Gastronaut: Down on the Shore

Philly is a city with an overabundance of great restaurants. So why hasn’t our ever-expanding scene spread all the way to our fun-time summer neighbor, the Jersey Shore?

gastronaut-0715-400The Shore is what it is—a region with its own peculiar DNA made up primarily of watery sangria, sand fleas, cotton candy and flip-flop sweat. It’s been the Northeast’s playground for decades and has evolved into a highly advanced organism for separating city folk from their disposable income.

And for the most part, it all works just fine. But when it comes to Shore restaurants, I’ve always been a little bit mystified. I mean, here we are, just a couple hours’ drive from such a concentration of wealth and poor judgment, and yet most Philadelphia restaurateurs appear to have no interest in opening down the Shore.

True, the Garces Group made an attempt at Revel in A.C. (and will be trying again at Bart Blatstein’s Playground this year), but that’s Atlantic City. It has its own rules. Cape May, though? Tell me how good a Brigantessa 2 would do a couple blocks off the beach. It’s not like Joe Cicala would have to worry about competition. I mean, would Mildred’s suddenly step up its game and learn how to make Roman gnocchi with oxtail ragu? Or imagine a Federal Donuts on the Boardwalk in Ocean City. The biggest problem the guys from CookN-
Solo would have would be figuring out where to put all the money once the trunks of both their cars were full.

For an example of success, I offer the Diving Horse in Avalon. This seasonal fine-dining restaurant is owned by the crew behind Fitler Dining Room and Pub & Kitchen here in Philly, and it’s one of the most coveted reservations in the entire region. It opens just before Memorial Day and operates until Labor Day weekend, with an itinerant crew of mercenary cooks and servers who mostly live together in a house rented for them by the owners. (Hello, reality TV producers. … )

I talked to Dan Clark, one of the owners, and asked what he thought scared everyone else away. “Seasonality, staffing, and managing from afar,” he said. Then there’s finding the right space, dealing with Jersey’s weird liquor laws, getting through zoning—the same problems any new restaurant would have, compounded by the fact that you’re in an unfamiliar town and on an unforgiving schedule.

On the upside, every beautiful night in Avalon is like a weekend night in Philly for the Diving Horse crew—250 covers without even trying, turning and burning from open till close. A year’s worth of business in three months.

Clark and I talked about the benefits and the challenges (mostly weather-related) of operating a Shore restaurant. He said it’s tough, but he’s surprised more owners haven’t given it a shot. He laughed at my idea of a FedNuts on the Boardwalk. “A Zahav in Margate, though,” he said. “That would be cool.”

Michael Solomonov’s partner, Steve Cook, put it most succinctly when I asked him about that Boardwalk FedNuts idea just before Memorial Day this year. “I think we’ve decided to just save the money and rent a house down there for a month instead,” he told me. “It’s a lot of work and big investment to do it right, for a seasonal business.”

Originally published in the July, 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.