Shore dining in 2013 was dominated by restaurateurs singing the Hurricane Sandy Blues. Will 2014 be the summer they play the Bounceback Boogie?
With the exception of an unusually quiet casino scene, the early buzz is promising. From Long Beach Island to Stone Harbor, new projects, new operators, and a new spirit seemed to be perking in mid-May, with a number of intriguing places opening around Memorial Day or shortly after.
The area around Long Beach Island, among the hardest hit by Sandy, has at least a couple of sizable new attractions just about to open. At the southern end of L.B.I. in Beach Haven, restaurateur Marty Grims, owner of Plantation Restaurant and Daddy O's, hopes to bring Tucker's Restaurant (101 S. West Ave., Beach Haven) back to life. Longtime owner Heidi Ferringo never reopened that institution after the storm, but after Grims purchased Tucker's, the building got a complete overhaul, with a relatively "cozy" 350 seats compared to the previous 450.
"It's meant to be a neighborhood place more than a special destination," says Grims, who says "mid-June" for the opening, with check averages expected to be around $30. "Gastropub fare, local scallops, salads. Beach fare. We don't want it to be fussy."
The Old Causeway Steak & Oyster House (1201 E. Bay Ave., Manahawkin) would have opened last year had the storm not slammed the owners' first restaurant right next door, the popular Mud City Crab House, which was then in need of repairs.
"Our contractor was just about to start when the hurricane hit," said co-owner Mel Magaziner.
With the custom-built 100-seat Old Causeway opening Sunday, Magaziner hopes it was worth the wait. It's a carnivore's compliment to the crustacean-centric Mud City, with a menu focused on steaks cooked over a wood-fired grill, plus an extensive raw bar, which inspires a few of the menu's retro moves (an oyster-stuffed "Carpetbagger" steak; an oyster pan roast).
In Atlantic City, the usually active casino scene has been calm - save for the formally still-unannounced arrival of Martorano's to Harrah's A.C., from South Philly-bred Florida-based celeb-chef Steve Martorano. The onetime owner of Macaroni's in the Northeast is known for his meatballs.
According to Philly.com's Michael Klein, Martorano is slated to take over the space currently occupied by Luke Palladino. But Palladino has been plenty busy reshuffling his own restaurant group on the mainland since last summer, moving his three-bell Luke Palladino's Seasonal Italian Kitchen in Northfield to a larger space nearby (199 New Rd., Central Square, Linwood, 609-926-3030) and replacing it with high-end BYOB chophouse LP Steak (Plaza 9 Shopping Center, 1333 New Rd., Northfield, 609-646-8189) in the original space. (Plans to open a place on East Passyunk in South Philly, he says, are looking like November.)
One of A.C.'s most intriguing openings since last summer, however, is so low-key it doesn't even have a sign. The Iron Room (648 N. Albany Ave., Atlantic City, 609-348-6400) is a "speakeasy-style" restaurant tucked behind the relatively new Atlantic City Bottle Co. retail wine and liquor store. There are 260 whiskeys behind the bar, not to mention serious wines chosen by partner-sommelier Paul Tonacci. But chef Kevin Cronin won't be overlooked with recent menu items like "battered fried" foie gras and Korean BBQ hanger steak.
By contrast, it's impossible to miss John and Joanne Liccio's growing empire in Margate. After adding a cheesesteakery, John's Steaks, last summer to their busy Johnny's Cafe, they practically own the entire 9400 block of Ventnor Avenue now with their new Shucker's Bar & Grill (9403 Ventnor Ave., Margate, 609-350-7478). Inspired by classic Shore seafood fare, the menu ranges from raw bar to fried seafood and steamed crabs.
Perhaps the most unexpected-but-tantalizing new opening this year is an 80-seat indoor-outdoor BYOB that most Shoregoers won't be able to visit. That's because the Bungalow (222 S. 81st St., Stone Harbor), which replaces the Back Yard, is a "members only" beach annex for Philly's Union League, a first for the club.
"A lot of our members are down the Shore in summer," says executive chef Martin Hamman, the former four-bell cook from the Four Seasons who has seriously upped the League's fine-dining cred in recent years.
One clever twist on BYO: Members can order wine from Fred's Tavern, which will deliver ahead of time so bottles can be well chilled before guests arrive. With a menu billed as "Jersey Provencal" ranging from hamachi tartare "barigoule" to bouillabaisse, the best fishing expedition on Seven Mile Island might now be an invitation from a friend who's one of those League elites.
Thankfully, one need only be a member of the unofficial Smoked Meat Lovers of America to get excited for the Avalon Barbecue Co. (212 21st St., Avalon, 609-967-8222), slated to open Saturday. This take-out spot with alfresco seating replaces Beach Burger, and is the new home for the Philly Pigs, a traveling pro BBQ team of three pit pals - Jim Boggs, Dan Deon, and Chuck Schlager - who have competed on the Kansas City Barbeque Society circuit for 20 years.
They've won plenty of awards for their hickory- and cherry-smoked brisket, ribs, and pulled pork. But Boggs is the first to admit that mastering restaurant consistency is a new challenge.
"I never really wanted to do a restaurant before," says Boggs, a financial consultant. "But now we're in the pool, we've got to swim. I'll tell you in September if it was worth it!"