From fish shacks and breezy boardwalk grills to swanky Atlantic City dining rooms that thrived during the speakeasy days of Prohibition, the essence of classic Shore dining is as diverse as it is enduring. My list of essential summer eats, from timeless subs to seafood bungalows that evoke the charm of Cape May, quite literally covers the waterfront.
KNIFE & FORK INN
While most of Atlantic City has gone casino, the 107-year-old Knife & Fork, still independent under the Dougherty family, remains a gorgeous sanctuary of A.C. gone by, from its distinctive stair-step facade and leaded glass windows to the Prohibition mural that pays homage to the era when “Nucky” Johnson ruled its speakeasy nights.
The current menu trends steakhouse, but the creamy throwback lobster Thermidor, lumpy crabcakes, stiff cocktails, and airy soufflé potatoes are also worth the splurge. 3600 Atlantic Ave., Atlantic City, 609-344-1133; knifeandforkinn.com
WHITE HOUSE SUB SHOP
Devotees rightfully praise the sandwiches at the 73-year-old institution where the fresh rolls are delivered warm multiple times a day and the cooks stuff their subs (ahem, not hoagies down the Shore!) with all the meats and cheese curled into a distinctive S that adds pockets of air for flavor.
The White House’s steak sandwich is also among the best at the Shore. (Even so, good luck detouring me from Pancho’s Mexican Taqueria right next door, which makes some of the best tacos al pastor at the Shore. But I digress … there’s time for both.) White House Sub Shop, 2301 Arctic Ave., Atlantic City, 609-345-8599; whitehousesubshop.net
The summer smells of salt air, suntan lotion, and frying doughnuts mingle on the boardwalk breeze that swirls through the screen windows of this definitive beach grill. The perfect fresh burgers and sloppy joes are popular for lunch.
But Browns is first and foremost a morning ritual due to its peerless fried-to-order doughnuts. The taste of a Browns doughnut glazed in Bucks County honey is my first bite rite of summer. This is also the doughnut robot that inspired the far cheffier Federal Donuts chain. 110 Boardwalk, Ocean City, 609-391-0677; on Facebook
SMITTY’S THE CLAM BAR
The Shore’s ultimate no-frills seafood shack, with indoor-outdoor counters and a marina view of the bridge to Ocean City, this no-reservations standby for 30-plus years is my favorite stop for a dozen raw littlenecks and fresh local seafood simply baked or fried.
The tuna in wasabi sauce is my go-to, but the mako and snapper are nice, too. Bring a cooler of beer and friends, because the waits can be long. 910 Bay Ave., Somers Point, 609-927-8783; on Facebook
STEVE & COOKIE’S
Regulars come year-round to this Margate institution because owner Cookie Till, it seems, is at the heart of so many positive developments in the Shore’s dining scene, like the local-food movement.
Her restaurant is also the epitome of steady class, from the lobster mac-n-cheese to the seafood pan-roast and legendary blueberry pies. The oyster bar is also worthwhile for local bivalves and a burger. 9700 Amherst Ave., Margate, 609-823-1163; steveandcookies.com
This massive seafood standby, which traces its roots to 1911 when the Monichettis arrived from Ischia to Sea Isle City and helped launch “Fish Alley,” represents the prototypical seafood-deck experience. With long lines, cheerful counter service, and seafood combos served efficiently in aluminum take-out pans, it has few upscale airs.
Expect quantity and quality, if not necessarily finesse. But the deviled clam, grilled swordfish, and lip-numbing shrimp “from hell” are worth the trip. 4222 Park Rd., Sea Isle City, 609-263-3458, mikesseafood.com
This cozy gingerbread bungalow off the Washington Street Mall helped establish Cape May’s reputation as a culinary destination when it opened in 1981 with long no-reservation waits and a funky Restaurant Renaissance-era aesthetic. Louisa’s takes reservations now.