The Jersey Shore may knock old-school Italian and boardwalk fare out of the park, but it isn’t exactly known for innovative cooking. But head to Asbury Park — the former blue collar, run-down boardwalk town that gave Bruce Springsteen his start — and today, the restaurant scene is positively booming.
There’s Neapolitan pizza, all-day vegan diners, Korean tacos, a massive beer garden, sustainable Mexican, raw bars, a tiki parlor, and more rounding out what’s becoming an interesting dining scene.
In reality, the evolution dates back to the ‘90s, when the gay community started renovating the city’s rundown Victorian homes. But the real kickstarter was in 2002 when the city signed a deal with investment firm iStar Financial. The massive company now owns the boardwalk and many residential properties and has pumped more than $150 million into the town over the last 10 years, including renovating the beachfront and opening a boutique hotel nearby.
“Everyone thought they were crazy,” says Asbury Park mayor John Moor, since the beachside town had become a dangerous place more known for gang and drug violence than its high point as NJ’s music haven. But that cash infusion, combined with entrepreneurs with foresight, brought Asbury back from the brink. Home prices went up more than 28 percent from 2000 to 2015, and over one million people visited the 1.5-square-mile town in 2016.
One such early entrepreneur was Mark Hinchliffe, who along with his partners in the branding firm Smith, opened American pub Brickwall Tavern in 2006 and runaway hit Neapolitan pizzeria Porta in 2011.
“When we opened Brickwall, you could basically lay down in the middle of the street and not get run over by a car. That’s how dead it was in Asbury Park,” Hinchliffe says. “The winter of Porta’s first year, nobody was coming. There would be nights we’d sell five pizzas.”
Fast-forward six years, and this past winter, Porta sold 500 pies on an average night, and in the summer, that number can rise to a whopping 1,200.
It’s a dramatic reversal for a town that this year Budget Travel named “America’s Coolest.” The moment that changed it all, Hinchliffe says, was a 2013 “excellent” rating for Porta in the New York Times, after which visitors from New York City flooded the restaurant and surrounding area. What followed was a growth spurt of hip restaurants, many from NYC-trained chefs and restaurateurs.
When Porta opened, there were 25 restaurants registered with Asbury Park’s Chamber of Commerce. Today there are 63, ranging from the old-school Italian the Jersey Shore is known for all the way to vegan pizza, Korean tacos, and a tiki bar.
“What happened in Asbury is like what Danny Meyer did originally with Union Square Cafe. He could have gone to Midtown, but he went there and the area built around him,” says Italian restaurant Brando’s owner Steven Botta. “That’s what happened here. A lot of entrepreneurs saw that opportunity.”
Some of those entrepreneurs were Jersey natives who cut their teeth in bigger city kitchens and wanted to return home, such as Bonney Read chef-owner James Avery who trained under Gordon Ramsay, David Burke, and Michael Mina. Others, like pizzeria Talula’s owners who worked at Saltie and Bien Cuit in Brooklyn, settled in Asbury just because “it felt right.” And with the rise of Asbury Park, came the Brooklyn-influenced artisanal movement, along with sourcing from local farms and purveyors.
At luncheonette Cardinal Provisions, Jersey kombucha is on tap, Asbury-made hot sauce fills the bottles, and locally roasted coffee is poured. Talula’s has an entire display board on the wall that cites where many of the organic ingredients originate. It’s all very — though they may shudder to hear it — “hipster,” a word that has never before been applied to the Jersey Shore, and people are eating it all up, in droves.
The Struggles and the Successes
But with revitalization comes the flip side of that coin: gentrification. While the East side of town (considered downtown) is practically gaining stretch marks from its rapid expansion, it’s a different story headed West, where there are public housing projects and high unemployment.
“Unfortunately when revitalization happens, not everybody really cares about the existing challenges that the community faces, and they kind of get left behind or pushed out,” says Asbury restaurateur Marilyn Schlossbach.
Schlossbach owns several restaurants in Asbury and beyond, and she’s made it her mission to bridge that divide. She started Kula Cafe, a restaurant that trains lower-income Asbury locals with front-of-house restaurant skills and helps them find jobs in town. It has since expanded to include an urban farm and neighborhood garden.
“Kula Cafe lifts the community up, but also supplies a need because we do have so many restaurants in Asbury now, and we’ve struggled with finding employees to work in all of them,” she says. “Why not try and help lift the kids in the community up so they can work?”
It’s a start for engaging the full community in the burgeoning restaurant scene, and Moor only sees the rapid development continuing.
“If I was young and I had money, I would buy as much land as I could on the west side, because it’s going to be like the east side one day and continue to grow. We’re not even 50 percent there yet as far as potential of the city,” he says.
Three new housing units are being built on the west side, and high-end condos continually shoot up on the east side. That means more mouths to feed.
Beyond the city’s divide, winter is also a challenge for new businesses. At its core, Asbury is a beach town, one that floods in the summer along with rising temperatures.
“The first winter here was flat-out scary. I was second guessing,” Avery says. “But the shoulder season is growing because there’s a lot more to do here now than just the beach.”
Locals are coming out all year round to support town businesses, and the other draws of Asbury — its art and music scene — are such that there is always at least some tourism. Businesses are also finding ways to combat the slowdown, like with event catering.
“2017 Asbury has become something that I never would have thought it would be even in 2012,” Hinchliffe says. “It feels like everybody is coming here to see what’s going on. There’s just stuff opening up everywhere and a new restaurant on every corner.”
Where to Eat
To see these restaurants mapped, head here.
Asbury Festhalle & Biergarten: A bi-level, indoor-outdoor high volume German-style beer garden with better food than it needs. 527 Lake Avenue
Bonney Read: Cooked and raw seafood from a David Burke and Gordon Ramsay vet in a buzzy, sunny corner space. 525 Cookman Avenue
Brando’s Citi Cucina: Old-school Italian with white tablecloths and a charming garden. 162 Main Street
Brickwall Tavern: An OG of Asbury new-schoolers, Brickwall is a standard American bar from the same owners of Porta. 522 Cookman Avenue
Cardinal Provisions: A vegan-friendly hipster diner with NYC roots that’s only open for breakfast and lunch. 513 Bangs Avenue
Frank’s Deli: Locals inhabit this quintessential Jersey luncheonette with diner classics and overstuffed sandwiches on its all-day menu. 1406 Main Street
Kula Cafe: This nonprofit cafe teaches front-of-house skills to underprivileged locals. 1201 Springwood Avenue
Mogo Korean Fusion Tacos: Just like its name states, affordable Korean fusion tacos (and burritos, bowls, and salads) are on the menu here. 632 Cookman Avenue
Pop’s Garage: For a break from the beach, head here for sustainable Mexican food with a surfer vibe. 1000 Ocean Avenue
Porta: Arguably the restaurant that turned the Asbury dining scene around, Porta now serves hundreds of Neapolitan pies to millennials daily. 911 Kingsley Street
Taka: Sushi and Japanese food serve the city in a big space with a full liquor license. 660 Cookman Avenue
Talula’s: It’s all-local-everything at this pizza place with super-quality ingredients also in seasonal salads and bowls. 550 Cookman Avenue #108