SEA THE LIGHT: Asbury Park, resurrected, shows off its biggest flavors
To see Asbury Park today is to be continually surprised, at least for a local like me. I grew up during the city’s downtrodden years, and to stand now amid the throngs of visitors blissfully shopping, snacking, playing and sunning is to bear witness to a most welcome miracle.
Now the city is this: Women sitting cross-legged while eating homemade ice cream cones over their lunch hour. It’s teenagers in cut-offs and candy-colored flip-flops pulling each other into a music shop on Cookman Avenue. It’s a toddler on the boardwalk singing, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” (in perfect pitch, no less). It’s sunsoaked thirty-somethings leaning into the night with a cool drink at The Asbury Hotel, or Watermark or Stella Marina.
There is room for everyone in Asbury Park. Old, young; gay, straight; quiet, exuberant. You can be black, white, pink-haired, purple-tattooed. Whatever you are, you are. It’s a living, breathing Ellis Island, our own little e pluribus unum.
Today’s Asbury Park has sometimes been described as “Brooklyn by the beach.” But in the summertime, as you sip a watermelon margarita on a hotel rooftop, with background music from The Stone Pony’s Summer Stage, it has an ease and vibrancy that feels more like South Beach.
An early arrival is your best bet to getting a good parking spot. (Tip: Sometimes the parking meters are finicky about credit cards. Bring along change.) The same goes for getting a table. But here’s the best advice: Even if you must park far away or wait to get in to a restaurant, try to relax into the down time. No matter what, you’re at the beach, and you’re about to eat really well. In just a few short years, Asbury Park has become a destination again, and the city’s restaurants, some of them extraordinary, deserve credit for luring the crowds.
Our food crawl begins along Wesley Lake, at the southernmost point of the city, and one of the most picturesque. It wouldn’t do to speak of Asbury Park’s culinary renaissance and not doff our hat to where it all began.
Moonstruck. Owners Luke Magliaro and Howard Raczkiewicz first opened Moonstruck in nearby Ocean Grove in 1995. They took the leap over the lake to Asbury Park in 2002, settling in a gracious, porch-and-three-balconied Victorian with lake and ocean views.
“Asbury Park is booming,” says Magliaro. “In 2000, we felt Asbury Park was on the cusp of something big. Since it was so close to our existing restaurant, it was a natural choice for us to look for a place to expand our business,” he says. “Our patrons told us they were thrilled to have a reason to come back to Asbury again. Since then our business has increased each year as the city’s rebirth blossomed. We made a good move.”
Next door is the city’s undisputed heavy hitter, Asbury Festhalle & Biergarten. Not bad for a relatively new kid. The enormous brick building—9,000 square feet inside, another 6,000 on the roof—opened in February 2015 and treats guests to authentic German food and beer. In its first four months, the restaurant averaged 7,000 to 8,000 visitors weekly. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, thousands more pour through its doors and up its steps to the biergarten every week.
“The community itself has been extremely supportive. We’ve been really fortunate and really blessed,” says Jennifer Lampert, partner. “I fell in love with Asbury Park from the first minute I stepped into it. It’s a city that’s full of culture, a city that’s full of music and art. There’s an energy that Asbury has. All the elements were exactly there.”
Turning one block north onto Cookman Avenue lands visitors in the city’s eclectic downtown. Cookman Creamery boasts traditional and vegan housemade ice cream. “It’s not fun if it’s not all about quality,” says Michael Johnson, co-owner with his father, Jimmy Johnson.
“There is a great culinary community here. We collaborated with a lot of local restaurants to develop flavors.” Johnson says. Twisted Tree, a vegan restaurant a few doors down, provided ginger cookies to the ice cream shop, which were then crumbled into a vegan lemon ice cream.
Another restaurant, the fledgling Cardinal, on Bangs Avenue, made a blueberry buckle last summer and challenged Cookman Creamery to concoct an ice cream to serve with it. The shop offered lavender. It was a hit, and further inspired Cookman Creamery’s blueberry-lavender vegan ice cream. Also on Cookman is Talula’s. Let the smell of fresh sourdough engulf you. The restaurant is the brainchild of Shanti Mignogna and her husband, Steve, and virtually everything served here is made in house.
“[Asbury Park] has become a full community of great food, everyone offering something different and unique,” says Mignogna. “We wanted to be part of an emerging, inspiring community; we spent a couple months driving down every week, eating at different places, meeting with different people, and it didn’t take long to realize that Asbury Park was exactly what we were searching for. “We sought feedback and really wanted to create a place that the locals wanted,” she says. “I think the demand is shifting and people down here are wanting to know more and more where their food is coming from.”
Brickwall Tavern & Dining Room, just a few doors down, is one of the restaurants developed by Smith, an Asbury Park hospitality group. (The group itself is one of the city’s culinary pioneers.) The menu features homey, old-school favorites—deviled eggs, meatloaf platters, hot homemade potato chips—in a relaxed setting.
“Brickwall was our original restaurant in Asbury Park, opened in summer 2006,” says Mark Hinchliffe, Smith brand director. “This was/is a city that we’ve believed in since the beginning, where we saw the potential. [Smith] came to Asbury in 1996. We talk a lot here about transforming great American cities; we considered Asbury Park to be one of them.”
Across the street, housed within the floor-to-ceiling glass windows of the historic Steinbach building, is The Bonney Read.
Named for two notorious female pirates and offering utterly fresh catches, this is the hottest seafood spot (chef/owner James Avery calls it an old-fashioned chowder house) in Asbury Park. “Food has taken over,” says Avery, who was born and bred in Jersey. “Magazines, blogs, TV shows, social media, etc. has made great food visible to the world. People outside the major cities are demanding food consistent on a level where a decade ago you couldn’t get it.” “I remember the Jersey Shore only having family chains, sports bars and pizzerias. Nowadays there are serious restaurants popping up everywhere. I think chefs and restaurateurs are attracted to Asbury because of the culture. It would make sense that Asbury has a happening dining scene.”
On nearby Bangs Avenue, Barrio Costero is one of the most recent additions to the scene, and has already generated considerable buzz.
“We saw that [Asbury Park] was up and coming,” says Derek Brosseau, co-owner. “The biggest reason was the community support itself. Everyone is trying to help each other.” To walk inside Barrio Costero is to be surprised; patrons expecting the vibrant splashes of reds and purples typical of a Mexican restaurant are instead met with cool light, clean lines and neutral colors. But the understated surroundings tie in nicely with Chef Antony Bustamante’s simple, seasonally driven dishes. Brunch—if you can get in—is extraordinary.
Also on Bangs Avenue is another Smith-made restaurant, a brasserie called Pascal & Sabine. The venue took Asbury Park in a fresh direction, offering the city’s only French-inspired cuisine. Here, guests sink into gracious wingback chairs and leather booths, tuck into homemade croissants and duck cassoulet and travel to Europe for an hour or two.
Smith’s Mark Hinchliffe further explains his group’s motivation. “We look for cities that have gone cold, where massive potential exists but no one is willing to take the first step. It’s like putting a hot coal into a cool space; it starts to heat up the area again, with the intention of creating a roaring fire. We view our restaurants as hot coals.”
Walk one block north to Summerfield Avenue. Don’t blink: Purple Glaze donuts, etc. is tiny. On weekend mornings, look for the line. The shop’s hand-crafted traditional and vegan doughnuts start simple and get as fancy as your sweet tooth can handle. Jacki Sharpe, who left a career in higher education, co-owns the shop with her son Wesley. “We loved the vibe here and believed in its regrowth and potential,” she says. “We wanted to open a business in a place that is important to us, so we could be a part of the community and help out in various ways.”
Purple Glaze sources locally; the “Ring Of Fire” doughnuts are filled with hot pepper jelly from Holly Jolly Jams in Eatontown. Head east to Kingsley Street and look for an indigo building behind The Stone Pony. That’s Porta, Smith’s kingpin since 2011, and alchemists of one of the Shore’s best pizzas. “At the time we opened, people thought we were crazy to be in the ‘no man’s land’ between the downtown and the boardwalk,” says Hinchliffe. “But Porta was a success from day one. It changed the game for Asbury Park.
“Five years on, we can definitely see a new interest in the city where this all started. The opening of The Asbury Hotel was another step in the right direction,” he says. “With that comes the interest of new chefs and restaurateurs. We welcome it all. This city deserves the hype.” At Porta, expect to wait for a table, but a drink outside and a game of bocce will pass the time until you’re seated, either outside under an umbrella table or inside at one of the Hogwarts-style communal tables. The carbonara pizza is one that’s shamelessly devoured.
The Asbury Hotel stepped into the spotlight last summer within the former Salvation Army building on Fifth Avenue. With a rec room downstairs and rooftop venues where guests can enjoy movies, sweeping views and drinks by candlelight, it was immensely popular from the start.
“It takes a while (a season) to understand how things shake out,” says David Bowd, partner and operator. “We made some mistakes in the early days (300 people turning up all at once the minute we opened one of the bars), but we have an incredible team that really understands the guest experience and exceeding guests’ expectations.”
“[Asbury Park] is the shore town—a mixture of beautiful beaches, great art, music and a really mixed social scene. There truly is something for everyone,” Bowd adds.
Last stop: the boardwalk, just a block east. Asbury Oyster Bar is an airy oasis within Convention Hall’s exuberance, serving up shellfish and beautiful cocktails as well as the celebrated bivalves. James Douglas is the general manager, and has a longtime affinity for this city. “Asbury Park in the early ’90s was a magical place to visit. A place filled with such history you could not help but to be taken with it, and dream about its future potential,” he says. “I think [it] has a spirit about it that draws creatively minded people to it, people with the ability to see both the opportunity and future potential of the city.”
“It’s been amazing to watch the rebirth of this city over all those years, and to know that there is still so much more to come.” A stroll south on the boardwalk leads to Langosta Lounge, owner Marilyn Schlossbach’s island-inspired restaurant, which opened in 2008. Langosta was an early vanguard of the city’s restaurant renaissance. With expansive ocean views, outdoor seating and a major rebuild after Hurricane Sandy, it provides one of the best beachside eatery experiences at the Shore.
“Summer 2017 marks the debut of our breakfast and nitro brew pop-up, Aloha Canteen. This is an expansion on our popular fresh coconut stand concept we tested last summer,” says Schlossbach. “It features local coffee and Balthazar pastries, and offers a twist on the iconic pork roll egg and cheese breakfast sandwiches that are indigenous to our great Garden State.”
The pop-up is on the boards just outside Langosta. (Tip: The rum-soaked, bracingly cold fresh pineapple says summer like nothing else.)
The crown jewel of the Jersey Shore has polished up pretty nicely. And with so much hope and enthusiasm bolstering it forward, it promises, in years to come, to keep shining.