Changing Hands: New Developments in Cape May’s Dining Scene
In the small enclave of Cape May, restaurant changes of any sort are met with interest. This summer, the changes are so vast that we’re dedicating a whole column to the who, what, and where of Cape May’s culinary transitions. The takeaway from all of it? 2022 is the summer for dining out.
While customers were disappointed to learn about the closing of Godmother’s last year, it’s quite the consolation to know an epic new restaurant is set to take its place. Esteemed Chef Carl Messick of The Peter Shields Inn & Restaurant announced on his Facebook page that he was opening Grana BYOB at the former Godmother’s site. According to its website, Grana BYOB is a 68-seat restaurant that utilizes seasonal ingredients to produce Messick’s vision of modern American cuisine. The new menu includes deliciousness like Chargrilled Spanish Octopus with crispy fingerlings, broccoli rabe, chili flake, romesco and aged balsamic; fusilli with house sausage, wild mushrooms, leeks, goat cheese, and mushroom cream; and Pan Roasted Muscovy Duck Breast with warm barley salad, golden raisins, Swiss chard, and spiced carrot puree.
“We are very excited to have this lifelong dream come to fruition,” says Messick. “What we are wanting to bring to Cape May is an intimate fine dining experience. We want to bring the best in service, not in a stuffy way. Our menu will showcase simplicity, seasonality, and sustainability.”
And not to worry. The Peter Shields Inn & Restaurant will continue to impress countless visitors this summer. Upon Messick’s departure, the legendary restaurant welcomed the equally legendary Chef George Galati. While Galati was previously with the Gordon Ramsay restaurants in Atlantic City—Gordon Ramsay Steak and Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill—he’s particularly recognizable for his work as “Big George” on both “Dinner: Impossible” and “Restaurant: Impossible” on The Food Network. We expect nothing but deliciousness at PSI.
“No major dining changes are planned at this time,” says Peter Shields owner Jeff Gernitis, adding, “Under Chef Galati’s leadership, PSI will continue to provide Cape May’s finest dining experience.”
In another closure turned new dining experience, the beloved and cozy Merion Inn has closed. Originally Café Collins, which was started in 1900 by owner Patrick Collins, it became The Merion Inn when it was purchased in 1905 by Andrew Zillinger, then steward of the Merion Cricket Club in Merion, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. Though it has changed ownership many times over the years, the historic institution had been in continuous operation since 1900. Fortunately, The Merion Inn liquor license was purchased by Barbara Bray Wilde, who plans to add a restaurant and bar to the already stunning Southern Mansion.
“The whole idea with historic preservation is to make it so people understand why it’s so important,” says Wilde, of the work she’s done at Southern Mansion. “We want to make that available so everyone can come and enjoy it. We want to open it up for the public with a restaurant and bar.”
The bar at Southern Mansion likely won’t be opening this summer, but keep it on your radar for an up-and-coming must-visit dining destination.
In the meantime, The Kulkowitz family of The Mad Batter has purchased the former site of The Merion Inn at 106 Decatur Street with plans to reopen, upon completion of some necessary renovations, as The Cricket Club. The name is a nod to Merion Inn founder Andrew Zillinger’s origins at the Merion Cricket Club.
“It’s a little homage,” says Kyle Kulkowitz, who, as general manager of The Cricket Club is working closely with bartender extraordinaire Matt Reeves as well as Cape May Magazine’s own Chef Jon Davies with hopes of an early July opening.
“It’s going to be a fun project,” says Davies. “I’ve been describing it as local ingredients, global flavors. This menu is going to be different than what anyone else is doing in town.”
Among the many mouthwatering options on the menu thus far are Apple Onion Soup with caramelized onions and apples in a Madeira finished herb-laced laced broth; Grilled Octopus with warm chickpea salad; and Chicken and Waffles with buttermilk-fried chicken thighs and sweet potato waffles with a hot honey drizzle, as well as a selection of gluten-free and vegan options.
In another major change, the Menz family has sold the Inn of Cape May, and with it, Aleathea’s Restaurant, to the Demutis family, owners of Madison Avenue Beach Club and The Jetty Motel. According to their Facebook page, Aleathea’s has been renamed Ocean 7 with Executive Chef Sam Walters at the helm. The new owners were unavailable for comment, and we’re unable to confirm an opening date. However, we look forward to enjoying a cocktail on their swoon-worthy porch just as soon as we can. And we’re not the only ones.
“We feel like they (were) the perfect fit to continue the Inn’s legacy and bring the proper upgrades to the building without compromising (the) historical aspects that the city and its visitors admire,” says previous owner Tai Menz. “We look forward to better serving the community through Coastline Realty and can’t wait to enjoy food and cocktails on the other side of the bar this summer.”
The Menz family isn’t the only surprising departure from Cape May’s culinary scene. The Hirsh Family, who owned and operated The Montreal since 1966, sold the property, and with it the beloved rooftop bar and the restaurant, Harry’s Ocean Bar & Grille, to Madison Resorts, a locally owned hospitality company headed by property operations veteran Dan Alicea in late 2021.
“My wife was born and raised in Cape May County, now operating a piece of its history is a childhood dream coming true for both of us. We are humbled and honored by the Hirsch family for putting their trust in Madison Resorts; we are committed to delivering exceptional guest service and ensuring we hold the community first in our heart,” says Alicea.
Longtime customers can rest assured that Madison Resorts plans to honor all our favorite traditions—an increase of live music, stunning views, and ice-cold cocktails—while elevating the menu under the helm of Executive Chef Jim Maugeri, who previously ran Zagat rated restaurants in Bordentown and Lambertville. Harry’s is open already, and guests can expect daily breakfasts as well as exciting specials like the Seafood Martini for Two,—fresh and locally sourced seafood packed into a 44-ounce martini glass. All we have to say is “yum.”
Down the road on Beach Avenue, Taco Caballito has been refreshed with new light fixtures, refinished floors, bathroom renovations, and an influx of greenery courtesy of new owners Ross Hammer and Lauren Cavallo, who purchased the building in March.
Hammer and Cavallo own several AirBnB’s in Cape May, including The Buttonwood and The Colonial. And while they’ve operated food trucks in the past, this is their first restaurant venture.
“Victor Gomez is an incredible chef,” says Hammer of Chef Gomez, who has stayed on at Taco Caballito through the ownership change, as well as everyone else who was there prior to settlement. “It really came out to be a perfect match. We’re working with a great group of people.”
Hammer and Cavallo have big plans for the rest of the building. Stay tuned for more from this enterprising young couple.
And after decades in business, Chris Holl and Jerry Emery sold the beloved Oyster Bay Restaurant and Bar to restaurateur Gary Cardi. While Cardi has been a partner in Table 95 Hospitality for years, and as such, has managed dozens of restaurants, this is his first solo endeavor.
“I reassessed after the pandemic,” says Cardi, who was a regular at Oyster Bay prior to making the leap to owner. “When Chris and Jerry started to want to sell, I thought, it might be time for me as well.”
Cardi’s specialty is in operations and systems, and while he hopes to make things easier for the staff with things like new inventory and ordering systems, he’s not planning on changing much else.
“I’m not looking to flip the place upside down. Chef Joseph Dodds has been there for fourteen years. What I love about Joe is that he gets it all and will never be outworked by anyone,” says Cardi. “The food is really good and solid. We might explore adding new stuff under Joe’s guidance, maybe try some new specials, but the staples? I’m not touching.”
And while it’s not an eatery primarily, Westside Market has made—and will continue to make—some mean sandwiches. Owned for almost 25 years by Pat & Denise Sluk, Westside Market changed hands this year to Chris and Kristen Angeli, who have freshened up the exterior and revamped the interior to accentuate the early 1900’s general store vibe. Additionally, the Angelis have brought retail as well as a new specialty sandwich menu—as well as the old favorites—to Westside while keeping grocery and provisions, a butcher, Boar’s Head meats and cheeses, and more. Guests can dig into sandwiches like the Shrimp Po Boy and El Jefe Cubano (smoked ham, roasted pulled pork, Swiss cheese, fresh pickles, mustard, and mayo on pressed ciabatta bread) all summer long
“We are so excited to be a part of this wonderful community and we look forward to carrying on this beloved West Cape May tradition,” says Kristen.
Finally, Cape May has no less than four new dining establishments to try at the Cape May ferry terminal, where restaurants and retail are now under the direction of Jack Wright of Exit Zero Filling Station and Exit Zero Hospitality. The first, Cafe 64, which is named for the year the ferry was launched, opened last September, and has hot and cold sandwiches, coffees, teas, canned beers, snacks, and lots of cool merchandise.
Restaurant number two is The Lookout, which opened April 1. In addition to stupendous views and a delightful dinner menu, The Lookout is home to a particularly imaginative cocktail menu. Look for drinks like The Mermaid, made with Tepache Fermented beverage, pineapple juice, Bacardi Coconut Rum, and Crème de Banane and topped with an edible mermaid, or Don’t Pay the Ferryman, made with Grand Marnier, Chai-infused Wild Turkey, Peychaud bitters, chocolate bitters, and garnished with chocolate coins.
Boat Drinks, the third eatery, has a very relaxed, island-influenced menu with salads by the glass, paninis, and plenty of snacks and shares like pickled vegetable crudité, prosciutto & Asian pear, and a cheese & fruit board.
Lastly, Exit Zero Ferry Station will have a menu like Exit Zero Filling Station with some differences. Instead of Indian dishes, there will be a melting pot of rice and noodle dishes, which will call out comfort classics from Italian to Chinese. Menu items include Thai shrimp, sweet-n-sour chicken, Cajun shrimp penne, pappardelle puttanesca, and much more, as well as vegetarian options.
This summer when you come to Cape May, come hungry! ■