Sea Isle City casts off its rowdy younger days

The sandy beaches still beckon, but the vibe is changing. Farewell, dollar pitchers. Hello, craft beers and fish tacos. Sea Isle may actually be maturing.
The sandy beaches still beckon, but the vibe is changing. Farewell, dollar pitchers. Hello, craft beers and fish tacos. Sea Isle may actually be maturing. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 01, 2014

SEA ISLE CITY, N.J. - Mayor Lenny Desiderio is waxing poetic about white cosmopolitans and sidewalk dining in Sea Isle.

What?

Yes, in Sea Isle, a place buoyed for decades by such sturdy traditions as No Shower Happy Hour, $1.50 Coors Light mugs (no purchase of mug required), and phone booths that doubled as urinals more often than you'd like to think about.

"Martinis, Manhattans, white cosmos, red cosmos," Desiderio says of what people are drinking at SideKix, the urbane little offshoot of his landmark party bar, Kix McNulty's, designed for, say, a more sophisticated Sea Isle drinking experience.

Similarly, Ocean Drive, the O.D., a belovedly rowdy Sea Isle mainstay on Landis Avenue, created its "Sand Bar" outpost, complete with craft beer on tap, high-back bar chairs, and turkey burgers with cranberry whole-grain mustard - showers allowed (but still optional).

"Acoustic guitar," explains Desiderio. "It's like Manayunk. It's city tastes with a Shore flavor."

Seriously, dude?

Is a town so endearingly tied to a culture of macho beer chugging and Journey cover-band cheering yielding to an aesthetic of chick drinks, craft beer, Uber service, and hand-rolled cigars?

Have the Landis Avenue sidewalk pukers of decades past grown into this year's tony sidewalk diners outside Braca Cafe on newly refurbished JFK, with their truffle fried potato starters and sides of mascarpone polenta?

"It's not your 1970s, '80s, '90s Sea Isle," Desiderio says. "It's changing with the way things are going, with outside dining, with the different kind of martinis. You're not having a dollar beer anymore. Now people are a little older."

Yes, a town still reeling from the loss of the beloved Fun City kiddie rides (2000, now houses) followed by this year's loss of Sandy-wrecked Fun Land kiddie rides (city-owned lot, will be parking) seems to be zeroing in on a more complex idea of fun.

As in other places before it, the old tradition of group Shore houses is fading into a landscape of affluent second-house owners and Philly-dwelling condominium buyers.

Sea Isle City may actually be maturing.

End of the spoon era

Al Schettig is in the kitchen at Busch's Seafood Restaurant, but he's cooking a plump burger on a brioche roll for a loyal employee, and that's pretty much it.

Oh, yeah, the spoon. The Spoon. The "magic" silver spoon passed down the generations that he ceremoniously keeps in a safe and trots out for top-hat-wearing broadcasters and investigative foodies.

The spoon with the cryptic measurements - "a tip of this, half a spoon of that" - for the she-crab soup of 98 years of Busch's legend. Hold on, he's looking for it.

Look, who's got patience for the spoon shtick in the midst of downsizing a 450-seat institution into She-Crab Takeout, a package store with some bar seating? He's hoping to close a sale before long.

"It was great while the population supported it," Schettig says.

And if you think Schettig is a bit sentimental about the whole Busch's enterprise grinding to a halt like the trains that pulled up to the depot that was the first use of the 450-seat building, think again.

If Busch's ends as a she-crab anachronism on a Landis Avenue that now favors tilapia tacos and stuffed veggie burritos, and a city with a freshly branded Seafood Alley by the causeway, so be it.

Sea Isle is changing. Get over it. OK, the spoon, you want to see it? Wait, here it is, stuck in a slot of junk mail on the desktop organizer. Never mind the safe.

Really, Al?

Eh, whatever. The soup's still good, even if Schettig's lost the motivation to trot out the spoon shtick. He hopes to market to a major soup producer.

He tries to open the safe. What's the combination again?

Sea Isle will outlive Busch's and even the spoon. But if the town has moved on from this famously oversized institution in an increasingly boutique world, what exactly is it embracing?

Changing but parochial

Chris Glancey is trying to have it both ways inside Diamond's Liquor Store on Landis. Glancey, who took over the Chamber of Commerce and folded in the revitalization committee, is not giving up on the 30-pack Bud Light pyramid display, handy Styrofoam coolers nearby.

But he's clearing out space for the tsunami of craft beer interest, including the hipster ritual of creating one's own six pack of $3 and $4 bottles of microbrew.

Saturday afternoon will bring the second annual Sea Isle Craft Beer and Rock Fest, Glancey's idea to fund last year's "We're Ready" post-Sandy campaign and produced by the folks who brought Philly its epic Running of the Santas, with Le Compe band, 100 breweries offering samples, a cigar roller, and food trucks, between 3 and 7 p.m. all outside Kix McNulty's on 63d. (Tickets are $40, $60 for VIP). It's being billed as the Jersey Shore's largest.

"We've had dramatic changes in the past 10 years," says Glancey, 41, including a new band shell on JFK and the Beach. "But Sea Isle is a very parochial town. People's grandparents brought their parents who brought them and now they're bringing their own kids."

Glancey is not ready to embrace a hipster label, but he says tastes in Sea Isle are changing.

The sale of Fun City to a developer left the town so bereft it adopted a mixed-use ordinance that requires ground-floor retail for any conversion of commercial to residential. That, he says, has brought 47 new businesses, including the Plump Poodle boutique and stylish clothing stores on the ground floor of buildings with compact condominiums on top a block from the beach.

Realtors and town loyalists say the percentage of group rentals is down (as prices rise) and the number of second-home owners is up. Of 7,500 housing units, says Glancey, also a Realtor, 2,200 are rentals and 1,000 are year-round houses, leaving about 4,000 second homes - basically half the town.

"A lot of these people that bought these houses, they were in group houses in Sea Isle when they were younger," says Mike Monichetti of Mike's Seafood in Seafood Alley, Sea Isle's attempt to bring a Fisherman's Wharf to Jersey. "They were the ones peeing in phone booths."

Although disappointed that Jay Gillian folded up shop at his Funland amusement park - Monichetti is bullish about a new, more urbane Sea Isle.

"It's spinning away from the kids, from the drunks that pee on the corner, that throw up on street corners," he says.

Now, with some equity in their accounts, not to mention a dearth of phone booths anyway, these people (and their kids) are the new second-home owners.

Young people applying for jobs no longer rent houses but live in their parents' second homes. Meanwhile, the old guard still goes to see Secret Service, the cover band that's been in town for decades. Everyone is just a little bit, well, grown up.

"There's still fun to be had," says Gail Hughes, owner of Scoops in the south end for 18 years. "The kids I hired 18 years ago are now 36, coming back now with two little kids. It's a riot."


arosenberg@phillynews.com

609-823-0453

@amysrosenberg

www.inquirer.com/downashore

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