On the menu for Jersey Shore dining this summer, along with the inevitable seafood dinners and boardwalk treats, there will no doubt be a lingering aftertaste of Sandy.
Whereas most springs we can begin counting the exciting new restaurant projects about to open, this year the question is more one of survival: How many restaurants are left?
"I'd say as many as 20 percent of the existing restaurants may be gone," says Ed Hitzel, whose weekly Table For One radio show, Channel 40 TV segments, and self-named magazine are dedicated to the South Jersey dining scene. "No one knows what to expect. A lot of homes are still not habitable. So where are restaurants going to get employees?"
The storm damage ranged widely, of course, with the brunt of the devastation landing in Toms River, just north of the most Philly-centric towns. But the damage was deep enough from Beach Haven to Wildwood.
Even so, several storm-soaked institutions have persevered for comebacks. Margate neighbors Steve & Cookie's By the Bay and Tomatoe's, Angelo's Fairmount Tavern in Atlantic City, and both the Harvey Cedars Shellfish Co. Clam Bar and the Gables in Beach Haven surmounted serious damage and challenging restorations to reopen. Their efforts are cause for some official optimism.
"We got our butts kicked, but we were really proactive," says Long Beach Township Mayor Joe Mancini. "About 80 percent of the restaurants that would have opened this year are open now, and 95 percent will be open by Memorial Day."
In the wake of the cleanup and inevitable losses, a handful of new projects have sprung up in the crisply rehabbed shells of the departed.
"This is a brand-new space," Brian Tyszka says of the recently opened Mako's American Grille, which replaced a barbecue restaurant on Landis Avenue in Sea Isle City that had 2 feet of water.
Tyszka's chef and partner, childhood friend Ron Leider, is now serving three meals a day in the casual, nautical-themed space, with a menu focused on seafood with fresh, creative touches, from crab Florentine eggs benedict to blackened mako with mango chutney.
In North Wildwood, chef Andrew Steiner had contracted to buy the building that formerly housed Claude's before the storm. By settlement time, though, he got the boost of an extra $90,000 in rehab due to hurricane damage that left several feet of water inside.
Steiner's restaurant, the Establishment at 100, opened in late March, replacing Claude's classic French flavors with an ambitiously upscale "farm-to-fork" concept, featuring ceviche with avocado-lime sorbet, burned cardamom carrots, fava bean fritters, and grilled cobia with tamarind demi-glace.
Farther north, the ever-nomadic Nick LoBianco has closed his self-named restaurant in Margate and moved to open Stella in the former Vincent's. It sits on the same Ventnor Avenue block as Salt Ayre, LoBianco's other restaurant, and firmly embraces an Italian theme with handmade pastas, meatballs, and chicken panzanella salad.
Two other big-name chefs, meanwhile, have new projects that show no sign of hurricane-dimmed ambitions. Lucas Manteca, who earned fans at Sea Salt, the Ebbitt Room, and Quahog's, has added a dream kitchen and chef's tasting room called The Counter to his otherwise casual Red Store in Cape May Point. He's booking 13-course tasting meals built around seasonal ingredients and his favorite techniques for parties of six - at $165 per person, all included. Could it become Talula's Table-meets-Studio Kitchen by the sea?
Jose Garces is adding to his own oceanside domain at Revel in Atlantic City, where he's replacing the plancha bar beside Amada with a still-unnamed Asian concept featuring dim-sum dumplings, ramen, buns, and "Lions Head" meatballs. Whether adding a much-missed Asian-food option to Revel can help the casino as it emerges from its recent state of bankruptcy remains an open question. But that's another lingering storm altogether.