Classic Victorian in both design and scale, The Inn of Cape May is everything one might imagine when thinking of a traditional seaside hotel in New Jersey’s southernmost resort town. Large and white with a spectacular wrap-around porch and just the right pop of color stemming from the sprawling purple awning, the building simply exudes old-world Victorian charm.
Adding to the element of a simpler time is the inn’s part-fine dining/part-casual cool restaurant Aleathea’s, a spacious room with wrought-iron chairs, marble-esque statues and romantic paintings, mini chandeliers, a long wooden bar and an array of other delicate touches of a time-gone-by era.
Throw in super neat outdoor eating area, a thoroughly modern menu that includes items like poke bowls and enough vegan items to satisfy even Woody Harrelson, and you know this isn’t your grandfather’s restaurant.
It isn’t Tai Menz’s grandfather’s restaurant either. Not anymore anyway.
Menz is now part-owner and part-chef of Aleathea’s. He shares the responsibilities with his brother Cody.
It was their late grandfather Robert Menz who purchased the Inn of Cape May in 1986. Robert also owned Cape May’s Gold Whale Restaurant and the Marquis de Lafayette Hotel where, during its heyday in the ’70s and ’80s couples would head to the Top of the Marq, a gorgeous top-floor nightclub in the hotel with unobstructed views of the beach, for dancing or dinner shows.
The family business was a part of Tai’s life for so long, he can’t even remember when he started in it.
“When’s the legal working age?” he jokes.
The family biz
It wasn’t just Tai’s grandfather who was in the restaurant business. Uncle Franklin had Menz’s Restaurant in Rio Grande, which is now run by his offspring.
Aside from brother Cody, Tai’s dad, wife, cousins and a couple of aunts help with restaurant — and its grand hotel.
“It’s a lot of work,” Tai admits. “But we work together (and) do our own thing and make sure it works as a whole.”
Cody mainly oversees the breakfast hours while Tai takes over at dinner. The two overlap somewhere during lunch. “That way someone is always there.”
Classic foods, contemporary touches
Aleathea’s is so classically Victorian in its decor, you would think the menu would be designed to match it. That is not the case.
Wake up to either orange pecan French toast ($13) stuffed with Gran Marnier, mascarpone cheese and pecans, or Aleathea’s Benedict ($14), poached eggs with crabmeat and Hollandaise. Sure, they offer build-your-own omelets ($8) and fluffy buttermilk pancakes ($7). But get your motor running with something different, like one of the three internationally inspired pitas: Buon Appetito ($9.50) with tomato, onion, bacon, eggs and provolone; Vive La France ($9.25), eggs with onions, spinach and goat cheese, or the Far East ($9.75), eggs with onion, spinach, peppers and hummus.
Lunch consists of quick and yummy, more traditional items such as grilled cheese ($7), a BLT with roasted turkey ($13), cheesesteaks ($15) and burgers ($13).
Dinnertime is when things get really interesting. Yes, you can keep things classic, but Tai is really at his best when being creative.
Standout starters are the oven-baked Brie ($9) and the beef carpaccio ($10). The warm and oozing Brie is served on a delicate puff pastry with strawberries and grapes and topped with a delightful raspberry coulis. It’s so lovely that many actually save it for dessert. The beef carpaccio is sliced into paper-thin strips of raw filet mignon and topped with diced red onions, Pecorino Romano, field greens, capers and horseradish sauce. It is heavy with capers so beware if you aren’t a fan of them. Fortunately, I do like capers. Very much.
The soup du jour was New England clam chowder ($4 cup, $6 bowl). This is not your ordinary clam chowder — in a good way. Not overly creamy — just creamy enough, with a clam in every spoonful.
Due to the issue with Romaine lettuce, the Caesar salad was unfortunately not available the night we went. Since that was out of the question, our second choice was the spinach salad ($7 small, $11 large). Bright, leafy greens were loaded with chopped roasted beets, caramelized onions, candied walnuts, bacon bits and goat cheese and tossed in a flavorful, but not overpowering, raspberry vinaigrette. It may be our new first choice.
Entrees include the ever-present filet mignon ($38) and the house specialty grouper ($27) with sautéed spinach and topped with crab, a tomato basil vin blanc and finished with micro greens.
Others of note are the Fruit del Mar ($32) with shrimp, scallops and mussels over linguini or risotto with a choice of red or white sauce; the Thai bowl ($32) with shrimp, scallops, mussels, spinach, snow peas, broccoli and bell peppers over rice in a sesame ginger, coconut curry broth; and a Hawaii-inspired poke bowl ($27 with sautéed shrimp, $33 with scallops) with diced cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, wakame, ginger, avocado and rice all finished with a Sriracha and soy glaze.
I dined on the shrimp-and-crab cake ($26), which is just like it sounds. A delicious pan-seared crab cake that’s made even better with a blending of mini shrimp inside.
The menu, naturally, changes seasonally with everything coming in fresh from local farmers and fisheries. In fact, Tai hasn’t been to a food show in years because “they’re trying to sell you something out of a box or a can.”
Though there are many items that skew more toward non-traditional than traditional, Tai stresses that there is a definite “base menu” of standard favorites that he doesn’t dare remove or risk a letter from an angry customer.
And he insists that fair pricing is key to his business.
“We don’t try to go over the top and kill you on price,” he says. “We’re reasonable, but we’re using all the same higher-end ingredients. We’re just not ordering boutique produce and having it shipped from all over the place.”
Tai is proud of his substantial vegan menu, which is really based right off the regular menu.
Items like the vegan burger ($17) made with black beans, carrot, onion, bell peppers and garlic and vegan tacos ($13) from a choice of seitan, tofu or vegan burger are among the more popular. But the Cape May Buddha Bowl ($25) with sautéed spinach, mushrooms, broccoli and snow peas over rice with a smattering of sunflower pepita and avocado has been catching the eyes of vegan — and non-vegan — customers.
“A lot of people are trending toward it (vegan foods),” says Tai, adding that college-age kids are the biggest fans of this menu. “They definitely like it. And (parents) don’t have to be pigeon holed to go to a vegan restaurant in order to make their daughter or son happy.”
Hitting all points
Hotel guests make up a large portion of the restaurant’s business, especially in the mornings. But Tai says that Aleathea’s, thanks to outdoor dining and a “First Seating” menu — sort of an early bird menu that’s an incredible value at three courses for $25 — really “hits everyone.”
“People come in with kids and like to sit on the lawn where the kids can run around while the parents have a beer and a burger; then the parents come back to the main dining room for their anniversary … It’s almost two restaurants in one.
“We definitely hit all points — family night, date night, if you’re on a budget. You can come in dressed up and dine inside, or sit outside in flip-flops and tank top and order the same food.”