Nearby in downtown Cape May, in The Magnolia Room of the 19th-century Chalfonte Hotel, the Sisters — Lucille Thompson, 83, and Dorothy "Dot" Burton, 85 — are going about their kitchen routines much as they have for most of the summers they've worked here since arriving with their mother as young girls more than 70 years ago. Burton makes the chicken and the breakfast biscuits. And Thompson keeps repeating her delicious decades-old "mistake," adding scoops of Breyers vanilla ice cream to the yeasty dough of hand-shaped dinner rolls that are so good, they'd make a grown man beg for more. I know it's true, since I was doing the begging, waiting hungrily for the Magnolia's legendary fried chicken and crab cake dinners in the big dining room of this Civil War-era hotel, where horse-drawn carriages still clip-clop past the old screen doors.
If all had gone according to my original Shore dining plan, I likely wouldn't have been at the Chalfonte or waiting in the formidable line at Smitty's either. Both had no doubt long caught my eye in passing. But with so many new offerings each year, I've usually been too diverted by the fresh and unknown to pause.
This summer, though, I was thankful for the classics — both revived and still thriving — after a rocky start by some of the more high-profile, independent restaurant debuts at the Jersey Shore in 2012 (last week's Revel offerings, notwithstanding).
The best of those meals — at Salt Ayre in Ventnor — was only a partial success. This casual, white-tiled shoe box of a BYO was conceived as the more-affordable sibling to the LoBianco family's self-named restaurant in nearby Margate. And indeed, with most entrées around $20 or less, I found plenty to like with house-made Italian fennel sausage over rosemary-infused beans, an outstanding burger made from house-ground chuck, a delicate lemon sole with brown butter and capers, and a tasty pulled barbecue chicken with sherry creamed corn, even if it was naked without some sort of roll (chef Nick LoBianco promises that a cheddar biscuit is in the works).
The beginning of the meal, though, was off, from stale rolls for the fried shrimp sliders, to a heavily creamed vegetable gratin, and raw oysters that weren't quite cold enough on their awkward bed of overly large ice cubes. And speaking of awkward, the LoBiancos' determination to use only young family and friends as servers rides a delicate line between cute and amateurish that, once the demanding summer crowds pick up (about now), risks testing some patience.
I can only imagine their reaction to a higher-stakes meal at Philippe Chin. The local dinerati was buzzing with blast-from-the-past anticipation when Chin — the flamboyant Parisian chef who made his Asian-fusion mark at Chanterelles and Philippe at the Locust Club — announced his return to the region after a dozen years away. Chin has landed at the former Tucker's, a grand Victorian outpost on the bay in Somers Point, after culinary wanderings to Augusta, Washington, and Saratoga Springs. Our early visit, though, was anything but grand, with off-kilter service and an expensive menu that was too broad, dated, and poorly cooked. The chicken lettuce wraps were a lukewarm homage to P.F. Chang's. The goat cheese ravioli were gummy in bland cream tinted pale green with "Asian pesto." The ginger-and-sugar-dusted tuna sashimi was "bruléed" to leathery strips. The classic coq au vin was flavorful. But the braised veal short ribs were so wrong — just bone and fatty gristle with a few shreds of jerky-tough meat — that our waiter took the $26 dud off the bill, while Chin, in shorts and chef coat, sat obliviously on the restaurant's deck, puffing a cigarette and petting a neighbor's bulldog.
The charm factor was in greater abundance across the street at Latz's by the Bay, the adorable cottage with a water view, where blazer-clad Andrew Latz can be seen leading guests through an ivy-covered trellis to the patio, or inside to the bright and homey rooms. This is Latz's first venture at the Shore since his family sold the Knife & Fork, and it's impossible not to cheer for his earnest attempt to leap from the classic fish-house genre to a modern and seasonal BYO. But there just wasn't enough finesse in the cooking here to merit the upscale prices, whether it was an exceedingly bland red snapper with spaghetti squash, a sorely overcooked duck, or softshells crusted in so much corn meal that it was like eating hush puppies stuffed with crab. Alas, Latz has parted ways with his chef since our meal and plans to bring back some much-requested K&F oldies like lobster Thermidor and baby flounder. "I'm like Shirley Temple," says Latz, now 57, explaining the retro drift. "Everyone still sees me as a kid from the old days."
With two high-end misfires already hurting my wallet in Somers Point, it was only natural that we should lower the ambition bar and try our luck on the half shell just a few doors down Bay Avenue at the Clam Bar. Long known as "Smitty's" in honor of marina-owner Bill Smith, who started with a three-sided outdoor counter as a box lunch clam shack for fishermen in the 1960s, it has absorbed the adjoining bait shop and outboard-motor repair shop in the nearly three decades since Pete Popovic and the late Dennis Dixon took over. With Pete still in the kitchen cranking out 600-plus meals a day, and his wife, Patrice Viola-Popovic, running the young and friendly staff (many offseason schoolteachers), the Clam Bar remains true to the spirit of the straight-ahead, no-frills seafood shack that has become all too much of an endangered species at the Shore.
Delicacy is not the operative word at this casual institution, whose first-come counter spots remain the al fresco seat of choice. But the ingredients are fresh and usually local; the prices are fair; and sometimes, after a day in the surf, a guy simply needs a giant platter of crunchy, golden-fried seafood. The crispy scallops, shrimp, flounder, and clam strips here satisfy that the primal seashore craving, as do the overflowing bowls of chowder, even if the creamy broth (made fresh daily) is a bit thick. But my perfect meal at Smitty's clam bar is mostly self-evident: a platter of briny littlenecks on the half-shell, followed by a paper boat of steamers with a requested mug of clam juice on the side for dipping. Smitty's best entrée, though, is surprisingly nouveau — a casserole of local yellowfin-tuna chunks marinated in gingery soy with wasabi (and baked "rare!" Popovic insists proudly). It's irresistibly good, even when it isn't rare (mine was medium). But Smitty's made good on its promise, removing it from my bill though I never really complained. It's good to see such pride in a clam shack, and as a result, another loyal customer has been won.
Smitty's success isn't lost on Robert Hammerschlag. In fact, it was the inspiration for Fisch Kitchen, the seafood window he built in Margate, with a long, portico-covered picnic table extending off the Ventnor Avenue side of the Downbeach Deli he has owned for 30 years. Finding the right "shack" tone for Margate's more-upscale crowd, though, has been a work in progress. In its first season last summer, Hammerschlag felt it aimed a little too high, with a menu posted only on Facebook ("the foodies loved it," he concedes).
In an attempt at wider appeal, Hammerschlag has taken greater charge of the operation, printed a menu, added a smart yellow awning, and expanded his offerings with added sides — a value-plus for the enthusiastic customers in line before us. I wouldn't quite use the word godsend, which I've heard some seafood-hungry locals call it. But the new Fisch did a respectable job with lightly battered fish and chips, nicely grilled chunks of cod for the fish tacos, a fresh chowder (thinner than Smitty's), Old Bay-dusted grilled shrimp, and a hearty seafood pot pie, which brought plentiful shellfish inside a tin of thick and bisque-rich gravy topped with a puff-pastry lid. The ribs were not especially tender. But my biggest complaint was Fisch's botched lobster-roll revamp — forgoing the usual mayo (or warm butter) dressing for the distractions of lettuce, tart bruschetta tomatoes, and a skimpy portion of plain crustacean on a bad roll. Some seafood classics, when done right, simply don't need to be reinvented. And Fisch Kitchen, while landing much of its menu well enough, is still fishing for its ideal take on one iconic sandwich that could potentially define — and drive — its appealing quest for a new seafood-shack spirit.
Updating the seafood shack is something Deanna Ebner and her chef-husband, Lucas Manteca, are familiar with — having created one of the Shore's best at Quahog's in Stone Harbor. Their transformation of Cape May Point's old general store into The Red Store, a gourmet market where the breakfast and lunch menus are built on completely in-house preparations, made for one of our summer's most compelling meals. Ebner and building owner Jennifer Buchanan have given the space — with its rustic, wood-floored dining room and bright patio — a fresh country charm.
French baker Michel Gras lays the foundation for the meals with buttery croissants, crusty bread, soft brioche rolls, and fluffy sour-cream biscuits. Manteca, meanwhile, the Argentine who's still chef at Cape May's elegant Ebbitt Room, has been busy pulling fresh mozzarella to be tossed with organic salad, grinding pork into sausages tinted with breakfast spice or cuminy chorizo, even curing legs of ham and hickory-smoking his own bacon, served in thick, crispy rails. We had one of the summer's best burgers here, oozing with English cheddar, beside a mound of fresh-cut, truffled fries dusted with herbs and Manchego. But it was the biscuit sandwiches that would most draw me back. In a fresh mood, I'd go for the crab melt layered impossibly high with sweet lump meat, creamy avocados, melted cheese, and a cabbage slaw drizzled with chile-spiced aioli. But there may not be a better handful of morning thunder at the Shore than the Red Store breakfast sandwich, whose fennel-flecked sausage patty harmonizes with the exotic sweetness of Manteca's tomato jam, then melts into the cheese and a cloud of biscuit fluff. Add a scrambled egg and Lookout Tower steps, here I come!
Later that day, I was reminded of one of life's secrets: Anytime you get a chance to have an 80-plus-year-old Southern chef cook for you, do it. Make that two 80-plus-year-old chefs with a century-old chicken-frying pan, and it's worth changing your dinner plans. That is exactly what happened when we strolled across the gingerbread white porch of the Chalfonte Hotel in Cape May out of curiosity. The grand old clapboard inn, built in 1876 by Civil War hero Henry Sawyer, has gotten a recent, much-needed sprucing-up from its new owners, Bob and Linda Mullock, who've added modern amenities (like A.C. and private baths) to its 67 rooms.
The dress code has been (slightly) relaxed, and children are no longer shuttled off to a separate dining room to eat. But time has pretty much been frozen in the spacious hall of the Chalfonte's Magnolia Room, where sisters Lucille Thompson and Dorothy "Dot" Burton carry on the tradition of "soul food with its Sunday clothes on," begun by their late mother, Helen Dickerson, when they arrived here with her in the mid 1930s. The two still work daily from a long table in the kitchen (save for their regular days off), with a younger kitchen manager, who orchestrates the finishing touch for dinner. But the $35 prix-fixe menu still completely exudes the old-school spirit that has been the Magnolia's hallmark, from the perfectly fried oysters and cool chicken salad to earthy grits and shrimp, and an odd-but-flavorful tortellini-with-crab salad that tastes like a picnic. After a long wait for our entrées, I was beginning to wonder — and so began gobbling more of those irresistible Parker House rolls than I was allotted. When the entrées finally did arrive, the chicken was, well, perfectly good, if a bit quietly seasoned, but satisfying in an old-fashioned way. The crab cake, though, was outstanding, a golden-crusted puck bursting with sweet meat and the tingle of hot sauce and sherry.
I loved it, even if I'm not certain this is the kind of quirky, understated experience that all modern diners will appreciate. But there is also an unmistakable touch of soul in every bite that resonates with the history of the building, and its cooks' knowing hands. And in a summer when the shiny new restaurants largely left me wanting, these classics served me the taste of reliable comfort that I was craving.
NEXT WEEK: Craig LaBan reviews Square Peg in Washington Square West. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-854-2682 or follow on Twitter @CraigLaBan.