Cape May has been my beach of destination since I can remember, and before that even. Over the years, I've derived enjoyment from this South Jersey spot for a number of obvious reasons - lounging on the beach, bike riding through the gingerbread Victorian streets - but since donning the garb of Minor Gourmand, I've added gastronomy to my list of shore pleasures.
The problem with shore dining, a glaring one at that, is pricing. Since most shore towns are foresaken from Labor Day through May, the restaurants jack-up the prices to squeeze extra dough from summer visitors. With the high price of dining comes the need for informed choices: where does the food merit the price tag? Some restaurants qualify for a little price hike, but other spots tip the quality-price scale unmercifully, churning out weak meals served by a flighty and crabby waitstaff.
Below are some places I've found to be not only worth the price tag, but unique to Cape May as well. The Summer calendar is nearing its end, so if you don't make it to these destinations this summer, mark them down for next year's gettaway.
Island Grill (311 Mansion St., behind the outdoor mall): Cape May regulars (you know, people who plaster their cars with two-tone CM stickers) might remember the address from its previous Victorian iteration, the Mansion House. Now the spot is home to more summery fare that will excite eaters young and old. Splashes of the Bahama coat the walls and give the restaurant a beachside vibe. The menu is host to some wonderful appetizers and salads, such as the cool Black Bean, Shrimp, Mango-Avocado Salad and the liberally-stuffed Conch Fritters, with their nippy tartar dressing. Entrees include a choose-your-own-adventure Island Grill Fresh Fish special, where you choose the sea critter, the preparation, and the finishing sauce.
Mad Batter (19 Jackson St.): Not only is this CM favorite located on one of the most scenic streets in town, it's also home to some of the best and most consistent dining. Despite the whimsical character the eponym suggests, the Mad Batter is actually quite elegant in a shorts and sandals-kinda way. The new menu includes a few standouts, including the panko-crusted Asian Style Grouper, with a crunchy slaw to match, and a pan-seared Striped Bass sided by tasty crabmeat and cheese grits. You'll be hard pressed to find a regular who doesn't enjoy eating at the Mad Batter - be it for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Blue Pig Tavern: Located in the renovated Congress Hall, the Blue Pig's Brooks Brothers aura makes it another gentile dining spot. But the the kid-friendly menus and amiable waitstaff also make it a great restaurant for the whole family -- if you can stomach the bill. Although there are some pricey entrees, ordering the hefty appetizers can cut back on expense without sacrificing satiety.
The Crab Cake and Tomato-Corn Salad is a steal of a meal at $12. The fist-sized crab cake is full of pinky-size crab lumps and accented by a mild chipolte aioli. A bounty of tiny Fried Calamari reminded me of eating popcorn but only with a more al dente bite. If the wasabi and mildly sweet beet oil were more abundant, this would be the perfect gourmet bar food. For an entree that needs no first course, try the wonderful plump Crab-stuffed Scallops ($25). Oh, and stay for the desserts; but do share, they're pretty large.
Two more seashore standouts are 410 Bank Street and Restaurant 1919. The latter is the the newest addition to Cape May's fine dining scene, and the first one you'll see crossing into the Cape. 1919 brings an eclectic menu and a classy wine list that begs for a little seashore romance.
410 Bank Street (guess where it's located) is a storied Cape May restaurant that's been attracting foodies from far and wide. I would consider the menu traditional, but it does have some Sino flair, not to mention high prices. Send the little ones to the arcade when you try either of these elite restaurants.
Even lattes come with a bloated price tag down here. For coffee and espresso that's worth it, try Lulu's. This brand new little cafe, which is attached to a wing of Hotel Macomber, serves LeBus treats along with some of the shore's best french toast and pancakes from 7-12PM, and then reopens at 6:30 for warm desserts, Bassetts ice cream, cookies, and caffeine.
For cheap and quick quality, try Hot Dog Tommy's. This walled-in stand serves the best dogs in town, be it the cheaper but still well dressed Leaner Wiener, or the plump all beef Black Angus Dog. I always opt for a leaner wiener Mexi-dog ($1.60); diced onions, salsa, and cheddar cheese lay atop this steamy hot dog.