Good restaurants like good people change over the years. Larry Boylan the owner and chef of the Inn at Sugar Hill in Mays Landing is the first to admit that when he opened back in the 1980s his restaurant may have been a bit stuffy, having been a young, cocky, and prideful twenty-something himself.
At 56 the restaurateur finds himself more mellow and in a better place. His restaurant reflects his personal maturity.
"A restaurant is definitely a reflection of the owner's personality, which makes them unique and different," says Boylan. "But when you own a restaurant this long, it kind of defines the journey of a person."
For 30, everyone who drove past the property located just up the hill from the river, had inquired about turning it into a restaurant, but it was Boylan who bought it and spent eight months renovating the property into a restaurant and bed and breakfast.
After selling his restaurant in Stone Harbor, Boylan signed a 20-mile no-compete clause. That precluded Boylan from opening his dream in obvious places like Cape May.
Trips to Maryland's Eastern Shore found nothing. He could never find the right property.
Driving home to Cape May Courthouse, he spotted a place in Mays Landing, but his frequent calls went unanswered.
Boylan approached a local realtor who took him instead to a single family house located on the Great Egg Harbor River where they knocked on the door.
"Frank, this guy wants to buy your house and turn it into a restaurant," says the realtor. After conferring with his wife, Frank Watson agreed to sell.
The older couple had already been talking to the same realtor about retiring and selling their property.
Boylan has owned the property for 27 years this October.
Boylan and his restaurant have morphed over the years.
No longer a stuffy French restaurant, the Inn at Sugar Hill now exudes a certain hometown hospitality that you can only get in a small restaurant. "That's what country inns did from the get go," says Boylan.
Boylan and his staff have a genuine interest in making sure that everybody and anybody that walks through the door is made to feel comfortable, and they go out of their way to do that. "People respond to hospitality," says Boylan.
Many other changes have been put in place over the years at the Inn, always with the customer in mind.
For the first seven years they never had a liquor license, Three years ago they doubled the size of their service bar.
Now many patrons choose to eat and drink at the bar, a place for locals to see what is happening and to relax and talk about their day.
A tented dockside grill is open in season, offering food and drink with a fabulous river view. Boylan's sailboat, "Grace" is available for charter, certain nights during the season.
Boylan's menu is no longer intimidating. "I'm not trying to be pretentious anymore," he says.
The menu now reflects Boylan's own eating habits, while taking into account diners with allergies, people who eat gluten free, and vegans.
The new menu is not only more local but also more sustainable. The current menu features an appetizer made with brie from Cherry Grove Farms in Lawrenceville and their fluke and sea scallops are from Dock Street Seafood in Wildwood which has its own fishing boats. Tomatoes from Vineland were served all summer, along with products from Griggstown Quail Farm in Princeton.
"As for sustainability, I always research the health of the product first before bringing it in," says Boylan. Boylan stopped serving swordfish a few years ago because of the small catch size coming to market and stopped serving cod last year when he read that it was being over fished in New England.
Boylan serves only wild caught shrimp after reading about farming practices, and offers Cape May Salts on the menu as an example of farm raising wild species that is working.
Boylan has offered the recipes for one of his newest dishes and for one of his longest running dishes.
Jersey Harvest Sausage is made with local products like Botto's sweet Italian sausage and apples from Pleasant Valley Farms in Mays Landing.
In 1981, after a visit to a restaurant in Haddonfield, Boylan sampled a dish called Chicken Dagmar, a dish the chef had named after his wife. Boylan recreated it and called it Chicken Christina, after his wife.
Boylan calls Chicken Christina a great dish for a dinner party, because you can make it ahead of time, put it in the fridge, and pop into oven while you have a cocktail with your guests. They also hold well, out of the oven.
Some people who come every year for their anniversary get the dish each time.
Five or six years ago, thinking it had become dated, Boylan took it off the menu. His customers started a letter-writing campaign asking Boylan to put the dish back on the menu.
Chicken Christina is back on the menu.
"The one thing I've learned here in 27 years is, you just have to give the customers what they want," says Boylan.
The Inn at Sugar Hill
5704 Mays Landing-Somers Point Road
Hours: Lunch served from noon to 3 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays; dinners from 3 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays. Closed Sundays and Mondays.