Don’t wait until after Memorial Day
to get a taste of summer
BY ADAM ERACE
Recently, I found myself in Cleveland, sharing blood fettuccine and clams in foie broth with a mix of friends and strangers at the excellent Greenhouse Tavern. One guy at the table was a longtime Cleveland resident but grew up in Philly.
“The only two questions you need to ask someone from Philly to know everything about them,” he told the rest of the table, “is where did you go to high school and where do you go down the Shore.”
As Philly continues to diversify as a truly global city, the notion might seem a little quaint. But for a good swath of born-and-bred locals, those two questions really are telling, especially when it comes to beach-going habits. Each community along Jersey’s barrier islands has its own personality and, if you’ll forgive a bit of generalizing, draws its own group of Philadelphians, often generations deep.
I’m an Italian-American from South Philly, so my family decamps to Ventnor and Margate, the towns adjacent to Atlantic City, where my grandparents and parents spent summers after the war and before the casinos. I know the island’s streets and secrets, which Wawa will have the shortest lines at 8pm on a Saturday and how the lights are timed on Atlantic Avenue. Ocean City, 15 minutes south, was my boardwalk growing up, where my family used to have “pig out” nights, grazing tapas-style across funnel cakes, pizza and French fries—very ahead of our time.
Before moving to Bucks County, my wife’s family hailed from the Wissinoming and Holmesburg sections of the Northeast, so they’ve summered in Wildwood for four generations. We spend half our weekends there, and I’ve come to know Wildwood, its tony neighbor Cape May and the network of little offshore towns at their backs as well as Ventnor and Margate.
I love Philly fiercely, but I’m never so happy as when I’m down the Shore. Passing over whatever bridge onto whatever island, I roll down the windows, suck in the salt air and feel revived. You don’t need to wait till summer to experience it. The Shore is at its finest in spring, before the crowds descend. You might not get a suntan—but you will get lower hotel rates, open tables at the best restaurants and locals whose mild contempt toward Philadelphians has had six months to abate.
WHERE TO STAY
Ho-tel, mo-tel, family inn, the Shore has accommodations of all sorts, and rates in the spring are particularly wallet-friendly, before Memorial Day weekend officially ignites the season. In A.C., the gleaming Borgata is still the best game in town—and just celebrated ten years by renovating all its stingray-gray rooms with Midcentury Modern–style furniture, fresh Italian linens and fuchsia accents.
Heading south, Ocean City’s Atlantis Inn is a bed-and-breakfast a block from the beach, but instead of creepy cats and crocheted doilies, you’ll find Bulgari toiletries and a mahogany roof deck with Ferriswheel views. In Cape May, hotelier Curtis Bashaw has the luxury market cornered with gems like historic Congress Hall and the posh Virginia Hotel, whose gingerbread cottages across the street are the ultimate Shore rental. Families should check into Bashaw’s converted motels, the Beach Shack and The Star, for accommodations that don’t sacrifice style for price—or just head to Wildwood for a dose of doo-wop architecture at the futuristic StarLux, where guests can stay in a converted Airstream trailer complete with Astroturf lawn and plastic patio set.
WHERE TO EAT
In the spring, booked-solid-all-summer restaurants are suddenly happy to have you, and you’ll be waited on by professionals instead of the seasonal help often consisting of hungover college kids. You’ll find the Shore’s most diverse dining scene in Atlantic City, its alternately majestic and seedy streets home to legit Vietnamese (Little Saigon), Mexican (El Charro), Boardwalk Empire-era seafood (Dock’s Oyster House) and a James Beard Award winner in a basement (the magical Chef Vola’s). Ventnor has the Downbeach sushi scene on lock with Yama—get the hamachi kama—while in Margate, the Sandy-flooded Steve & Cookie’s is back and better than ever with views of the bay, a snug, not-so-secret raw bar in the back and a Thursday farmers’ market in the parking lot. The area’s best restaurant, though, is located inland. Chef Luke Palladino has relocated his eponymous BYOB to a bigger space in the burb of Linwood, where he keeps pace with Marc Vetri and Joe Cicala with dishes like duck sausage, stuffed zucchini flowers and beet-and-smoked-ricotta casonsei pasta.
On the way to catch the Parkway southbound, stop at the Clam Bar at Smith’s Marina in Somers Point, a no-nonsense bayside shack affectionately known as Smitty’s by locals who tailgate in the parking lot while waiting for stools at the outdoor bar. The can’t-miss spots in Avalon and Stone Harbor are the airy Diving Horse from the Pub & Kitchen crew and the rustic Quahog’s Seafood Shack, where chef Carlos Barroz has taken over the pacu-rib-glazing, littleneck-steaming duties for owner Lucas Manteca, who’s been running the charming Red Store with his wife, Deanna, in Cape May Point. At brunch, the omelets leak butter, and the biscuits float.
WHERE TO DRINK
In dry towns (Ventnor, Ocean City) the question of where to drink is met with one answer: your hotel room. Fortunately, most of the other communities offer plenty to drink without making you set foot in a casino, sticky beach bar or notorious meat market like Memories or the Princeton. Been-there-forever taprooms like the Anchorage Tavern in Somers Point, Robert’s Place in Margate and Anglesea Pub in the Anglesea pocket of Wildwood serve up local color along with your shot and beer. Craft-brew buffs repair to The Iron Room in Atlantic City, a new bar-restaurant with ten interesting taps and an attached bottle shop, and Cape May Brewing Company, where packaged tours include tastings of beers like Vanessa’s Blackberry Wititude and South Jersey Secession Session Scottish Ale. (Cape May locals’ hang, Lucky Bones Backwater Grille, reliably has something of theirs on tap to go with their wood-oven pizzas.) Nearby, the neatly rowed vineyards flanking Railroad Avenue produce Riesling, Sangiovese, Cab Franc and other grapes for award-winning wines at Hawk Haven Vineyard, open every day for tastings and tours, part of a burgeoning winery scene in a nationally acclaimed viticultural area that includes Cape May Winery and many more.
WHERE TO SHOP
Don’t miss Gardner’s Basin, an idyllic historical district in the northeast corner of Atlantic City, where you can charter a fishing boat, visit the petite aquarium or shop for surfboards, wetsuits and seashell-encrusted crucifixes at the waterfront pop-ups. Down in Stone Harbor, diaphanous, gem-toned glass jellyfish float through GlassRoots Gallery, a glassblower’s gallery with a seashore bent. When I was growing up, visiting 42-year-old Jagielky’s Homemade Candy in Ventnor (since relocated to Margate) was a tradition, where my grandparents would balk at the prices—then buy several pounds of dark-chocolate nonpareils and chocolate-covered raisins. My dad has since taken up their torch.
Cape May’s Washington Street Mall and Carpenter’s Lane are lined with boutiques like the Whale’s Tale (beachy trinkets), The Italian Garden (herbal body lotions and potions), Cape May Olive Oil Company (self-explanatory) and Love the Cook, whose locally made beach plum vinegar I use all year to perk up salad dressings and roasted vegetables. Venturing away from the coast, you’ll find the Fish Market at the Lobster House, the spot to buy supplies for an authentic clambake. And I love the Exit Zero Store and Gallery, curated by the local newspaper and publishing house of the same name, for T-shirts and Rockwell-inspired prints from local artist Victor Grasso.
On the tip of the cape, the gift shops at Sunset Beach sell wind chimes, beach chairs and “Cape May diamonds,” clear quartz sea pebbles that wash up here, but the best souvenir from a trip to the Shore may be a photo you take yourself. Point your camera toward the SS Atlantus, a Sunset Beach shipwreck whose jagged stern seems to pierce the whorls of pink, violet and fire orange that fade in nightly around 7 o’clock.
Although some venues do not open until closer to Memorial Day, an increasing number of shore establishments are now open year ’round.
WHERE TO STAY
Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa
1 Borgata Way, Atlantic City
609.317.1000 | theborgata.com
601 Atlantic Ave., Ocean City
609.399.9871 | atlantisinn.com
Virginia Hotel & Cottages
25 Jackson St., Cape May
609.884.5700 | caperesorts.com
StarLux Boutique Hotel
305 E Rio Grande Ave., Wildwood
609.522-7412 | thestarlux.com
WHERE TO EAT
2801 Arctic Ave., Atlantic City
111 S. Albion Pl., Atlantic City
609.345.2022 | chefvolas.com
Steve & Cookie’s By the Bay
9700 Amherst Ave., Margate
609.823.1163 | steveandcookies.com
Luke Palladino Seasonal Italian Cooking
199 New Rd., Linwood
609.926.3030 | lukepalladino.com
The Clam Bar at Smith’s Marina
910 Bay Ave., Somers Point
The Diving Horse
2109 Dune Dr., Avalon
609.368.5000 | thedivinghorseavalon.com
The Red Store
500 County Hwy 651, Cape May Point
WHERE TO DRINK
7807 Atlantic Ave., Margate
609.823.5050 | robertsplacenj.com
The Iron Room at
Atlantic City Bottle Company
648 North Albany Ave., Atlantic City
609.348.6400 | acbottlecompany.com
Cape May Brewing Company
1288 Hornet Rd., Rio Grande
609.849.9933 | capemaybrewery.com
Cape May Winery
711 Town Bank Rd., Cape May
609.884.1169 | capemaywinery.com
WHERE TO SHOP
Historic Gardner’s Basin
800 N. New Hampshire Ave.,
Atlantic City | 609.348.2880
Jagielky’s Homemade Candy
5225 Ventnor Ave., Ventnor
8018 Ventnor Ave., Margate
609.822.2204 | jagielkyscandy.com
Cape May Olive Oil Company
324 Carpenter Ln., Cape May
Love the Cook
404 Washington St., Cape May
609.884.9292 | lovethecook.com
Fish Market at the Lobster House
On Fisherman’s Wharf
at Cape May Harbor , Cape May
609.884.3064 | thelobsterhouse.com