Breakfast at the Shore

Posted: May 25, 2014

The most important meal of the day may be the perfect starting point for the beginning of a day trip, a one-week vacation, or the entire summer at the Jersey Shore.

There are many who make it a ritual to grab their favorite breakfast grub before hitting the strand or checking in at the rental.

And while dining out for breakfast certainly isn't unique to the Shore, the quest to return to a beloved spot for it summer after summer may be, according to Debbie Howarth, an associate professor of sales and marketing at Johnson and Wales University's School of Hospitality in Providence, R.I.

Howarth, who grew up going "down the Shore," calls New Jersey "one of the greatest melting pots in the United States . . . where every culture has their ties to food and family."

"Vacation is a time where we embrace our families, including our family traditions," Howarth said. "Being able to go with your aging parents to the same place that he or she took you as a kid for breakfast - or any meal - and sharing that time with your children or grandchildren, as well, is a powerful experience."

And it's not just the emotion, but the food, too, that makes lasting traditions.

"There are foods unique to Jersey - memories of breakfast foods like crumb buns, good Italian hard rolls with butter, and Taylor Pork Roll," Howarth said. "If you are going for the day, you leave early in the morning to beat the Shore traffic. So it is reasonable that people are going for breakfast when they arrive at their destination before going to the beach."

And at the Shore, where breakfast often overlaps into lunchtime, creating the perfect opportunity for that made-up mealtime called brunch, the ingredients list often expands to include seafood and other savories generally not thought of for early-in-the-day dining.

"We do have people who say this is their first stop before they do anything else when they get there. . . . I guess they just want to start their trip off right," says Keith Symonds, who with his family has owned the Varsity Inn in Ocean City since 1970, when the Cape May County beach resort had a "summer college town" feel to it.

These days, it is mostly families who go to Ocean City, but the trim little year-round breakfast and lunch restaurant on Eighth Street has retained its collegiate vibe with university pennants, rowing oars, and other old-fashioned décor adorning the walls. It converts to a place with an open-air Key West feel in the summertime, thanks to two lift-out windows along the front façade.

And it is a place where crowds will wait in long lines to sit down and eat piping-hot baked tomato soup on a 100-degree day - for breakfast.

"I don't care how hot it is or what time of the day it is when I get here, I want the baked tomato soup," contends Fred Domenico, 63, of Hammonton, who mostly comes for day trips with his family but once a year rents a house and spends two weeks in the resort. "And this is always our first stop, no matter what."

Made with Jersey tomatoes and topped with spicy croutons and melted cheese, the soup has an almost cultlike following.

So many customers like the soup that a few years ago, Symonds made the lunchtime favorite part of the breakfast menu by offering it alongside a three-cheese omelet. The red-raider combo - a crock of the baked tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich - is also a favorite.

But other offerings on the breakfast menu keep the crowds coming back: Bananas foster waffles and strawberry pound cake French toast are among the favorites, as well as special egg, pancake, and waffle dishes, which often include the likes of crabmeat and salmon.

"Since we have so many regulars, we try to change it up, to keep evolving and coming up with new items," Symonds said. "We try to keep the traditions but change with the times where we can, like with adding some gluten-free items to the menu."

That may be the secret at the Chicken or the Egg - or simply known "the Chegg" among devotees - a Long Beach Island egg-and-bacon concept hatched by brothers Mark and Craig Cohen in 1991. The Chegg outgrew its original shell along Bay Avenue in Beach Haven after only two years in business and moved across the street to a bigger perch. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the restaurant is open 24 hours a day, so breakfast, and everything else, is served around the clock.

"We're always trying to come up with new ideas for the menu . . . but I have to say that there are some things that we would never change," says Mark Cohen, who has seen the eatery go from 25 seats in the beginning to 130 seats now. "We do all kinds of food really well and at all hours. Our regular customers really seem to like that."

The fact that you can get just about anything - including wings with 16 kinds of sauce - makes it a favorite after-hours place for the club set. When the bars shut down about 3 a.m. on Long Beach Island, the Chegg starts jumping with action.

In the few hours between when the clubbers depart to the time when the regular crowd rolls in beginning around 7 a.m., the place is filled with brisk breakfast business among the island's fishermen, who like to start their morning with the legendary six-egg omelet that features two dozen different toppings called "The Ultimate." Jersey cakes are another favorite because the dish overflows with typical buttermilk pancakes that are stuffed with bacon, sausage, and Trenton's own Taylor Ham Roll.

The crowd that usually rolls in past 9 or 10 a.m. often goes for the sweet, high-carbs rush of the peanut butter banana pancakes with Reese's Peanut Butter chips and fresh banana puree, Cohen says.

Fancy and newfangled are not two words one would associate with the Lobster House Coffee Shop near Cape May, a hidden gem that has a strong following among locals. There are no tables, only 18 stools around a narrow counter where the diner-style meals are served.

On the daily menu are basic items, such as the eggs, bacon, and toast platter. More elaborate fare, such as the traditional eggs Benedict, is served only Sundays. The eggs Benedict draws a line out the door for its hollandaise sauce simplicity. The only seafood at breakfast is the broiled salt mackerel platter, which comes with potatoes and toast. Breakfast and lunch are served; lunch is when the food gets a little more updated with such dishes as the flat-bread pizza featuring blackened shrimp with an herbed cream spread, mozzarella, and roasted red peppers, drizzled with a balsamic vinaigrette.

The little café was started in 1955 by Lobster House owner Keith Laudeman's father, Wallace, who wanted to offer the fisherman docking at Schellenger's Landing a place to get a good meal other than their landmark Lower Township restaurant.

"It's just a really nice little place to go that is small enough where the waitresses get to know everybody's name and it's like stepping back in time to another era," Laudeman said of the adjacent coffee shop.


Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com.

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