There Has Never Been a Better Time to Eat at the Jersey Shore

From acclaimed pop-ups to tried-and-true clam shacks, there's a sea of stand-out cuisine "down the shore."

Hooked Up Seafood
Photo: Cole Griffin / Hooked Up Seafood

The Jersey Shore draws summertime crowds for its breezy beaches, boardwalk amusement parks, and, especially this summer, its ever-growing food scene. With a new crop of spots highlighting fresh seafood and local produce joining iconic favorites, there's never been a better time to eat "down the shore."

For starters, a little slice of Philadelphia is making a splash this summer. Award-winning chef Greg Vernick will bring Vernick Fish, his swank seafood restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia, to Margate, New Jersey, for a pop-up in the seaside enclave. A collaboration with Cookie Till, restaurateur behind beloved beach staple Steve & Cookie's, the five-day run will culminate in a dinner at Till's Reed's Organic Farm, where Vernick and his team, including Vernick Fish chef de cuisine Andrew Parassio, will grill up a moonlit feast to benefit a Meaningful Purpose, the farm's charitable org.

The collaboration is like a summer homecoming for Vernick. "I've been going to Margate since I was a kid," he says. "My fondest memories are at the beach."

The chef got his first introduction to restaurants working in the kitchen at Lucy the Elephant, the seaside town's iconic six-story pachyderm, where he cooked hot dogs and scooped water ice. Nowadays, elements of the region's cuisine can be found on Vernick's menu, elevated in dishes like broiled oysters Rockefeller with brioche bread crumbs. "A lot of the inspiration we get for Vernick Fish comes from these quintessential Jersey Shore dishes," he says. At the end of the meal, the check is dropped along with salt water taffy, a traditional boardwalk treat.

The pop-up kicks off in the Steve & Cookie's parking lot on August 8th and runs until the 12th, offering a menu of bites like crudo and ceviche during lunch hours. Pastries and savory breakfast foods from Vernick Coffee Bar, the chef's more casual Four Seasons restaurant, will also be on offer.

Vernick recognized his clientele were going "downashore" as Philadelphians call it, in the summer.

"Ten or 15 years ago, if you thought of the Jersey Shore, you perhaps had one perception of what it was," Vernick says. "It's nice to kind of give people a little bit of a different angle of how charming it is. For me, it's this quiet place, if you know how to navigate it."

And there's never been a better time to navigate it. Besides the Vernick Fish pop-up, Shore-goers should get to Steve & Cookie's early and wait for a seat at the bar for some of Vernick's favorite dishes — jumbo lump crab cakes, linguini with local clams, and a Negroni.

Vernick Fish Pop-Up
Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia at Comcast Center

Across the bridge in Somers Point is one of the region's quintessential seafood shacks. Best known as Smitty's, the BYOB Clam Bar slings seafood platters, peel-and-eat-shrimp, and "red" or "white" chowder.

In Avalon, about 20 miles south on the Garden State Parkway, is the charming beachfront restaurant Summer Salt. Owners, chef Connor Dore and farmer Heather Sedlacek, also run Bayleaf Farm & Hospitality, so the $85 pre-fixed menu features ingredients they cultivate, like vegetables, herbs, and eggs, plus local seafood. A few doors down, also on the boardwalk, Sundae Best is scooping housemade flavors like garden mint and Kohler's cream donut, mixed with hunks of the nearby bakery's best morning treat. On the other side of town,the Diving Horse — with its snug patio ensconced in greenery — became an instant Avalon classic when it opened in 2010. The kitchen sources from local Jersey farms and day boat fishermen for dishes like the Barnegat scallops with corn risotto and pickled blueberries.

In neighboring Stone Harbor, find classic Shore fare like steamed mussels served alongside crispy chicken enchiladas, carne asada tacos, and a full bar with a robust agave-based spirits menu at chef Lucas Manteca's Quahog's Seafood Shack. While in town, make a stop at Fudge Kitchen for samples of the made-fresh chocolate confection.

For the freshest boat-to-plate fish, head for Hooked Up Seafood in Wildwood. Run by the Bright family, the company sources tuna, tilefish, john dory, day boat scallops and more from local vessels, including patriarch Captain Bill. Order the filleted-in-house fish of the day, blackened, seared, or fried, and enjoy it at a picnic table on the dock.

Whether or not you're arriving to the beach by boat, seek out Boat Drinks, one of the trio of new restaurants that opened this summer on the Jersey side of the Cape May-Lewes Ferry terminal. Situated at the southern tip of the Shore, you can watch the sunset, spritz in hand, from the bayfront patio.

A bit inland in Cape May, Beach Plum Farm serves a breakfast frittata made with eggs gathered from the on-site chickens. The 62-acre working farm also hosts a summer dinner series when guests sit at tables set up in the garden, and dine on a menu of farm-raised meat and dishes prepared around the daily harvest under the stars.

A little north of Margate, Atlantic City may be better known for its eternally spinning slot machines than charming seaside vibes, but the food and drink offerings make it well worth a visit. Try buzzy newcomers like the 360-degree rotating Bally's Carousel Bar and NYC import Serendipity3 at the Ocean Resort & Casino.

For one of the Shore's best hoagies, you can bypass the line at White House Sub Shop on Arctic Avenue and head for Hard Rock Hotel & Casino for an outpost making the same legendary sandwiches. To channel Old A.C. nostalgia, leave a message at Chef Vola's and make your case for a table in the family-run Italian BYOB. Walls are decked in framed photos of celebrities who've come through for plates like angel hair pasta with clam sauce and a veal chop, blanketed in a thick layer of mozz, that hangs over the plate.

If you're driving from Philadelphia (or elsewhere in New Jersey, or even NYC) it's worth a stop at Sweet Amalia's Market. The classic road-side stand stocks in-season Jersey tomatoes and small-batch provisions alongside a menu highlighting the oysters they harvest nearby in Cape May County. (Do not miss the cornmeal-crusted fried oysters tucked into the roll alongside creamy celery root slaw.)

For Greg Vernick, this Jersey Shore cuisine is both nostalgic and hard to describe.

"It's kind of rustic … there's a commonality in a lot of the menus — the crab cake, steamed clams, the fluke broiled with breadcrumbs on top, and shrimp cocktail," he says. "It's just got this feel to it. When these items are prepared properly and fresh, they're as good as anything else."

Make a road trip this summer to see for yourself.

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