The crowds, the traffic, the tracksuits. Before you talk yourself out of one last summer vacation, follow us on a tour of a far savvier long weekend.
By Scott Edwards
Some would say that going to Atlantic City and avoiding the casinos is sacrilege. But The Chelsea, perched right on the periphery, was the ideal home base for our decidedly un-Shore-like Shore weekend.
The summer was passing us by, we realized. Sure, there’d been a wedding or a barbeque almost every weekend since May, but we hadn’t so much as split a bottle of tempranillo on the deck, let alone managed a vacation. We forged a pact, then and there, to free up a couple of days—just long enough for a change of location.
The Jersey Shore was the obvious destination. We both spent parts of our summers there growing up, my wife in and around Long Beach Island and me in Ocean City. More importantly, the drive would not undo us and the forecast was sunny. The problem was, we’d hardly be the only ones feeling that urgency. And, I’d grown weary of the Shore. It had come to mean long waits for food that I always remembered tasting better, relentless traffic and Jersey caricatures crowding the ever-diminishing beaches.
So, we made it our mission to hunt down an altogether different Shore experience, and, in the process, slip past the mobs huddled around the traditional joints. Heading to AC, then, would seem counterintuitive, I know. But The Chelsea became the cornerstone of our blueprint. It sits discreetly on the south end of the boardwalk, just beyond the last (open) casino. You won’t avoid the Rascal traffic, but you will claim a larger swath of the sand for yourself. The still-sprawling beach is an afterthought here. As proof, admission is free.
Everything else was icing, and we were thick with icing. Between the Miami-esque interior design and the Biggie Smalls that was humming in the lobby when we arrived, The Chelsea exudes a cool-kid vibe, but the embracing kind you find in Zac Efron movies, not the aloof, elitist variety from an actual high school. We woke to a sweeping view of a rising sun reflecting off the Atlantic from our 16th-floor room. From that height, even AC looks pure.
The Chelsea offers beach service—a pair of lounge chairs and an umbrella that’s installed for you—which sounds like a small perk, but not having to lug our own sand-caked gear immediately felt like a deep indulgence. We took advantage as soon as we could, naturally, whiling our first few hours at the edge of the lapping tide without so much as a handful of words uttered between us—or around us.
That night, we drove away from the casinos and pulled into the parking lot of a wine and spirits shop about a mile from the hotel. We entered through a barely-marked entrance on the side of the building, walked past a long bar and sat at the end of a row of 10 two-person tables. Most nights, every seat is filled, we were told, but we were two of a few.
The Iron Room at the Atlantic City Bottle Company is a tasting room of sorts. Mostly small plates are on offer, and they change practically daily. Bar fare, it is not. First off, you’re in a space within reach of a smartly curated liquor store, so trust that you’re going to drink well. We ordered from the bar, but the couple a table over—the only other diners there—told us about a small group buying its wine in the shop and sharing it among themselves the last time they were there.
The dishes came fast once we ordered: a house-made pappardelle ($9) tossed with brown butter, toasted pepitas and parmesan; tuna crudo ($14) paired with house-pickled jalapenos, golden beets and cabbage slaw; za’atar-crusted sturgeon ($17) placed atop a cold soba noodle salad seasoned with herbs, ponzu and soy. Most of it was local, and yet little of it was familiar.
Every plate was clean in five or six bites, but there were two that we lingered over, or tried to, at least: a Korean barbeque hangar steak ($15) with sweet and sour Brussels sprouts and morsels of bacon and pan-seared sockeye salmon ($20) smothered in tzatziki and served on a small pile of succotash made of snap peas and roasted corn so sweet it tasted like it was infused with sugar water.
Forget the soft-serve, we pushed ourselves over the edge with a wedge of flourless chocolate cake that sat in a pool of salted caramel.
Day 2 | Teplitzky’s, The Chelsea’s diner-style restaurant, is old-school Miami in HD. We ate breakfast in an open-air room within view of one of the hotel’s two pools. It was decorated in the fashion of what I imagine the solarium in the shared house on “The Golden Girls” looked like. I say this not as a criticism, because it’s the polar antithesis of every dimly-lit, all-you-can-eat casino buffet I’ve regretfully found myself in. And for that hour over breakfast, I managed to convince myself that we were a lot further from home than a couple of hours.
Virtually every table around us—young families and small groups of twentysomething hipsters—was divvying up the signature dish, The Big Teplitzky: two pancakes, French toast, three eggs, toast or a bagel, hash browns, bacon, pork roll, turkey sausage and a pot of coffee. There’s a running challenge: Double The Big Teplitzky—that’s four pounds of food, allegedly—consume it by yourself in under a half-hour, and it’s yours free. No one tried, that we saw, but lots asked about it.
After a sun-drenched few hours on a sparsely-populated beach, we hit the road and headed south on the parkway for Avalon. We had a dinner reservation at The Diving Horse, a 70-seat BYOB on buzzing Dune Drive that’s only open between Memorial and Labor days. It’s owned by Dan Clark and Ed Hackett, who are also responsible for Pub & Kitchen and Fitler Dining Room, both in Philly.
The décor is spare, way more Pottery Barn farmhouse than rental beach house—dark wood floors and matching chairs, a row of old church pews line the wall on one side of a bank of tables, small lanterns lit with Edison bulbs dot the walls every few feet.
We got there at 6:30 p.m., and by the time we were done ordering, the dining room had filled in around us. As soon as the appetizers arrived, it was obvious we were about to be clued in to what everyone else already knew.
The heirloom tomato salad ($14) with ricotta and mint sourdough croutons ruined tomatoes for me for the rest of the summer, they were that lush. My wife made subtle cooing noises with every spoonful of her Cape Cod mussels and Chesapeake clams ($13), which were served bisque-style in a light broth loaded with roasted corn, shishito peppers and Japanese herbs.
Local connections were everywhere. The ricotta was from Lambertville’s Fulper Farms. There was a Blue Moon Acres (Buckingham and Hopewell, NJ) arugula salad. And the Hudson Canyon swordfish featured mushrooms from Shibumi Farm, in Princeton.
An unmistakably mesquite-flavored Cape May sea bream ($31) followed. (We felt stupid for asking, but every table around us eventually did, too. It’s a meaty white fish, FYI.) I went for the New Jersey fluke ($34) dressed in a cucumber yogurt sauce, which came in a light sweet pepper and zucchini stew. We split plates of Jersey corn ($9) tossed with chili, lemon and olive oil—very simple, very delicious—and beautifully crisp, fried Brussels sprouts seasoned with ginger and lime.
We ate as slowly as we could, hoping it would prolong each course forever. Instead, it felt like our stay lasted about 15 minutes. We left reluctantly, gushed about the dinner the whole drive back to The Chelsea, got up the next morning and picked right back up.
Day 3 | Our last few hours, so we crammed them full: a jog into Ventnor and back along pristine, open boardwalk, a light breakfast at Teplitzky’s (relatively speaking) and a too-brief stint at the rooftop pool lounge. We had it to ourselves, which felt like a fitting conclusion to our off-the-beaten path weekend.
While my wife packed, I roamed Yelp, looking for one last score. It came in the form of an outdated but tidy hole that sits in the shadows of the casinos along Atlantic Avenue. But we weren’t coming to Pho Sydney to be seen or even, really, to be comfortable. We were there for lunch.
Bowls with the diameter of a basketball were hurried over to our corner booth, one filled with pork pho, the other with grilled chicken pho. Both were packed with tender rice noodles, crisp carrot sticks, wilted strips of lemongrass and a handful of crushed peanuts. We ate, we sighed with intoxication. Total bill: 21 bucks.
Photos courtesy The Chelsea / Dan Pearse Photographers, Inc.
111 South Chelsea Avenue, Atlantic City
Rooms from $139
Roof-top cabana club
10,000-square foot spa
Beach service ($15 a day)
Valet garage parking
The Iron Room at the Atlantic City
648 N. Albany Ave., Atlantic City
Book the chef’s table and the tasting menu. At 65 bucks, it’s well worth it. Might as well splurge on the drink pairing, too. After all, how often are you going to have a wine and spirits shop at your disposal?
The Diving Horse
2109 Dune Drive, Avalon, NJ
With only a couple weekends left in the season, your best shot at a prime-time reservation is on a weeknight. And, with a liquor store across the street, there are no excuses for showing up empty-handed. —SE
The Jersey Shore has a way of forcing us back into old, familiar patterns. But what if you dared to be different?
By Kendra Lee Thatcher
I wake up exactly eight minutes before my alarm goes off. It’s 5:52 a.m. I give in, toss the indulgent Frette sheets aside and spring out of bed. In an hour, I’ll be surfing!
My bikini’s still damp, but I throw it on anyway and then make a cup of oolong tea. Kristin, my sister, is still asleep, oblivious.
I open the doors to the balcony and the breeze from the bay promptly pushes into our room. The air is sweet and recognizable, comforting. It fills my lungs. I sip and stare out across the water. Aside from the ambient call of the gulls and the subtle lapping of the water, there’s complete silence. Peace, really.
Below is the Water Star Grille, where, last night, Kristin and I drank herbaceous martinis. Feeling no rush, nor agenda, we reminisced, philosophized and savored the sunset.
Ten minutes and counting. I’m pacing, so I decide to just go and be early. I grab my old linen hoodie and my aviators on my way out the door, which I close softly so it doesn’t wake Kristin.
Diane rides up on her vintage bicycle. She’s the concierge at The Reeds at Shelter Haven, the fashionable boutique hotel where we’re staying, and the woman responsible for getting me out on the water this morning. We talk for a bit about Stone Harbor. She makes it hard to resist. This town resonates with her as Lambertville, NJ, does with me, personally and aesthetically.
Before long, Matt, my guide, pulls up, our boards in the back of his SUV.
“Good morning!” he beams. “Ready?”
In the two-minute ride to the beach, I find out Matt not only crafts custom surfboards but he’s also a Bucks native.
And then there she is, Madame Atlantic. At this hour, there’s hardly anyone on the beach. We plunge in, and beneath the surface, it’s a different kind of quiet. I wipe the water from my eyes, push the hair out of my face and then we begin to paddle out beyond the break. I have to remind myself to turn around and face the shoreline because I could keep going.
Balancing on my board, every distraction fades away, and I sync with the rhythmic undulation of the ocean.
The Reeds at Shelter Haven, Stone Harbor, NJ