Jersey Shore eatery's fans get a reprieve

Chef Al Schettig, a hands-on owner with his wife, Kim, adds spices to a tray of bruschetta. For a while, the couple had considered downsizing.
Chef Al Schettig, a hands-on owner with his wife, Kim, adds spices to a tray of bruschetta. For a while, the couple had considered downsizing.
Posted: August 29, 2010

SEA ISLE CITY, N.J. - Among its regulars (and in the seaside precincts of Sea Isle City you can measure them not simply in numbers, but in generations), word that Busch's seafood house was going to pack it in after 128 years - and be demolished! - did not go down at all well.

Leah Marmon, who had been coming, well, "since I was born," was waiting for a table Friday evening. "People were in tears," she offered. "In tears!"

The rambling, white-clapboard, faded-canopied Busch's - 450 seats under eight-foot dropped ceilings, hour-long waits between 6:45 and 8:45, fount of a legendary, sweet, she-crab soup ("Tuesday and Sunday only") - had been their touchstone, a piece of the Shore still standing the way they remembered it and wanted to remember it.

That was certainly the case for the three priests who had come almost daily for 20 years, taking the same, pre-rush seats at the padded bar.

And for Russell Parr, in his pink polo shirt, from Yardley, Pa., who at Busch's - and Busch's only - had defiantly broken his off-season vow not to eat fried foods.

And William McMonagle, the retired court officer from Philadelphia, who had come for what he thought was one last bite of the place.

Developers had signed a deal to put up a dozen condos on the block-long site, envisioning smaller, presumably hipper eateries (maybe even a sports bar, for goodness' sake) at street level.

Busch's hands-on owners - Al Schettig and his wife, Kim, the stepdaughter of fourth-generation proprietor George Phillips - were conflicted: The hulking building sure took a lot of upkeep. Al, 63, wasn't a kid anymore. They could downsize; operate a storefront takeout from their prep kitchen across the street.

They had swallowed hard, agreed to sell, then put together a sentimental, 12-minute farewell video (on sale at the hostess stand).

Business jumped nearly 20 percent.

"It was the perfect storm," said Schettig, manning the clam-shucking station. "It was the going-out-of-business effect, the great weather, and . . . we've always had great food."

Ahem, neeever mind. A couple of weeks ago, on Aug. 17 to be precise, the Atlantic City Press broke the news that the whole deal had fallen through, that new-wave restaurateurs weren't stepping up, that the developers were stalled, that Busch's - unless a pot of financing money fell out of the sky - was going to have next season after all.

"Part of me," said Schettig, "was relieved."

Intense experience

Other old-school fish houses have their followings at the Shore - the Crab Trap in Somers Point and the Lobster House in Cape May.

But an intensity is palpable at Busch's (128 years on the site, midway between Ocean City and Cape May, first as a hotel replacing the old Atlantic House, and for the last 98 years the seafood place).

The sheer numbers are staggering: 100 cooks and servers (and no touch-pad ordering); up to 800 pounds of imported jumbo lump crab a week (and 400 briefly fried, then baked "George's" meaty, gorgeous crab cakes on a single Friday); 600 to 1,000 dinners served nightly (except Mondays) for the 99-day sprint of the summer season.

Schettig carefully crafts Busch's superlative: It is, he says, the "largest, oldest, seasonal-only" seafood house at the Jersey Shore. (This season will end next Sunday, the restaurant opening two hours earlier than usual at 2 p.m. and serving until the food runs out, usually about 10.)

What has set the place apart is certainly not the decor. It's homey and a little shopworn, and while other Sea Isle spots - the Lobster Loft, Mike's Seafood, and Marie's, 50 blocks north in Fish Alley - have real views of the water and old fishing boats, landlocked Busch's is reduced to faux pilings and seaside murals to set the mood.

No, it's more that it has managed not to become a stodgy, funereal spot. The bar scene is dominated by 50- and 60-somethings, but still lively and animated (in the main bar and the appended lounge), offering generous, icy Manhattans, whiskey sours, and martinis, the limes and oranges hand-squeezed to order.

And if the menu is pricey (the entrées hover in the higher $20s) it is as well-prepared as it is resolutely traditional, some recipes dating back nearly a century.

The top-priced "Jersey Shore" platter, $34.75, is an oversize offering of beautifully fried shrimp and sweet, toothsome day-boat scallops from Cape May; fresh local fluke; and (if you like that sort of thing) deviled crab and deviled clam, the only off-note a rubbery wedge of broiled South African lobster tail.

It is a reminder of what still is good about the Jersey Shore even after Snooki and The Situation aired the dark side on the boozy reality show of the same name.

Prepping for a crowd

By 5:05 p.m. Friday, Busch's parking lot at 87th Street and Landis Avenue was half-full already with early birds, the Lexuses and Mercedeses mingling peaceably with Corollas and Subarus.

Schettig had coordinated with chef Joe Marszalek, a survivor of casino kitchens. He had roasted the grape tomatoes for the bruschetta, sprinkling them with dried basil, white wine, and olive oil, mashing them with a perforated spatula.

He had demonstrated the hand-folding technique he uses to mix the seasonings for the she-crab soup, using a stainless-steel spoon that had been used by the two cooks - both deceased - who handed it down to him, who speak to him, he said, each time he stirs a 75-gallon batch (in an armada of two-gallon pots).

Pastry chef Grace Cassel Hollerbach had finished her oatmeal-topped blueberry cobblers, banana crème pies, and, a special for this evening, fresh-baked éclairs.

Punctually, the three priests took their seats at the bar.

Leah Marmon, down from her current home in Greenwich, Conn., caught up with old friends before dinner.

And Russell Parr, a consultant in patent disputes, positioned himself with his novel at the window-side seat, sipping the Macallan single-malt that Schettig had volunteered to bring in for him when Parr found the house scotch somewhat underwhelming.

He surveyed the bustling room where he had come to know every server over the last 15 years. He was relieved that Busch's - at least for now - wasn't on track to become Busch's Corner at Townsend Square, a phony pretender.

"What would I do?" he asked. "Get take-out and my bottle of scotch, and sit on the curb eating out of Styrofoam?"


Contact food columnist Rick Nichols

at 254-854-7215 at or rnichols@phillynews.com.

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