By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1997 Gourmet Magazine
To landlubbers in and around New York City, the eastern edge of Monmouth County, New Jersey, just below Sandy Hook, holds a special place among escapist fantasies. So alluringly nearby, the fine-sand strand is a summer getaway for anyone desperately in need of lobster and the proper surroundings in which to enjoy it. A day, a half day, or even just a long dinner hour is all that’s needed to leave urban and suburban sprawl far, far behind. South by Southeast two hours from Times Square, hungry truants find themselves on a radiant strip of spacious beaches, honkytonk boardwalk towns, and casual restaurants with patios perfumed by ocean breezes. Nothing goes better with the invigorating sun and surf in this part of the world than tureens full of steamers, plates of crab, clams, and flounder, and whole-lobster feasts.
“Here’s The Famous!” declares a white-sneakered waitress at BAHRS LANDING SEAFOOD RESTAURANT, in Highlands, as she sets down a bowl of Manhattan-style clam chowder made from a recipe dating back to 1917, when the Bahrs family started serving local fishermen and sailors from their houseboats at the marina. Now, four generations of Bahrs and ten million customers later, the restaurant is a vast, nautical-themed eating hall with picture windows looking out on the Shrewsbury River and, on the other side, Sandy Hook peninsula, as well as the moorings available to customers who arrive by boat.
The dining room contains a bounty of maritime memorabilia: antique harpoon guns, samplers of navigators’ knots, swordfish swords, and shiny brass fittings from bygone sailing vessels. Prominently displayed among the oceanic treasures is a fan letter from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who wrote from his Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, farm in 1965 to thank the restaurant for the fine meal it provided him and his wife, Mamie, during their visit to the region.
Like the restaurant itself, Bahrs’s menu has grown since the days of simple fish-and-chowder suppers. It includes long lists of ways to stuff, sauce, and otherwise embellish foods that need no embellishment. (A good rule for dining here, as at most of New Jersey’s best shoreline fish houses, is to stick to basics.)
What the waitress calls “The Famous” couldn’t be more basic. Chopped clams and vegetables are so thick in the bowl that there is scarcely room for a few spoonfuls of tomato-flavored broth. It is honest soup, not brilliant—in fact, a little bland; but such familiar simplicity is what Bahrs does best…and what keeps generations of vacationers coming back. Regulars know they can count on round-topped buttermilk biscuits to accompany every meal. Fresh, whole lobsters are steamed so that plump pink meat fairly bursts from the claws and knuckles with only a little fork-coaxing. Lovely fillets of flounder are broiled to a perfect state of milky sweetness. When the flounder is used to blanket a mound of deviled Maryland crab, it is still good; but the stuffing, which ought to be crabbier and more devilish, seems irrelevant.
When we order a plate of fried clams, the waitress suggests a half-and-half platter of clams and oysters. Good idea, for the clams are running small on this day, and, although they are the whole-belly variety, most pieces are little more than crisp, clam-flavored squiggles, without the hedonistic juiciness of really large ones. The oysters, on the other hand, veiled in a fragile crust, are heavy with vigorous marine flavor. The French fries that come alongside are forgettable; a baked potato, wrapped in aluminum foil, is of no interest.
Bahrs’s steamers (soft-shelled clams) are a delectable dish no culinary sorcery can improve. Served in a briny pile with accompanying bowls of broth and butter, extra paper napkins, and a moist towelette, they have an essence-of-the-sea character without equal. And their silky feel, so supple and clean on the palate, makes them a joy to slide into one’s mouth just as quickly as manual dexterity permits. When we accidentally leave one uneaten in the bottom of the bowl, our waitress cruises up to the table, a worried look on her face. “Are you through?” she asks timidly. When we nod, she breathes a sigh of relief. “I wasn’t sure,” she says. “People will smack your hand if you try to take their plate away with one steamer left.”
The menu at THE CLAM HUT, also on the water in Highlands, is even bigger than at Bahrs, featuring all manner of steak, chicken, and pasta (for fish-frowners); dozens of flatfish in plain and fancy preparations; and countless ways to have clams: on the half shell, Casino, baked stuffed, in Manhattan or New England chowder, or deep-fried. We do not recommend the Casino version, which includes too much chopped green pepper and harsh onion with a tile of bacon on top; and the heavily breaded fried clams will not satisfy a craving for briny seafare. But the half shells are impeccable—tiny, ocean-bright, and glistening; and from other parts of the menu we have enjoyed perfectly wonderful steamers; fine steamed whole lobster; a cool, meaty lobster salad; and a peculiar, sweet house salad dressing made with so many small shrimp that it resembles shrimp Louis.
The main attraction of The Clam Hut is an outdoor deck situated just above the waterline. On a warm, sunny day, to linger here over steamers and lobster with ample drafts of beer or wine is nothing short of paradise, even if the dinner muffins are blah and the weekend crowds are maddening. Alfresco diners are treated to a mealtime serenade of waves lapping up against the moorings and flags flapping on the masts of nearby boats. Gulls cry in the sky above, and powerboats hum past in the distance. It is a hypnotic scene, the kind of dreamy ambiance of which happy summer memories are made.
Not every beachside seafood restaurant on the Jersey shore is aimed at families in T-shirts and shorts trailing sand from their flip-flops. Just down the coast road, in Sea Bright, adults and well-dressed families sit at white-clothed tables within the calm, clean-walled dining room of HARRY’S LOBSTER HOUSE and enjoy classic shore dinners of raw clams and oysters followed by impeccable lobsters or flounder fillets, plain or stuffed with crab meat from the Chesapeake Bay. Harry’s, which has built its reputation among beachgoers since 1933, is a place to splurge; and it is one kitchen that makes stuffing a lobster well worth the effort. Although gilt for a lily, the Maryland crab meat is moist, plump, sweet, and deliriously delicious.
A short drive away from the ocean through a scenic landscape of apple orchards and Thoroughbred farms, RAY’S SEAFOOD RESTAURANT is another sanctuary for epicures who seek fine seafood unadulterated by the scent of sunscreen and tanning lotion. There is not a maritime gewgaw anywhere in Ray’s tasteful wood-paneled dining room, where tables are covered with thick beige and burgundy cloths and deferential waiters are outfitted.in snappy black and pink. At the beginning of lunch hour in this civilized setting, we eavesdrop on fascinating conversations among horse trainers and local gentry regarding stud fees and track business (Freehold and Monmouth Park raceways are nearby); but when the food arrives, it commands full attention. Specifically, a bowl of sautéed mussels, carried to the table covered by a plate, is resplendent when the top plate is whisked off and the air is suddenly redolent of garlic, wine, and butter. Crab cakes are handsome hunks: pearly-white jumbo nuggets formed into a toasty-edged patty, served, at lunch, with honey mustard sauce. The same plump crab meat, paired with flounder, proves a perfect companion for the moist savor of the elegant flatfish. Of course, Ray’s offers whole boiled lobsters, but the obvious skills of this kitchen make dolled-up seafood hard to resist: red snapper served in a crust of shredded potatoes, grilled swordfish rubbed with whole-grain mustard, shrimp “scampi,” and soft-shelled crabs sautéed with garlic, tomatoes, butter, and wine.
Back in Highlands, overlooking Sandy Hook Bay, DORIS & ED’S is one more shore dinner house that is different. You are made aware of this fact when you call to make a reservation and the hostess reminds you that beach attire is forbidden. You also know it when you glide across the plush carpet of the dining room and feel powerful air conditioning at work. Although the view of the water is lovely, it is seen through double-pane glass; customers come to this cool oasis for a respite from a hot day of salty summer air.
Presented with the voluminous wine list is a long roster of interesting beers, rare single-malt Scotches, and small-batch bourbons available to the connoisseur. Dinner is augured by a complimentary bite. Tonight it is endive leaves filled with spicy tomato and pine nut salad. The menu is double-sided: One side lists traditional clambake-with-lobster dinners and cooked crab, flounder, shrimp, etc., and the other features more creative preparations such as crisp shrimp dumplings with spicy peanut sauce and sautéed grouper with a horseradish crust. Among the house specialties is lobster bisque, an obligatory starter whichever side of the menu you are browsing. This pink, cream-smooth intoxicant is crowded with tender pieces of meat and luminous with lobstery taste.
Doris & Ed’s does its own thing with high style. The crab cake first course—a fragile mound of meat with a golden crust—is served on a large plate strewn with a zesty field of capers, onions, and a beguiling remoulade sauce. A grilled tuna steak arrives in a puddle of ginger-scallion sauce striped with wasabi mayonnaise and a swirl of puréed sweet potatoes on the side. And because our goal is to eat food more typical of the Jersey shore, we also flip over the menu and choose a lobster stuffed with crab meat: Broiled, split, and loaded with warm chunks of crab, it is utterly simple and the pinnacle of luxury.
For all its finesse, exotic libations, eminently tasteful decor, and strict dress code, Doris & Ed’s still manages to exude the personable air of a shoreline fish house. With our lobster come plastic bibs, tied around our necks by an earnest busboy who works as gingerly as a novice dental assistant. And our indecision over the details of the lobster order inspires a succinct treatise on the subject by the waitress. Her words provide an unforgettable moment of New Jersey oceanside character and a lesson we plan to remember for many shore dinners to come.
“One pound?” she asks rhetorically as we debate what size we ought to get, ranging from one to five. “If you order a one-pound lobster, you spend the meal fighting the thing. Two pounds? You’re still fighting. Ah, but a three-pound lobster! Three pounds, you’re on easy street!”
Bahrs Landing Seafood Restaurant
The Clam Hut (permanently closed)
foot of Atlantic Street
Doris & Ed’s (permanently closed)
348 Shore Drive
Harry’s Lobster House (permanently closed)
1124 Ocean Avenue
Sea Bright, NJ
Ray’s Seafood Restaurant (permanently closed)
29 Route 34 South
Colts Neck, NJ