Jim Barnabei loves the restaurant business. That's why he owns three of them. Ever since opening the doors of the casual Concord Cafe in Avalon nearly 25 years ago, he feels like the business is part of him.
"You have to love this business or you shouldn't be in it," Barnabei says with a laugh. "It's in my blood. I was in the beverage business before, but the restaurant business is more action and more people and always room to improve what you do. You always look to see where you can get new ideas from."
Barnabei's evolution included the formation of the JLB Restaurant Group and the opening of the fine dining institution Marie Nicole's in Wildwood Crest in 2000, the same year Barnabei totally converted Concord Cafe from a packaged good store and cafe to a full cafe.
His latest creation came in 2011. And even he was initially against opening his third restauran - in his hometown of North Wildwood.
"I was minding my own business mailing a letter at the post office and an attorney I know was the receiver for JP Prime steakhouse in bankruptcy court," Barnabei explains. "He asked if I would be interested and I immediately said, 'No way.' Then I talked about it with the kids and looked at the location and thought about what it could be and developed a vision for it. … Six months later I was in there."
The Barnabeis named it the North End American Grill and decided to convert it from an upscale steakhouse to a casual family dining option complete with an outside bar and deck, perfect for a fun, summer night out.
"It's been my experience, even with Marie Nicole's, that it's a hard ticket to sell when you're in the $50 range," Barnabei says. "Marie Nicole's works because it's closer to Cape May and we have built it. To do a restaurant like that in North Wildwood would be tough. So we think North Wildwood is perfect for a casual restaurant. The outside bar is great. And we are right in the entertainment district for North Wildwood, which is really becoming the entertainment district for the whole island."
The casual vibe is evident inside, outside and on the menu of North End American Grill. Like bringing a piece of California chic to the Wildwoods, the North End American Grill features a 38-foot custom-built surfboard bar - the longest custom board built on the East Coast - and the entire restaurant implements the northern California surf atmosphere with an outdoor patio complete with custom-built bamboo benches and cozy seating.
Affordably priced, the menu screams fun, offering cool appetizers such as meatball sliders with basil-romano pesto ($8.99), tailgate fries with pulled pork and cheese sauce ($7.99), wings ($7.99) in a variety of sauces, fried mac and cheese wedges ($7.99), fried pickles ($6.99) and sweet potato tots ($6.99) with cinnamon maple cream.
A wide array of soups and salads complement a large variety of burgers and sandwiches such as the soft shell crab cake BLT ($12.99); house-roasted pork ($11.99) with roasted red peppers, spinach and provolone; house-roasted prime rib ($11.99) with provolone; lobster roll ($14.99) with lemon-dill mayo and cucumbers on a potato roll; the fried shrimp Po' Boy ($12.99) with bacon and spicy pineapple remoulade; and the signature fried mahi-mahi tacos ($8) with apple ginger slaw and cilantro cream.
"We didn't want anything complicated or over the top and have something for everyone," Barnabei says. "We want to make it a point to offer casual food, but if you want a dinner, you can have that, too."
House specialties include slow-roasted baby back ribs ($13.99 half rack, $21.99 full) with sweet potato fries and apple-ginger slaw; fresh stuffed flounder ($18.99) with crab meat; wasabi-encrusted filet ($27.99); and fresh pasta such as roasted vegetable lasagna ($14.99), penne alla vodka ($15.99), chicken picatta ($14.99) and specials such as stuffed gnocchi with a cream sauce that is tremendous.
Barnabei's restaurants are truly a family fare. With his daughter Jamie as a driving force behind the scenes at all three restaurants, and his wife Nancy at the helm of the Concord, the family affair is really serious at North End American Grill, where his son Justin runs the kitchen and his son Jeffery manages the front of the house.
"I guess the business is in all of our blood now," Barnabei says. "My kids grew up with it. My kids grew up making dough balls in the Concord when they were 10 or 11. Justin always stuck with the kitchen and went to culinary school after he graduated St. Joe's. My daughter answered phones and handled takeout at the Concord when she was younger. And Jeffery has done everything from waiting tables to bartending. It's nice to have family together. Sometimes, it's rough with siblings and parents dealing with each other all of the time, but the rewarding part is when you create something that has become successful … when you create something that works that didn't exist before. That's special."
Despite having a setback with Hurricane Sandy flooding its basement and temporarily shutting the restaurant for a while, Barnabei says he already sees signs North End will be another success story.
"Every year, it's better than the year before," he says. "We are seeing tons of repeat business, and the best part is that the community is embracing it. The town is having Christmas parties and functions and graduations and Christenings. We are not just a seasonal restaurant. We open in March and close on New Year's Eve. We are only down two months. I live in North Wildwood. I wanted to do something nice in the town. I don't live in Avalon where the Concord is, or Wildwood Crest, where Marie Nicole's is. I live in North Wildwood. And I wanted to make sure what I did here was right."
The Concord Cafe opened in 1989 as Owner Jim Barnabei converted a former fine dining restaurant into a packaged goods store and cafe, eventually changing it totally to a casual cafe. Located at 7800 Dune Drive in Avalon, the Concord has repeatedly been awarded for having the "Best Bar Food" on the island. Menu favorites include the Concord Burger, homemade jumbo lump crab cakes, Italian Roast Pork Sandwiches and fresh dough pizzas. Open for lunch, dinner and late night, call 609-368-5505 or go to ConcordCafe.net.
A fine-dining experience at 9510 Pacific Ave., Wildwood Crest, Marie Nicole's offers upscale classic American cuisine in a warm seashore setting, offering everything from great steaks and seafood, as well as its latest additions: fettucine Bolognese, rigatoni with sausage and broccoli rabe, and linguini and clams. House specialties include veal Milanese, seafood risotto, and steak and cake. A repeated winner of Wine Spectator excellence awards, Marie Nicole's recently unveiled a renovated and expanded bar area with a new menu including crab cake sliders, ahi tuna tacos and short rib sliders, which are more reasonably priced. Call 609-522-5425 or go to MarieNicoles.com.