How Cookie Till Became the Queen of Margate
Cookie Till is a restaurant owner, an entrepreneur, a philanthropist — and a connector. Other Shore spots may attract swarms of people, but Steve & Cookie’s is the only one that really matters.
There are exactly three ways to get a summer-weekend dinner reservation at Steve & Cookie’s in Margate.
Option 1: Go to the restaurant in person on the first day of spring, when they open the Summer Reservation Book. Get there surfer-early and bring a beach chair, because there will be a line. Once you make it to the host desk, snag every reservation you can for the entire summer. This is not a time for moderation. Option 2: Call the restaurant on the first day of spring. The phone lines will be busy and the voicemail box will be full, but keep calling. Maybe you’ll eventually get through to one of the six staffers who are manning the phones on this, the most sacred day of the year. Option 3: Log onto OpenTable and check if anything — anything — is available. You might get lucky. But you probably won’t.
I did exactly zero of these things, and yet somehow I am here, seated at a prime table at a prime time on a prime weekend (the Friday before Memorial Day) at the prime restaurant in Margate and just maybe all of South Jersey. I am here by the grace of God, or, more specifically, by the grace of Caroline “Cookie” Till, the owner of Steve & Cookie’s, who, if you were to see the way guests greet her as she makes the rounds during dinner service, you could quite easily mistake for God. Or, at the very least, the patron saint of the see-and-be-seen crowd.
About that crowd: The fascinating thing about Steve & Cookie’s isn’t that everybody wants to come here. Plenty of far lesser Shore spots attract swarms of people. (See: the Princeton in Avalon and La Costa in Sea Isle.) It’s that everybody who is anybody wants to come here. Since it opened 21 years ago, Steve & Cookie’s has become the unofficial epicenter of Margate, especially for the city’s movers, shakers, deal makers and power players. The Summer Reservation Book — which actually isn’t a book at all but rather an electronic touchscreen system — reads like a who’s who of a certain segment of Philly. There are the lawyers (Steve Cozen, Robert Mongeluzzi), the developers (Ron Rubin, Bart Blatstein), the ad guys (David Neff, David Lane), the auto emperors (the Kerbecks) and the movie stars (Bradley Cooper dined here a few years ago). Hell, even Sister Mary Scullion has a reservation.
“There’s a lot of money in that dining room. At all times,” says one longtime patron, who prefers to remain anonymous.
But despite the cash and flash of the guest list, the restaurant itself is rather unassuming, a low-profile red-roofed building that lazily unfurls along the corner of Amherst and Monroe avenues. Inside are five different, rather unremarkable dining areas, three of which are anchored by sweeping bars. It’s upscale but unfussy, with a breezy Hamptons sort of swank.
As I look around, I feel a tiny twinge of guilt for my back-door reservation; Cookie wedged me into the Book a few days ago so I could witness the restaurant on the first unofficial weekend of summer. But I don’t have too long to dwell on it, because, look! There’s Rittenhouse design doyen Bennett Weinstock rising from his table to greet someone seated across the veranda, which is still sun-dappled at 6:30 in the evening. And there’s his wife, Judie, impeccable as always. Over there, I think I see mega-developer Jeffrey Orleans. And is that former Tastykake CEO and man-about-town Charlie Pizzi?
“It’s like being at a bar mitzvah,” says Cookie. “Everybody is up table-hopping; the host is trying to get people to their seats and they’re stopping at every table to say hello, hugging and kissing, screaming across the room to each other.”
Yes. It’s a scene. But behind the scene, there’s an only-in-Margate story (which could also be an only-in-Philly story, because what is Margate if not Philly with sand instead of skyscrapers?), one about business and community and loyalty and, oh yeah, food. It starts with a seafood shack, then wends through love, loss and loss again, but for now, it ends here, with the famous “ugly ripe tomato salad” that a server has just set before me, an inexplicably amazing dish of candy-sweet tomatoes crowned with gorgonzola cheese, a haystack of frizzled shallots, and a sherry vinaigrette. So please excuse me, and also Mr. and Mrs. Weinstock, Mr. Orleans, Mr. Pizzi and the 645 other people who will eat here tonight. It’s time for dinner.
Most days, there’s exactly one person you need to get past in order to get a reservation at Steve & Cookie’s. Her name is Colleen Riley, and she’s a mild-mannered, soft-spoken woman in her 60s. Colleen is the gatekeeper of the Summer Reservation Book, and five days a week she mans the phone at the front desk, sweetly explaining to flabbergasted hopefuls that there are absolutely no prime-time weekend dinner reservations left for the summer, that she’s not a liar, that yelling doesn’t change the state of the Book, and that she can’t accept bribes.
“I love my day job because no one knows what I look like,” she says conspiratorially. “I can go to the grocery store when I leave here and nobody knows I’m the one that couldn’t get them the party of 12 at seven o’clock tonight.” It’s late morning on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, and aside from the phone’s incessant ringing, Steve & Cookie’s is quiet. But there’s a simmering undercurrent of electricity here as Cookie’s staff sets the stage for another night in Margate.
At the peak of summer, Cookie’s operation employs 125 people. There are the cooks, servers and dishwashers, sure, but also the polishers, who make sure each glass is spotless; the “cappers,” who man the coffee stations; the handyman, who comes in daily to check on things like the ice machines and the generator; the landscaper, who plants the flowerpots and tends the rosebushes; the musicians, who play every night; the resident artist, Jon Baker, who is also one of the restaurant’s longtime bartenders; and the staff cocktail whisperer, George Patten, Steve & Cookie’s’ 77-year-old bartender and wine steward, who has earned his own cult following.
And then, of course, there’s 59-year-old Cookie, who emerges now from the kitchen wearing flip-flops, running pants, and a Steve & Cookie’s tank top, her curly crop of sandy blond hair tucked beneath a black baseball cap. She went for a run early this morning, before her loyal patrons — surely still sleeping off last night’s excesses — were up to recognize her. That’s the thing about being Cookie Till: When the restaurant that bears your name is the powerhouse magnet of Margate, you become the face of it and, in some way, the face of an entire town. That’s a big job. Especially for someone who doesn’t particularly like to be the center of attention.
“It’s not the easiest thing for me, because I’m actually pretty quiet,” Cookie admits. We’re in the veranda, the restaurant’s most-requested dining room, a window-walled oasis with sweeping white curtains and exposed wood beams. (“There are notes in the computer that say ‘MUST be sat in veranda,’” says Samantha Garvey, a college student who works at Steve & Cookie’s in the summer. “And not at the ends of the room, but in the center, so everyone can see them.” Locals and millennials, meanwhile, prefer to sit in the Oyster Bar, a more casual enclosed space checkered with high-tops. It’s no-reservation, but naturally, there’s always a line to get in.)
It’s ironic, really, that the ringmaster of Margate’s social scene prefers to stay behind the curtain. “I’m still trying to work that out,” Cookie says. “I have to put myself out there, and I’m starting to reconcile that. It’s not about me; it’s about the experience I want people to have.” And so, night after night, Cookie emerges from the back of the house to preside over her dining rooms, like a director on a movie set.
Cookie’s isn’t a parting-of-the-seas presence, at least not the sort I was expecting. It’s more of a quiet prominence. As she threads through the tables, guests grab her elbow, present tightrope-taut cheeks for air kisses, open their arms for hugs. Cookie welcomes everyone — Hello, how have you been, how are the kids? — and makes sure that there’s enough food and drink, that everything tastes good, and that she has, in fact, stopped at every table: “God forbid you don’t go say hello to somebody! People get very offended.”
“She does her walk-around and then she goes behind the scenes,” says Joie DiGiovanni, a stylish 30-year-old jewelry designer who has been coming to Margate her entire life. “She shows her face in a very cool way. You almost don’t notice; she just pops by your table and then she’s gone.”
Cookie finds it funny that so many people want to be in her orbit. After all, she never set out to be the social chair of Margate. She simply opened up a restaurant, served good food, hired good people, and kept doing it. In fact, every person I spoke with chalked the continued success of Steve & Cookie’s up to one word: consistency.
“Cookie engenders loyalty among her staff, so you see the same front of the house and the same servers year after year, summer after summer,” says ad exec Marc Brownstein, who dines here once a week in-season. (He’s become friends with Cookie; he gets her reservations at Philly hot spots like Double Knot and Palizzi so she can see what others are doing, and she asks him to send her pictures of terrific dishes he encounters during his travels.) “That continuity is really important.”
We Philadelphians are a fickle bunch. When it comes to our city, we’re restless; we want hip, hot, new, now. Yet when it comes to our Shore towns, we turn fiercely nostalgic; we want them to stay the same so that when we return each summer, they’re just as we left them, like some weird New Jerseyan Pompeii. Still, too much of the same gets boring, and when you’re a consummate entrepreneur like Cookie, you dream about what’s next. And Cookie, who lives in Margate, has so much she wants to do here and in her hometown of Atlantic City: develop more community gardens, raise more money for the local food bank and for the Boys & Girls Club of Atlantic City, expand her healthy-eating initiatives to more area schools and build urban farms through her A Work In Progress nonprofit. Cookie Till is just … restless.
The most boring summer Cookie ever had was the summer of 1996. She was married then to Steve Till, a self-taught chef she began dating while in graduate school. When they first met, back in 1979, Steve owned a no-frills seafood shack in Margate called the Crab Pot; Cookie spent the summer waitressing.
It wasn’t an entirely surprising gig. She grew up just miles away in Atlantic City — her father was a judge and lawyer; her mother was a homemaker who was “ahead of her time” when it came to cooking. Cookie watched her mother in the kitchen and experimented with her Easy-Bake Oven, a tiny mad scientist. When she got older, she waitressed, made some money selling her baked goods to local places, and eventually earned a graduate degree in nutrition from Drexel and a gig in product development at Campbell Soup Company. It was a perfect job for Cookie: She could tinker with ingredients and measurements, delve into the science of food — and do it all behind the scenes.
“When I look back, food has always been my passion. That’s where nutrition comes in, but I didn’t see the restaurant thing. I never really saw myself in the corporate world, either, but Campbell’s was different because I could be in the kitchen and do my own thing,” she says.
But that all changed in 1985, when Steve asked her to come back and run the Crab Pot with him. “It was one of those life-altering moments,” she says. “One where you’re like, I thought my career path was … ” She trails off, partly because she’d never really cemented an idea of what her career path was and partly because “the restaurant thing” was inevitable.
Soon after Cookie returned to the Shore, the couple decided to move the Crab Pot — a place that had veered “from quaint to dangerous” — to the new Bay Club Marina on Amherst Avenue, leasing a space for a seasonal restaurant.
They didn’t have a staff landscaper then, or a full-time handyman, or a team of bakers or even a manager. Cookie would bake muffins in the morning, manage the restaurant, make the schedule, pay the bills, and host at night. For eight summers, “We jammed,” Cookie says. The pace was frenetic, exhausting, exhilarating, and then, quite literally without warning, it came to a screeching halt.
The marina had been in foreclosure for a couple of years, and in the summer of 1996, the building sold. At the end of June, the new owners visited the restaurant with a message: “You’re out.” The Crab Pot closed within a week. And just like that, Cookie Till — owner, baker, bookkeeper, host, manager — had the summer off.
“I’d never had a summer off,” she says. “Once we got over the shock of it, we were going out on the boat, going to barbecues, like, oh, is this what people do?”
But Cookie was restless, and the couple flitted through a range of options. Option 1: Open a restaurant in Key West. Option 2: Open a restaurant offshore. Or option 3: Open a restaurant across the street.
Steve and Cookie chose the last of these, and within a year, they’d purchased the building across from the marina, a 1936 split-level that began as a private club called Strotbeck’s before circling through a handful of operators. By the time the Tills (they were married now) bought the place, it was practically a teardown. They rallied a team of workers — including friends, family, and Steve & Cookie’s current executive chef, Kevin Kelly, and chef de cuisine, Warner Christy, both of whom began their tenures with Cookie back at the Crab Pot — and worked doggedly for three months in order to open by Memorial Day weekend.
“People asked why we didn’t just tear it down and rebuild it,” says Cookie. “The feel of the place, you can’t manufacture it. It feels like home.”
You also can’t manufacture loyalty, and Cookie has this in spades. Most of the people I spoke with for this story asked if she was aware of the piece, if she knew we were speaking, if the story would be positive. You’d think I was writing about a kneecap-smashing Mob boss and not the good-natured owner of a Shore-town restaurant. But Cookie makes things happen in this town. If Colleen Riley can get you into the restaurant, Cookie Till can keep you out. Take, for instance, Philly Mag’s late owner, Herb Lipson, who, according to legend, was banned from Steve & Cookie’s for writing a snarky bit about the restaurant in the magazine — although his grandson, Geoffrey Litwer (who dines there at least once a week with his wife, the aforementioned jewelry designer), says it also possibly had something to do with a quarrel over the price of a poached salmon Lipson ordered for a party. (Cookie now denies this, saying, “He banned himself.”)
Cookie also didn’t tear down the building after Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, though she probably could have. Two and a half feet of water thundered through the restaurant, sending chairs floating, popping the floorboards, and effectively killing every piece of equipment in the place.
“About five days after Sandy, I walked in here. I saw Cookie behind the bar, and I burst out crying. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” says Riley. “Cookie lost her house. She lost her car. This place was destroyed. And she was saying, ‘Stop crying! Wait till you see it when we’re all done! It’s going to be great!’”
Cookie doesn’t dwell on things. Maybe it’s a product of living so close to the ocean, where you see the tides rise and fall day after day after day, a constant reminder that life’s cyclical; shit gets bad and then, most of the time, it gets better. Plus, she’d been through worse. After 13 years of marriage, Steve and Cookie divorced. By the time they separated, Cookie had full ownership of the restaurant. She’s cagey about the details; she wants to protect Steve and the legacy of the restaurant he helped to build.
“It was scary as hell,” Cookie says of owning the place on her own. “At least if it didn’t work then, it was both of us. Now, it was all me.” Then she softens, reveals a quick flash of vulnerability. “He was one of the loves of my life,” Cookie says. “He was a difficult person, people knew it, but I understood him, to a point. It was hard. But we wouldn’t have a restaurant if it wasn’t for him. Steve & Cookie’s wouldn’t be Steve & Cookie’s without Steve.”
A year after the divorce, in 2005, Steve died of a massive heart attack while out on a fishing boat. Cookie doesn’t go into much detail here, either. “That’s not the story of Steve & Cookie’s,” she says. And she’s right: The story of Steve & Cookie’s isn’t some soured-love sobfest or a protracted legal drama à la Manco & Manco. It’s still Steve & Cookie’s, only now without Steve.
At 10 a.m. on the Saturday morning of Memorial Day weekend, two miles from Steve & Cookie’s, a little blue light switches on in the front window of Ventnor 7311, the small-batch bakery and coffee shop Cookie co-owns with baker Kim Richmond. The crowd gathered outside the storefront knows what this means and begins to get antsy: Cookie’s legendary blueberry pie is here, and there isn’t going to be enough for everyone.
“People were yelling and fighting,” the girl behind the counter tells me a little while later. “As I was ringing up a pie for a customer, someone went and ripped it out of her hand.”
“The bakery has become a scene,” says Brownstein. “There are other coffee shops around there, and they come and they close, and hers has lines out the door.” He chuckles to himself. “It’s unbelievable.”
Cookie has built another Shore hot spot. There isn’t a formula behind it — if Steve & Cookie’s feels as if it’s been plucked from Montauk, 7311 would be at home in SoHo. Or Fishtown. It’s thoroughly modern, its interior filled with an eclectic, Instagrammable mix of furniture and its menu studded with trendy offerings like La Colombe coffee and Paleo baked goods. But just like at the restaurant, Cookie has expertly straddled the line between nostalgia and evolution, and restless locals and sentimental shoobies are drawn in, moths to a blue flame.
Cookie is matter-of-fact when she explains why she decided to open another venture: She wanted to be able to get a good cup of coffee in town. She also wanted an easier way to get fresh produce for the restaurant, so she founded the Margate Community Farmers Market, which buzzes to life on Thursday mornings throughout the summer in the parking lot behind Steve & Cookie’s. And she wanted local kids to learn about healthy eating, so she partnered with area schools to build a community garden and developed a nutrition program that she teaches in Margate and Atlantic City. As for her food truck, well, two years ago she happened to visit a food-truck outfitter in Hammonton, and “I started looking and I started thinking, and the next thing I knew … ” Enter the Traveling Kitchen, a mobile catering service that brings Steve & Cookie’s food — and bartenders, servers, linens and dishes — to whoever can afford to pay for it. (It’s about $100 a head for parties of up to 45 people. They ran a bash at Pat Croce’s Ocean City beach house last year; the truck is booked every Saturday night this summer.)
“Cookie has created a year-round economy in Margate. And she knows how to throw a party,” muses Claire Swift, a 40-something attorney from Margate who worked at Steve & Cookie’s in the very beginning. She’s talking about the fund-raisers Cookie hosts, each one a jam-packed sellout. But the most important part of any party is the people, and almost no one is better than Cookie Till at bringing people together.
“It’s the way she treats them,” says Brownstein. “She helps her competitors, she helps her community, she helps her employees, and she cares about her customers.”
“It’s the people she supports,” says DiGiovanni. “She’ll bring this pizza guy in for an event, and then she’ll work with this up-and-coming guy who’s very big in salmon and nova, which then puts all these people on the radar in the area and then they become staples.”
“It’s the experience,” says Swift. “You walk in there on a summer night, the music is playing, the wineglasses are clinking, you have a drink at the bar, they take you to your table, you sit down, and you just feel like you’re … home.”
But for Cookie Till, the magic of the restaurant — and her success — boils down to something simpler and more concrete: “It’s the science of it all. I love how when you put things together, they become more than the sum of their parts.”
Cookie Till is a restaurant owner, an entrepreneur and a philanthropist, but most importantly, she’s a connector, linking all the people in her ever-expanding circle together — chefs, farmers, artists, makers, students and, yes, the see-and-be-seen crowd — so that they can all work toward something bigger.
“It’s so much more than Steve & Cookie’s. It’s about our community, about all the businesses, about everybody there,” Cookie says. “It’s more than me, and I know that.”
On the Saturday morning before Memorial Day, Cookie and I sit in the veranda, now empty and quiet. In a few hours, this room will be abuzz with an electric energy, people laughing and eating and talking and table-hopping. Cookie will slip into the room and make her rounds, welcoming everyone back to the Shore after another long winter: Hello, how have you been, how are the kids? It must be exhausting, I say. “After all, you’re basically throwing a party … ”
“Every single night,” she says with a smile, finishing my thought. “For 600 of my closest friends.”
Published as “The Queen of Margate” in the August 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.