The restaurant biz is a tough game. Even if you make a great lasagna, it can be difficult to get folks to give it a try, and even harder to make sure every guest’s experience was good enough to make them come back again.
But what if you wanted to not only keep your customers coming back, but to also get their children and their children’s children to return for years — and even generations — to come? What if your goal was not only to be a successful business, but to become a local legend? There are few local spots that are held in such high regard, but they do exist, and to just about everyone they are considered “classics.”
But what makes a classic a classic? Is it simply the age of the restaurant? The look? The food? How does a place that has been around for as long as anyone can remember manage to stay relevant and keep up with the current culinary scene?
“I don’t know that there is one thing that classifies you as a classic,” says Tony Coppola, owner of The Smithville Inn. “It is more a combination of factors. Just like the restaurant business itself, the devil is in the details.”(tncms-asset)6982e9a8-0836-11e7-9a98-00163ec2aa77(/tncms-asset)
But what exactly are those details? For the Smithville Inn, it’s about keeping the beloved dishes in place —the chicken pot pie will never leave the menu — while exploring more diverse menu options that have become possible due to the changing climate of the dining scene in our area.
“These are truly unique times in the restaurant industry,” Coppola says. “Especially in Atlantic County, where the restaurant scene has experienced an epiphany with the addition of non-casino operated restaurants inside the casinos. This, combined with the impact of the Food Network has opened up the ‘foodie’ culture to the masses. Local chefs have much more poetic license to push the envelope of epicurean possibilities. I think this is one of the reasons why establishments like ours can enjoy the ‘classic’ status and still explore more diverse dishes that the founders of the Inn would even feel was appropriate.”
And Smithville Inn is far from being the only classic in South Jersey. Places like Galloway’s Ram’s Head Inn, Cape May’s Washington Inn and Merion Inn, Atlantic City’s The Knife and Fork Inn (apparently putting the word “inn” in your name may be the true key to longevity around here) and, of course, the recently remodeled Dock’s Oyster House in Atlantic City have all stood the test of time.
The basis of their success seems to stem from a very simple concept — taste. And we are not just talking about the flavors in the food. That is a big part of it, but having an overall sense of taste in everything from ambiance to décor plays a key role in a restaurant’s longevity. The Knife and Fork makes an absolutely breathtaking lobster thermidor and some of the best steaks around (their dishes alone are classics), but they also remember to serve them in one of the most charming dining rooms you will find anywhere, and, of course, that dining room sits inside one of the most architecturally unique buildings in all of New Jersey, with its stucco walls, stepped gables and a terra cotta roof all modeled after the Flemish architecture of Belgium and the Netherlands. It has been there since 1912. Clearly, part of being a classic is looking like a classic.(tncms-asset)992f7ba6-081f-11e7-870a-00163ec2aa77(/tncms-asset)
This holds true at The Merion Inn, where the charm of a piano bar mixes with the quaint Cape May atmosphere to create something truly one of a kind.
“I believe our guests keep returning because of their memories of special times shared at the Merion with family and friends. We’ve been in continuous operation for over 130 years, so we are fortunate to have developed quite a following,” says Vicki Watson, owner of the Merion Inn.
As for staying culinarily relevant, Watson has that covered, as well.
“We try to preserve what people tell us they love about the Merion — warm ambiance, classic cocktails at our beautiful turn-of-the-century bar, live piano music, friendly local staff and, of course, the Merion potato cup and stuffed lobster tail! Yet, we also change half the menu items frequently to keep our menu fresh and our offerings seasonal. The trick is remaining relevant while maintaining the legacy.”
Possibly the simplest way to achieve the status of a classic is to always make customers feel special. Whether that means getting to know them or something as simple as refolding their napkin if they should get up to use the restroom, there is no replacement for great service. A classic goes above and beyond the call of duty.(tncms-asset)52c0cf8c-05b6-11e7-9796-00163ec2aa77(/tncms-asset)
You don’t need to be fancy to be a classic. Here are a few spots that are legends in the “come as you are department.”
White House Subs, Atlantic City: An Atlantic City institution, just about every celeb you can think of has eaten here, from Frank Sinatra to Jerry Seinfeld, and they were recently named one of the “33 best sandwich shops in America” by Thrillist.com. 2301 Arctic Ave., Atlantic City; WhiteHouseSubShop.com
Gregory’s Restaurant and Bar, Somers Point: Gregory’s is one of those spots where you instantly feel at home. You can’t fake history, and nobody has a more storied past than this unassuming corner pub. It’s been everything from a speakeasy to a brothel, and owner Gregory Gregory confirms that even the ghosts that supposedly haunt the upper floors don’t want to leave anytime soon. They must be doing something right. 900 Shore Road, Somers Point; GregorysRestaurantAndBar.letseat.at
Tony’s Baltimore Grill, Atlantic City: About as casual as it gets, Tony’s has been a local favorite for decades. Take one bite of their classic pizza and you will understand why. It has been known to cheer up even the most unwinning gamblers in the city. 2800 Atlantic Ave., Atlantic City; TonysBaltimoreGrill.com
The Ugly Mug, Cape May: A staple of the Cape May nightlife scene since 1949, the most noticeable charm of The Ugly Mug sits above the heads of its customers in the form of an actual display of hanging mugs, each of which are owned by members of “The Ugly Mug Club.” One trip here and you will want to join too. 426 Washington St., Cape May; UglyMug.bar