vibrant fresh flavors, the laid-back marina-side vibe, the thrill of this nearly hidden locale — that makes the Dock worthwhile, and gives West Wildwood the bit of good news it needs. The Dock, 10 Lake Rd., West Wildwood, 609-770-8303; thedockww.com

MARGATE

Saltwater

Though they opened in mid-summer last year short-staffed on an island with several Italian restaurants, Saltwater’s owners do not lack for swagger.

“I don’t have any competition,” boasts Realtor-turned-restaurateur Lori Salvo. “Because I’ve got my ‘Dough Boy.’”

I can think of a few Italian kitchens nearby that might take exception to the brag, including the Red Room and Domenico’s, where I’ve enjoyed meals in past years. But there’s no question Salvo’s “Dough Boy,” husband and chef David Salvo, has some notable specialties to consider. And it’s all about the gnocchi and pizza, which are different from anything else I’ve encountered at the Shore.

Take a seat on the sidewalk patio, with its picturesque view of the Congo Falls mini-golf and le tout-Margate strolling by with their pooches and baby strollers, and behold the puff of David’s hand-rolled ricotta gnocchi. They’re actually a secret blend of five cheeses and very little flour, and inflate to the size of small dinner rolls. So, yes, they’re mutants of dumplingdom. But they’re also impressively light, with a pure dairy heart lavishing in the creamy blush sauce that is the finish of choice. (Salvo’s red sauces, to my taste, are a hint too acidic.)

David, a former construction worker, has a self-taught cooking style shaped by the Norristown-Sicilian-American flavors of his father’s old restaurant-bars in Montgomery County (Salvo’s Main Event), and his food is obsessively hand-worked, even when an electric mixer might make more sense. You taste that in familiar sautéed dishes, such as the cherry pepper-zinged chicken Sicilian, or the breaded-to-order chicken cutlet. But I appreciated it most in the Grandma-style rustic pizza, a three-day dough that puffs on patiently fermented air bubbles into a crusty rectangle topped with oregano and a layer of hand-crushed tomatoes or — the best choice — a white pie with rosemary and a zesty blend of Pecorino-mozzarella topped with crisply roasted prosciutto.

“I could sell 400 of these a day,” says David, modestly, “But it’s a lotta-lotta work. When I get to 100, I’m done.”

Lori Salvo’s Dough Boy has swagger, too, but at least he backs it up. Saltwater, 9401 Ventnor Ave., Margate, 609-289-8078; saltwatermargate.com

OCEAN CITY

The Dockside Kitchen

Ocean City has no shortage of go-to spots for a satisfying egg-and-pancake breakfast, from Brown’s Restaurant on the Boardwalk to Cafe Beach Club, the ’60s-vintage Ready’s Coffee Shop, and the Northend Beach Grill (which, I hope, will soon be resurrected after last summer’s devastating fire). But there is a decidedly fresh and upscale modern vibe to the deck-only dining experience of the Dockside Kitchen, where the coffee is high-quality Counter Culture and the sunny view over Great Egg Harbor Bay inevitably comes garnished with seafood upgrades and hollandaise.

If you show up at low tide, as we did, you might also get to witness an impressively noisy riot of seagulls feasting on an all-they-can-eat buffet of stranded horseshoe crabs. But usually this is a tranquil spot to soak in the bay breeze and dine with a prime view of water sports unfolding nearby. And for the most part, the menu offers solid renditions of trendy favorites, such as avocado toast upgraded with seafood (the “Don’t Be Crabby” mingles lump crab with bruschetta tomatoes and shaved watermelon radish), omelettes with seafood (crab and Old Bay-dusted shrimp), fresh buttermilk pancakes, and a section of eggs Benedict variations that range from the classic (with pork roll instead of Canadian bacon) to a smoked salmon option, or a quarter-pound of lobster per plate.

A lobster roll figures prominently on the lunch menu, which also offers salads and various tacos. But I thought lobster was best used on Dockside’s burger special, a juicy surf-n’-turf of a half-pound beef patty topped with moist crustacean and creamy streaks of chive-lime aioli. At $21, it’s a splurge on a menu that hovers in the teens. But the Dockside Kitchen — which has promised to open soon for dinner as a private club to allow BYOB, a rising loophole trend in otherwise-dry Ocean City — exudes a special-occasion vibe worth indulging. The Dockside Kitchen, 228 Bay Ave., Ocean City, 609-399-5588; docksidekitchen.com

New Boardwalk Bites: “Dining” might be a stretch for boardwalk fare, but you can’t get a meal much closer to the ocean than the storefronts along Ocean City’s great wooden way, and these three relatively new offerings have added some welcome variety.

Santucci’s

We lost a favorite family destination when Roma Pizza changed hands this year. But we gained an excellent new pizza option with the first Shore franchise location of Philadelphia’s Santucci’s, whose baked-to-order square pies are definitely something different for a pie scene dominated by giant pre-baked slices. The nine-inch square personal pies take about eight minutes to cook, but it’s worth the wait because you’ll find the same sauce-topped, cheesy-centered, pan-baked-style pizzas as the South Philly mothership, along with stuffed strombolis. Simple toppings (just pepperoni or sausage) are my preference, but “the Works” is also irresistible. There are more seaside Santucci’s to come: A giant new project with a liquor license is in the works for a late-summer opening in Ventnor, and franchisee Marc Bongiovanni suggests that other Shore towns could get Santuccified, too. Santucci’s, 944 Boardwalk, Ocean City, 609-493-7200; santuccispizza.com

KPop!

The hot-pink storefont of KPop! says just as much about owner Mimi Yim’s journey — a casino pit boss at Trump Marina for 25 years before realizing her entrepreneurial dreams — as it does about the crossover popularity of traditional Korean food right now. KPop!, which opened mid-summer in 2018, isn’t quite the first to purvey crunchy Korean fried chicken on the boardwalk. That would be nearby Crunchik’n. But Yim has done a fine job of translating Korean home cooking for the masses into such dishes as the beef rice bowls (a loose twist on bibimbap), crispy mandoo dumplings, japchae glass noodle stir-fries, and a very tasty fusion tuna poke, to be washed down with bubble tea. Yes, there’s even spicy kimchi, too, which is what puts the funky "K" in Yim’s KPop! 1006 Boardwalk, Ocean City, 609-862-2664; k-pop-ocean-city-nj.business.site

Quincy’s Lobster Rolls

For a region so rich in seafood, the Jersey Shore has long struggled to make a decent lobster roll. That’s changed considerably with the proliferation of Quincy’s Original Lobster Rolls, a mini-chain originally from Berwyn (that location is now closed) that now has three locations at the Shore, including Cape May and Sea Isle City. The latest branch, opened this summer, is an open-sided kiosk with four seats that fronts the water park on the Ocean City boardwalk. And this Quincy’s does pretty much everything right, from the split-top bun that’s butter-toasted to order, to the moist but minimalist lobster on its classic version, dressed with lemon butter, a light bead of mayo, and a dusting of celery seed. At $13.99 for a quarter-pound of knuckle-and-claw meat, it’s one of the most fairly priced good lobster rolls around — even upsized with a scoop of 50 percent more meat for an extra $5. True bargain hunters, though, should hang around between 3 and 5 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, when the “happy hour” rolls go for $11. Quincy’s Original Lobster Rolls, 728 Boardwalk, 609-862-2347; quincysoriginal.com

SEA ISLE CITY

Uh-oh: Beachwood at the Dunes

Few names have implied a sure thing for good eating at the Shore as much as Lucas Manteca and his wife-partner Deanna Ebner, whose projects, from the Red Store to Quahog’s, remain among my favorites in New Jersey. Their lucky expansion streak has hit rough surf, though, at the Beachwood, a revamp of the failed Doc Magrogan’s in Sea Isle City that was among the season’s most anticipated openings. But, oh boy, do I regret the $200-plus I dropped here! The corporate decor has none of the character of their other places. For such a pricey place, the young service was unprepared — and the kitchen didn’t perform any better. The tuna ceviche was so shabby that a forkful brought not diced chunks but one long, ragged string of half-cut fish. The tortillas beneath the overly bready fried-oyster taquitos were still fridge-cold. Basmati rice was cooked to a paste beside the $29 scallops. A stuffed half-lobster was positively puny alongside corn on the cob that was dry and shriveled ... for $36. Can someone please turn back time to Busch’s Seafood, which occupied this hallowed address for 130-plus years, serving she-crab soup and no-nonsense seafood platters? Beachwood at the Dunes, 8609 Landis Ave., Sea Isle City, 609-263-3627; beachwoodsic.com