It was still months until summer, but the season was suddenly in full swing in Margate — at least in front of Steve & Cookie’s.
There, the most dedicated and loyal summer people in the world — looking at you, Philly — had been lined up since before dawn (I kid you not) for their chance to get the thing they covet most: dinner reservations at the Shore.
“It does define the summer,” said Caren Fires of Wynnewood.
“I don’t want it to change at all," said Magen Kauffman, who drove in from the Main Line with two friends to be among the first in line outside Steve & Cookie’s, a former speakeasy with a view of the bay and an oyster bar in back.
It’s nearly impossible to get in by phone on this day, the first day of spring, when owner Cookie Till mischievously opens up reservations for the entire summer and allows people to book multiple weekends.
I have it on good authority that some people needed to try, like, 300 times by phone to get through. And by like, I mean literally. One of the only other places to attract such reservation devotion is Chef Vola’s in Atlantic City, which was a 2019 James Beard Foundation Award semifinalist for outstanding service. To request a table there, Kauffman says, “you fax it in and you hope.”
Some standing in line outside Steve & Cookie’s will book a reservation every summer weekend. Most will order the same thing every time, often the Ugly Tomato Salad, topped with fried shallots and bleu cheese. It would not be summer otherwise.
What is it about the Jersey Shore that makes people want to have the same experience over and over again?
Typically adventurous people who try a new restaurant every weekend at home will hunker down at the same restaurants at the Jersey Shore. They seek out the same spot on the same beach. They lunch on the same tuna sub. They order pizza delivery from the same place (usually on Friday night, upon arrival at the Shore). They indulge in water ice from the same place (Mento’s, obviously). They drive the same streets and walk the same routes along the boardwalk.
I get it, but come on, people! Explore a little. You know that one Vietnamese place on Arctic Avenue in Atlantic City you loved, Little Saigon? Yes, it closed. But in its place is Rincón Catracho, a Honduran family-run restaurant that serves the most amazing dish of fish, rice, and plantains, beautifully prepared. And now with fútbol on two screens. Give it a try.
Kauffman and her friend Lisa Green do plenty together at home on the Main Line, and they braved the Steve & Cookie’s line together, but they’ll never actually sit next to each other on the beach. Their Shore traditions have taken them to different beaches, and neither would think of giving up her beach. They do take the ritual walk to chat, of course .
“We definitely keep our beach spots,” Green said.
“For me, it’s very nostalgic," Kauffman said. “My kids are fifth-generation Margatians.”
By that, she means fifth-generation summer Margatians, but locals know how much love and genuine enthusiasm summer people bring to the Shore. Ventnor Police Chief Doug Biagi notes that crime in his town does not go up in the summer, despite the population temporarily tripling.
“Second homeowners don’t cause any of the problems,” Biagi said. “They love it.”
Kauffman can attest to her family’s Shore experience: “Everyone’s in a good mood, just smiley.”
One love-it-or-hate-it ritual of Jersey Shore life — puffing a cigar on the beach, no apologies to people downwind — is gone. New Jersey passed a no-smoking law for the beach, and most towns have opted not to designate an allowable 15 percent smoking zone.
Biagi said police will enforce when people complain, but suggests not calling 911 on beach smokers. He views the ban as somewhat overkill for a problem that might be dealt with another way.
“A lot of this would stop if people were just a little more courteous,” Biagi said.