Forgo your typical shoobie spots and hit these hidden gems recommended by folks who know best — the locals.
A jaunt (or 20) to the Jersey Shore is a summertime ritual round here. But next time you make a dash to the ocean, forgo your typical shoobie spots and hit these hidden gems recommended by folks who know best — the locals. — Edited by Laura Brzyski
Brigantine to Margate | Ocean City & Sea Isle City | Avalon & Stone Harbor | Wildwood | Cape May
From Brigantine to Margate
Lifelong South Jersey resident Mark DeNinno, who owns Center City’s Chris’ Jazz Cafe, has been fishing the waters around Atlantic City for as long as he can remember. For beginners — or those prone to seasickness — he recommends the daily trips offered by the Highroller, Atlantic City’s only party boat that sticks to the calm back bay. Before you hit the water, DeNinno suggests grabbing Italian hoagies from Aversa’s Bakery in nearby Brigantine.
Really Good Pizza
Atlantic City has more than its fair share of pizza spots, but resident Gretchen Prince — co-owner of iconic Philly dive Bob & Barbara’s — turns her nose up at most of them as mediocre at best. She heads to Girasole, which uses a specialty “double-zero” wheat flour imported from Naples. “I still have a special place in my heart for Tony’s Baltimore Grill’s pizza, too,” she says; it’s where she went on her first date with her husband, Jack.
Exhale at Ocean Resort is “expensive, but freaking amazing,” Prince says.
When Brigantine local Alexis Kull wants to see a movie, the choice is clear: Ventnor Square Theater, a restored Art Deco venue from the 1920s that now shows first-run movies and has a speakeasy-themed bar and restaurant attached.
Anytime Kull needs a break from A.C.’s indulgent Italian restaurants and casino steakhouses, she seeks out the juice bar and açaí bowls at Greens and Grains in Margate. For Prince, cooking fish at home is the go-to; she picks up the catch of the day from Randall’s, a seafood wholesaler in nearby Pleasantville: “It’s a bit inland, but they have the freshest stuff.” Well, unless you catch a flounder on the Highroller. — Victor Fiorillo
Ocean City & Sea Isle City
The made-from-scratch scones whipped up daily by owner Jennifer Bailey may be the calling card at Barefoot Market, but the Ocean City cafe also sells a stellar lunch. Rebecca Juzwiak, vice president and chief operating officer at Johnson’s Popcorn, recommends the baguette sandwiches. Star combos — like lemon garlic shrimp and prosciutto, or brie and pear — change regularly but always come on house-made bread.
Richard Zinck has summered in Avalon for the past 70 years, so he’s no newbie to nearby Sea Isle. For a breezy bird’s-eye view of the beach, he suggests a splurge-y but “great fun” adventure with Sea Isle Parasail.
Low-Key Waterfront Dining
In between Ocean City and Sea Isle sits Twisties Tavern on the Bay, a Strathmere spot that’s “old-school, with a knotty pine decor, bay views, and good food for very reasonable prices,” Zinck says.
When the weather is bad, Casey O’Hara — the third-generation owner of Uncle Bill’s Pancake House — does what he calls a “surf-shop hop,” stopping into boutiques from Cape May to Margate, including Avalon Surf and Heritage Surf & Sport’s three Shore outposts.
Beachtime With Kids
Mary Beth Libro, a teacher in Ocean City and co-owner of Sea Isle delicatessen Giovanni’s, says Whale Beach — a wide, less populous stretch between Sea Isle and Strathmere — is a winner for families with young kids. Now that her crew is older, though, they open their umbrellas at 43rd Street beach. “Having lifeguards, the boardwalk arcade and Giovanni’s close by are pluses,” she says. — Regan Fletcher Stephens
Avalon & Stone Harbor
Casey O’Hara returns throughout the summer to the Diving Horse, where the chef “does a great job of showing off in-season seafood, shellfish and Jersey produce.” For a DIY dinner, Liz Hodges suggests the bustling Stone Harbor Farmers’ Market, where on Sundays from Memorial Day weekend to late September, vendors sell local produce plus pickles, hot doughnuts, fresh-cut flowers, bacon on a stick and tubs of homemade guac.
Tucked in an alley between Hoy’s 5 & 10 and the post office, find Trendz Stone Harbor, where owner Amy Hardy “curates the most unbelievable collection of jewelry, including designers from all over the world,” says Liz Hodges, owner of the boutique People People in Stone Harbor.
No Boardwalk? No Problem!
Because Avalon and Stone Harbor lack a boardwalk with rides or water parks, Marilyn O’Donoghue, a realtor with Compass’s RJ Soens Group, suggests Island Water Sports, an aqua park and rental outfitter in the harbor next to the Reeds at Shelter Haven: “They have inflatable slides that go into the bay and rentable kayaks, paddleboards and Jet Skis.”
The hot vinyasa at Stone Harbor Yoga has a “cult-like following,” according to Hodges: “Book early in order to get in during the summer, and you’ll sweat like you’ve never before in your life.”
Stone Harbor Bird Sanctuary is a 21-acre haven for feathered friends like ospreys and yellow-crowned night herons. Diane Wade, guest services manager at the Reeds, recommends taking a free guided tour (offered at 10 a.m. on Sundays from Memorial Day to Labor Day plus Saturdays in July and August) or a morning stroll on one of the four trails.
The Painted Pie is best known for its killer pecan sticky buns and pies like the sugar-crusted strawberry rhubarb, but according to Hodges, it’s also a secret weapon for feeding a houseful of guests. Pre-order catering for appetizers, pasta, salads, veggies and entrees. — R.F.S.
Kyra Miller, co-owner of BESOUL Wellness Studio in Wildwood Crest, loves Guppi for eco-friendly clothes made from recycled plastic. For cozy apparel, longtime Wildwood homeowner Bonnie Behm suggests Sand Jamm: “You can’t find softer and better-quality sweats, hoodies and tees on the island than their clothes.”
For all your jam-band merch, tapestries and vinyl needs, vintage store — and personal favorite — What Goes On has a much more varied inventory than the standard boardwalk gift shops that have surrounded it since its 1990 founding.
Eat, Drink and Be Merry
Lauren Suit, a marketing coordinator at Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement & Development Authority, says PigDog — a seasonal beach bar and barbecue joint — is “a great spot for when you’re coming off the beach or you need to take a break from the rides.” (The massive Bloody Marys and barbecue classics scream summer.) Miller recommends Mudhen Brewing Company (for craft beer) and West Side Saloon, an almost literal hole-in-the-wall sports bar in West Wildwood.
Decor and More
Warehouse Wicker offers much more than just wicker decor items — think paintings, photography and signs in addition to beachy chairs, tables and pillows. “It’s like the Target of Wildwood,” Behm says. “You go in for one thing and walk out with a carful of stuff.”
Lend a Hand
Before you pack up those coolers and head home, help clear away discarded bottle caps and straws half-buried in the sand with nonprofit Love Blue Inc. The group’s monthly cleanups turn beachgoers into do-gooders to keep the shoreline litter-free. — Shaunice Ajiwe
Putting in the Miles
Sure, you could go for a jog on the beach, but much more fun is Revolution Rail Co., a rail-bike line that runs through the Nature Conservancy and the South Cape May Meadows and is a “really beautiful ride,” according to Anastasio. Wright says those in search of exercise can find none more grueling than the 199 steps of the local lighthouse, adding that it’s a great way to tire out the kids.
Go for wings and beers at the C-View Inn, “the only locals bar in Cape May,” according to South Philly lawyer Vern Anastasio, who visits his house here year-round. Or hit up Westside Market, a 121-year-old butcher shop “that just so happens to have the best breakfast sandwich in Cape May.”
Everybody goes to Duckie’s Farm Market in West Cape May for the freshest Jersey tomatoes and corn, but Anastasio insists you won’t find a better Key lime pie or rice pudding around.
When It Rains
“We always send our guests to local wineries’ indoor tasting rooms, like Hawk Haven and Willow Creek,” says Sandy Vizzone, who co-owns bed-and-breakfast the Hugh plus two French restaurants, Maison Bleue and Jardin.
“David Matagiese, who owns Southend Surf Shop, is a wonderful surfing instructor,” says Jack Wright, owner of the local weekly, Exit Zero, which is also the name of one of Wright’s Cape May restaurants. “He gets a good crowd every morning at Cove Beach.”
A Little (Hair) Color
“The hairstylists at Color Tint Bar in Cape May Courthouse are great,” Vizzone says. “We moved down here permanently four years ago, and I’m so glad I found them.” — V.F.
Published as “Secrets of the Shore” in the July 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.