Year-round Jersey Shore eatery welcomes back offseason regulars

Scott Kuppel, chef, manager, and son of the owner, greets guests at the Oyster Creek Inn.
Scott Kuppel, chef, manager, and son of the owner, greets guests at the Oyster Creek Inn. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 04, 2013

LEEDS POINT, N.J. - It was raining on the last official day of the unofficial summer season, but that didn't stop Bob Barron of nearby Absecon from tying up his 20-foot Grady-White on the docks at the Oyster Creek Inn for an early dinner.

"I wouldn't miss it," said Barron, 57, who admitted he was unsure whether it was the food, the rustic ambience, or simply the adventure of getting to this place, situated at the edge of the salt marsh, that gave him such determination to get himself and two of his friends there by boat on Labor Day.

"We could have driven here by car, I guess . . . but that's not our Labor Day tradition," said Barron.

For some at the Shore, the holiday weekend has evolved into a last gasp for summer fun at the beach, while for others it marks a beginning: It means reduced crowds and the chance to reconnect with favorite places and activities away from the tourist crowds.

"There are people we don't see all summer because they don't want to fight the crowds," said chef Scott Kuppel, 40, whose family has owned the Oyster Creek Inn since it opened 75 years ago in this windswept fishing village of ramshackle cottages and crisscrossing docks on the eastern edge of Galloway Township.

Large parties are always welcome, and tables of 10 and 20 people are a regular thing in the 300-seat establishment, which is open year-round.

Kuppel's grandparents, Louise and William Kuppel, took over running the property from his great-uncle Bob in 1946.

Kuppel's father, Bill, owns the property, which is surrounded by the 44,000-acre Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, and egrets, herons, and other maritime denizens are regular sights from the restaurant's decks. Kuppel's brothers also work there: Jason, 35, is the front-end manager, while Adam, 32, is the dock master, who directs the boats in and out of the restaurant's busy slips along the creek.

The restaurant's website offers directions for both landlubbers (at the end of Oyster Creek Road 3.5 miles east of historic Smithville) and boaters (Intercoastal Waterway to 139 marker, go one mile at 305 degrees to day marker at the mouth of the creek).

The rustic ambience looks as though it hasn't changed much since the place opened in 1938. The tables are covered in plastic checked tablecloths. The wood chairs skid across a primitive wooden floor. The napkins are paper. The drinks come in an assortment of glassware, from plastic soda cups to beer glasses that advertise Budweiser, Blue Moon and other brands.

But when Kuppel has insisted on various upgrades - from nicer china plates to better display his gourmet creations to softer lighting in the dining rooms to replace ancient and unromantic fluorescent fixtures - his father has agreed.

"Some people have observed that it can tend to get a little noisy here in high season," Kuppel said. "But that's just the sound of people, families, and friends having a good time."

After Kuppel returned a decade ago from a stint in Arizona learning the restaurant business working in high-end establishments around Phoenix and Scottsdale, the seafood menu became decidedly more eclectic.

The chef has broadened the usual fried, broiled, and grilled specialties to include favorites such as Brie and crab-stuffed salmon and a unique lobster and shrimp scampi. Northeastern U.S. caught halibut, smothered in shrimp and summer succotash, is Kuppel's personal favorite.

For all its down-Jersey charm, the place offers a few surprises: a sushi bar was installed about five years ago, and a pastry chef prepares the daily offerings such as crème brûlée and cheesecake. But a customer favorite - the flaky-crust, banana cream pie - is baked by an area woman who uses the recipe of Kuppel's grandmother, Louise.

"We still feel like the place is a tribute to my grandparents," said Kuppel, remembering how his "Pop Pop" would stand out on the dock grilling fish for customers and spinning stories about watermen on summer days.

"He was always a big talker . . . everybody knew him," he said of William Kuppel, who passed away in 2003 at age 83 after completing a shift in the kitchen. His grandmother died at age 86 in 2012.

And it may be those memories that keep the regulars coming back.

"She's been coming here since she was 10 . . . by boat," said Thomas Monzo, of Hammonton, of his wife, Pat, 80. "We love it. It's always the same here."


Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com. Read her blog "Downashore," at inquirer.com/downashore. Follow on Twitter @JacquelineUrgo.

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