This isn't necessarily true everywhere - especially in Atlantic City's casinos, unusually sedate due to gambling competition, and staggering again from the recent blow of the Revel's latest bankruptcy.
But at the surfgoing poles of the Philly-centric Jersey Shore, Long Beach Island and Cape May, there has been more ambitious new restaurant mojo than I've seen in many years. As I happily munched my way from each end toward the center, I discovered more than a few fresh addresses for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Next week, I'll share a diverse group of finds from the southern end. For this week's tour of new highlights from Margate north, come thirsty and ready for red meat.
The Old Causeway Steak & Oyster House
As a kid in Manahawkin, Melanie Magaziner recalls going with her grandparents to the long-gone Old Causeway Inn, a funky local watering hole with wood paneling and a slanted floor that was " the meeting place" for steaks. She's tried to conjure an update of that spirit for an independent project with a similar name - the Old Causeway Steak & Oyster House - which she built with husband, chef Eric Magaziner, and their partners, Bob and Ginna Nugent. It sits across the parking lot from their popular Mud City Crab House like a larger sibling shrouded in the perfume of its oak-fired grill.
The 99-seat space inside feels like a lively roadhouse, with a big horseshoe bar serving craft brews, antlers on the wall, and airy views across the marshland horizon. The atmosphere is appealingly casual, but the service can be a bit too goofy and disorganized for entree prices of $30s-plus. But the big menu largely took its quality ingredients seriously - especially the excellent, grill-kissed steaks I loved both simply done (a juicy prime-grade strip with the house steak sauce) or more elaborated, as with a rosemary marinade or blackened (Hint: Ask for the rich Gorgonzola crab sauce on the side.). A big coriander-crusted pork "karate chop" was irresistibly exotic with its not-too-sweet pineapple-soy glaze.
The raw bar still needs more finesse - losing too much juice on the shucked oysters, marinating the ceviche far too long. But the crab cake was sweet and lumpy, and the creamy oyster pan-roast was surprisingly delicate. The Jersey Devils, fried oysters posed atop deviled eggs, are a fun local hit.
The best part, though, may have been the finale, a slice of blueberry pie whirred-up with ice cream into a deep purple shake. The Old Causeway, it seems, has a new classic.
The Old Causeway Steak & Oyster House: 1201 E. Bay Ave., Manahawkin. Information: 609-488-1327 or www.oldcauseway.com
It was only just a few years ago that "good beer" at the Shore was limited to Hoegaarden and the occasional Dogfish Head. But a glimpse at the collection of 29 taps that Brian Sabarese has assembled at the Arlington, his handsome gastropub in Ship Bottom on Long Beach Island, shows just how far the Shore's craft brew scene has come. From a recent Lost Abbey tap takeover to Saison Dupont's Cuvée Dry Hopping 2014 and Leipziger Gose, this ever-changing list would be doted on by any beer geek. With half-a-dozen oak barrels aging Manhattans on the bar, LBI's serious cocktail lovers are looped in, too.
Creating a serious drink destination was clearly a goal when Sabarese, a former craft-beer sales rep and local restaurant vet (Plantation, Daddy O's), opened the Arlington with his brother Paul at midsummer 2013 in the gutted shell of the storm-soaked Bayberry Inn. But the wide-ranging menu from the self-taught Sabarese also shows serious New American ambitions for the large dining rooms, outfitted in chic reclaimed woods and exposed brick.
There are smaller plates for a quick bite with your drink, from burgers and boquerones "snacks" to fingerlings glazed in Taleggio fonduta cream. A riot of heirloom tomatoes tumbled over milky burrata and pesto made from ramps. Huge head-on shrimp came simply grilled in a cast-iron crock with garlicky lemon oil. But the stylishly plated larger entrees weren't as consistent as I'd hoped for prices in the high $20s. The Asian-glazed short rib was lacking enough sauce. The swordfish over smoked mushrooms in kombu broth was intriguing, but its sticky rice was undercooked. I loved the gorgeous local scallops, set over charred corn salsa beside vivid aji amarillo sauce and chorizo-potato croquettes. I only wished that for $30 I'd been given more than two-and-a-half (one scallop was served carelessly ripped). Our outgoing server swiftly brought me an additional scallop to supplement the plate - proving the Arlington kitchen's heart is in the right place. But perhaps it just needs a little extra nudge and more polish to become as worthy of the trip as the bar.
The Arlington: 1302 Long Beach Blvd., Ship Bottom. Information: 609-494-8848 or www.arlingtonlbi.com
For over a decade, Luke Palladino restaurants have reliably been among the Shore's best bets for inspired modern Italian cooking. LP Steak is something different.
Not the quality, thank goodness. But Palladino has veered away from his usual Italian flair for an intriguing ode to steak.
So there are pierogi ( not ravioli) inspired by his Ukrainian fiancee, the zaftig dumplings plumped with farmer's cheese beneath caramelized onions. There is truffled Sottocenere cream, but it's drizzled over shatteringly crisp potato skins. The bread basket brings warm biscuits and black garlic butter - an umami primer for the prime steaks to come.
A major appeal to this 30-seater, opened after Palladino moved his Italian concept to a larger space in Linwood, is that LP Steak is BYOB, negating the egregious wine markups typical of restaurants serving high-end meat.
But those looking forward to Palladino's Philly project should also pay attention. Steaks will be among the features in that East Passyunk space, a more Italian-centric concept to open in November. This casino vet of the Borgata and Harrah's knows his red meat.
The a la carte menu offers many familiar steak house options (strip, filet, rib eye), and the quality is top-notch. And there are also uncommon choices worth seeking, like the marbled rib eye cap (or "spinalis") of American Wagyu, or the 5-pound Tuscan porterhouse for a large party. We splurged on the 36-ounce version, and this chop, rubbed a day in advance with smoked paprika, espelette pepper, and fennel pollen, was perfectly cooked by chef de cuisine Sean Holmes, well worth the $70. I suggest the house-made Worcestershire on the side, a gingery, exotic brew of molasses, horseradish, tamarind, and star anise that swirls with sweetness, funky anchovy tang, and spice.
There are worthy seafood options here, too, including some tasty scallops over carrot puree and a red wine glaze. There's also a lovely pound cake for dessert. Soaked in limoncello and layered with zabaglione cream sparked by rhubarb and strawberries, it's nonetheless a reassuring reminder that Palladino hasn't lost his sweet Italian touch.
LP Steak: 1333 New Rd., Northfield; BYOB. Information: 609-646-8189 or www.lukepalladino.com
The Iron Room
Speakeasy rarely ever means what it used to: an unlicensed drinking establishment. But the modern notion that suggests a hard-to-find bar applies in spades to the Iron Room. "Two-and-a-half times around the block," says chef Kevin Cronin, estimating the average spins most first-timers make before actually finding it.
Understandably, it's tucked into an unmarked lounge behind a small boutique wine store called the Atlantic City Bottle Company. The fact that anything so interesting could exist on this unlikely stretch of Albany Avenue in A.C. - across from the eerily abandoned baseball stadium - heightens the surprise.
The wine store is a worthy trip in its own right, a personalized antidote to South Jersey's big-box players with a rich selection, despite the tiny size, curated by co-owner Paul Tonacci. His focus is on uncommon producers and values from Languedoc and Spain (like the excellent Casar de Valdaiga Bierzo red I bought for $11.99). There's also an outstanding collection of more than 280 whiskies.
You can taste most any of them by the glass in the Iron Room (where wine bottles are marked up just $15 over retail cost). And we dove deep into the list of Scotch for a 16-year-old Scapa, whose Orkney honeycomb and spiced toffee notes were a natural for our platter of cheese (Langres, Scharfe Maxx, Abbaye de Belloc) chosen from an exceptional blackboard of 20-plus options.
Cronin's menu of small plates is full of inventive whimsies, but also frustratingly erratic in execution. We loved the tiny morsel of honey-fried chicken with riesling butter over cheddar waffles. But the seared foie gras was sandwiched between dry French toast. The Asian-sauced hanger steak with roasted brussels sprouts was addictively earthy. But the sesame-dusted beef tartare lacked much of any dressing to keep the raw meat moist.
Best to stick to basics here, like a juicy brisket cheeseburger to follow those blackboard nibbles and anchor the night. If you're lucky, you'll also catch a local bluegrass band (we saw Jug Paradise) to make your toes tap while you thank your GPS navigation and lift your glasses high.
The Iron Room, at the Atlantic City Bottle Co.: 648 N. Albany Ave., Atlantic City. Information: 609-348-6400 or www.acbottlecompany.com
It's easy to take breakfast at the Shore for granted. But a recent stop at the latest branch of the Gilchrist's hotcake haven, this one a "Downbeach" location in the Margate Towers, made me reconsider. What is it, I wonder, that makes such a simple and familiar meal - pancakes, eggs, and breakfast sandwiches - somehow a little better than the rest?
Mike Barham, who co-owns the now-three-restaurant chain with his mom, Denise Stamat, offers what seems at first a flip reply: "We still crack eggs."
It's not so silly, though, when he relays a recent conversation with his food supplier, a major corporation, who has been urging Barham to switch from whole eggs to bulk containers of shell-free premixed eggs: "He said 80 percent of his customers are now doing liquid eggs."
A steady old-school commitment to made-to-order freshness, though, is what still defines a Gilchrist meal. The Greek omelet, made with some fluff and body in a pan - not a rubbery egg sheet from a flattop griddle - is filled with piquant crumbles of feta and juicy diced tomatoes. The restaurant's signature "hotcakes," cooked from a recipe passed down from Stamat's grandmother, Marie Gilchrist, have a thin, crepelike delicacy with crunchy, lacy edges. They're even better when jeweled with blueberries, whose sweet fruit bursts from inside the batter, not simply ladled on top - another telltale sign at other restaurants, Barham says, of shortcut kitchens using precooked food.
But there's no short-order cook's soul for sale at Gilchrist's, he assures me.
"I won't even consider changing" to liquid eggs, Barham says. "Don't change something if it's not broken. Or, I guess, do keep breaking eggs."
Gilchrist Downbeach Restaurant: Margate Towers, 9400 Atlantic Ave., Margate. Information: 609-449-8679 or www.gilchristrestaurant.com
Chef and co-owner Brian Sabarese introduces the Arlington in Ship Bottom. Then Melanie Magaziner, co-owner of the Old Causeway, will discuss her Manahawkin steak and oyster house. www.inquirer.com/labanreviews