A star chef is stepping up to his biggest restaurant yet with a new venture in Sea Isle City. A Philly pan-pizza legend is doubling down for not one but two Shore debuts. Destinations just off-Shore like Somers Point and Cape May Court House are suddenly rising. Ventnor is literally going to be smoking. And even sleepy Long Beach Island, notably slow for restaurant openings in recent years, is showing sparks of new life.
If the South Jersey Shore dining scene is in some ways a bellwether for local economies, this season forecasts a tide of tasty new energy rising faster than any summer since before Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Sea Isle City
Chef Lucas Manteca, who’s become one of the Shore’s biggest names with the Red Store in Cape May and Quahog’s in Stone Harbor, has pushed his empire an island north with the Beachwood at the Dunes (8600 Landis Ave.) an airy redo of Doc Magrogan’s in the Townsend’s Inlet section of Sea Isle City.
The Argentine-born Manteca, who partners with wife and designer Deanna Ebner, has divided the massive space into distinct zones for a dining room, bar, and live performance venue. The menu is seafood-driven in the fresh style of Quahog’s, with the addition of a raw bar for ceviches and a pizza oven. Think Korean-spiced wings to go with local scallops a la plancha and the chef’s signature empanadas.
Pizza and beach vacations are synonymous. But the Shore’s thin-crust pie scene really doesn’t have anything quite like the crispy-edged squares of sauce-top pan pizzas made Philly-famous by Santucci’s. The rapidly expanding chain is making a push to the Shore this season with its first franchise on the Boardwalk in Ocean City (944 Boardwalk).
Alicia Santucci, whose family owns locations in South Philly, Roxborough, and on North Broad Street, imagines her handheld strombolis will be a hit with busy boardwalk stroller moms. A bigger branch is expected to open with new construction in Ventnor (6513 Ventnor Ave.): 250 seats, a big rooftop deck, and two bars to make full use of one of that formerly dry town’s first liquor licenses.
A renovation of the 1928 movie theater with a fancy burger bar will operate one of the city’s two other liquor licenses when the Ventnor Square Theatre opens by summer’s end. For more immediate Ventnor satisfaction, I’ll be following my nose to Water Dog Smoke House (7319 Ventnor Ave.).
Pitmaster Dan Greenberg from the Margate farmers market’s popular Downbeach BBQ stand has partnered with Steve Marchel (Chido Burrito) to open Water Dog, a cafe in a renovated bank that features variations of its outstanding smoked fish on sandwiches made with artisan bagels from Ocean City’s new Dead End Bakehouse. There will also be house-smoked pastrami, smoked mini-meatloaves, smoked local scallop rolls, and a smoked fish riff on poké.
Cape May Court House
Other towns are also seeing a surge. Cape May Court House is riding some momentum in its reviving off-Shore historic district, which last year saw a new brewery (Bucket Brigade) and seafood market-cafe (Matthew’s).
This year comes a stylish contemporary bistro called Scola BYOB (3 Mechanic St.), where the group behind Cape May’s Shimone and George’s Place has put chef Ben Scola in place to serve oysters smoking in liquid nitro and kobe beef-duck fat meatloaf glazed in fig ketchup.
Somers Point, long the boozy nightlife counterpart to dry Ocean City across the bay, is playing to that strength again. Somers Point Brewing Co. (705 W. New York Ave.) opened recently, and a collection of more than 100 whiskeys plus authentically poured Guinness can be found at the new Josie Kelly’s Public House (908 Shore Rd.), a handsome Irish pub that replaced seafood landmark Mac’s (most recently Sandi Pointe) with vintage decor and authentic brogue to its menu.
Co-owner Dermot Lloyd, a County Limerick native, is paying homage to recipes from his mother, a culinary instructor in Ireland, with creamy made-to-order smoked fish chowder, genuine Shepherd’s pie with ground lamb, and whiskey-spiked Irish coffees for dessert topped with fresh whipped cream.
Long Beach Island
At the northern edge of the Philly-centric Shore on Long Beach Island, meanwhile, some of the biggest openings of the summer are cued up. The swanky new Hotel LBI (350 W. Eighth St.), with its 100-plus luxury rooms perched in Ship Bottom near the bridge from Manahawkin, will have several venues, including the 200-seat Salt Kitchen & Cocktail Bar for “casual fine dining.” Chef Nicholas Persons will be serving raw bar towers, Viking Village scallops with carrot-ginger puree, and luxury chops that drift into the $40s and $50s.
The former Crabby Paddy’s will be replaced by Russo’s Italian Restaurant (1415 Long Beach Blvd.), whose owners, Vince and Lori Russo, have taken up a Shore project after retiring from Vince & Tony’s in Royersford.
A couple of veteran LBI restaurateurs are delivering new looks. Surf City’s fine-dining favorite Yellowfin (104 24th St.), which last year completed a full indoor renovation, is adding outdoor seating this year. Fans of the old Pinziminio’s will be thrilled to taste Karen Pinzminio’s distinctive riff on puttanesca sauce again. After several years away running year-round restaurants in Asbury Park, she’s returned to her old address in Brighton Beach (8701 Long Beach Blvd.) but rebranded as Angelina’s.
One LBI opening I’m especially intrigued about is Bird & Betty’s (529 Dock Rd.), a makeover of the Ketch’s giant deck in Beach Haven that is the latest from the Tide Table Group (Mud City Crab House, Parker’s Garage, the Black Whale). The 115-year-old building has history as the island’s oldest bar, a hangout for the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Babe Ruth when it was the Acme Hotel, which owners Bird and Betty Clutter turned into a music venue that once hosted Clarence Clemons in the early 1980s.
New co-owner Melanie Magaziner has vowed to “bring back that live music fun,” avoid fussiness on a menu that will range from fried oysters and grilled tuna reubens to clam bakes and Neapolitan pizzas, and preserve the Ketch’s popular “teen nights.” One more coveted ritual they’ll keep, but with adults in mind, is “Daiquiris on the Deck,” a Sunday tradition to celebrate sunsets with a toast.
With some fresh love for this old LBI landmark, and cold beach drink in one’s hand, that bayside perch seems like a potentially perfect place to take in a twilight view of the Jersey Shore.