You can't miss the Chatterbox. It's the bright-pink, Spanish-style restaurant that sprawls around one corner of two of Ocean City's main drags, Ninth Street and Central Avenue. And it has been at that heart-of-the-action intersection since 1937, for many of those years claiming a proud motto - "Where the town meets."
But a lot of Ocean City people have missed the Chatterbox since Oct. 29, 2012, when Hurricane Sandy gave the longtime landmark a 75th birthday present the owners really could have done without - a flood.
"It was only 12 inches," says Marie Repici, who has owned the Chatterbox since 1972, more than half its long history. "But because we had that, we had to tear everything up."
So since nature forced their hands, Repici and her family decided to turn a catastrophe into an opportunity, and give the restaurant a makeover it hasn't had since the 1980s.
"We were thinking about it anyway," says Aimee Repici, Marie's daughter-in-law and the Chatter-box's general manager. "This kind of made us push it along."
And the Repici family would love to push its redo along. The landmark's history on its website, chatterboxrestaurant.com, still said this week the owners are "hoping to reopen mid-March" - one of several target dates that have come and gone without the diner/family restaurant being able to dish out a burger or an omelette or a cup of its Chatterbox chowder.
So they missed Easter, an occasion that usually fills up the place's 150 seats a few times over for a series of breakfasts with the Easter Bunny. They missed Mother's Day last weekend, among other key dates in Ocean City's spring pre-season. But the family is confident their doors will be open before the crowds pack back into town for Memorial Day next weekend - and just to make sure, they and their contractors are keeping the restaurant's lights on well into the night these days.
They're hoping to get a few soft-opening days in for practice, but Aimee says they have a grand opening firmly scheduled for Friday afternoon as it leads into Memorial Day weekend.
Old Chatterbox fans will see a new Chatterbox - but one with echoes of an even older Chatterbox. The place will offer seating and eating at a counter again, an amenity it hasn't had since its last major redesign in 1984, although the new counter's in a different spot.
Aimee pointed out a new bench and booths that have been added on the new floor. And a historic Chatterbox mural will go back on a wall, although it's moving to a new wall with new lighting added for artistic effect.
"It shows the way the Chatterbox looked way back, in the '40s and '50s," says Ed Wismer, an Ocean City artist and writer who figures he painted that mural more than 20 years ago - but at age 85, he personally, fondly remembers that Chatterbox look from 60 or 70 years ago, "when it had a soda fountain, and the waitresses were all in uniforms."
Wismer was happy to hear his mural will go back up, but joked he didn't like the sound of those fancy lights.
"Now all the flaws are going to show," he said, adding he also has done a few paintings of the building from the outside - but he knows he's not the only artist who likes this local landmark of a building as a subject.
"It's quite popular - somebody is always doing it," he says.
The owners hope fans of all Chatterbox eras will notice their new menu, coordinated by their brand-new chef, Carlo Lala. Aimee says it will include some old favorites, including the Chatterbox Chowder - it's sort of a cross between New England and Manhattan styles - but the redone menu will emphasize "fresh, fresh, fresh," she says, emphatically.
"The chef says this new menu will bring us out of the '70s," said Aimee, who started at the Chatterbox in the '70s as a waitress - and started dating Tom Repici, the son of the owners, Marie and her husband, also Tom.
Aimee remembers her first "dress-up date" with her future husband was to a soft opening in Atlantic City almost exactly 35 years ago - "play-money night at Resorts," she said, meaning the practice-gambling nights leading up to the opening of Resorts Casino Hotel in 1978. They double-dated with another couple, her future in-laws.
Aimee and her Tom had four sons - yet another Tom followed by Michael, Matthew and Jon. All four boys grew up working in the Chatterbox, starting as busboys but gravitating back into the kitchen as they got older.
And now Matthew, a culinary-school student, is ready to take over as kitchen manager at the new Chatterbox - which comes loaded with a new kitchen, filled with shiny new equipment.
Unfortunately, the first two generations of Toms both died, the elder in 1986 and the younger in 2009, at just 53. After that, the Chatterbox started closing down for part of each winter - which wasn't an easy decision for a place that, in its good old days, used to stay open 24 hours a day in the summer, and stay hopping for many of those hours.
"When I started in 1995, it was really busy, everyone knew it was a fun place to be," says Jason Elia, of Upper Township, a high-school art teacher when he isn't a part-time summer breakfast cook and souvenir T-shirt designer, among other jobs, at the Chatterbox. "It was always packed, the staff was always fun, and every year, that just kind of grew."
Elia grew up over on the mainland, but went to Ocean City High School and says to local kids, the Chatterbox "just feels like its been there forever." His co-workers there have included his wife, and lots of other teachers who find the place "welcoming," thanks to owners who have "built good relationships with a lot of people, and if they need help, people come back. ... I know a lot of people who have worked there are kind of pitching in now and lending a hand - like a family comes together," the veteran worker added.
"It looks good, " he said of the new Chatterbox. "It's going to be different, but I think it's a welcome change."
In their redo, the owners have found some old souvenirs - a menu booklet from back in the 1950s or earlier; some paper menus autographed by local celebrities, including a true hero to Philadelphia Phillies' fans, the late Tug McGraw; plus a more personal message to the Repici family: It says "TR 1984," and it was painted on a covered-up plaster wall in the serving area by Aimee's husband, Tom Repici, who always liked to leave his mark on a place.
"His whole life, if there was new concrete, he was putting his initials in there," said his mother, Marie.
Now his initials are hidden again by drywall - but they're still there, and his family takes his signature as another positive sign about all the work they're doing and changes they're making.
But the owners say one thing will never change at the Chatterbox - the outside color Aimee has heard described as "Pepto-Bismol pink."
Marie knows a previous owner once tried to change the color to green, "And the whole town was upset - they said, 'When are you going to make it pink again?'"
So they won't make that mistake. But they're happy to make the changes they are.
"This is a whole new beginning for us," Aimee says, "and we're excited about it."
Still, there's one more thing from the old Chatterbox they won't change. Hurricane Sandy left a water line about 12 inches up on a concrete wall in a corner of the entryway, and the owners plan to leave it there. They figure that belongs there for historical reasons, but also for practical ones.
"That's going to be permanent," Aimee said. "Because everyone is going to ask anyway about what happened."
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