While Cape May gets national attention for its Victorian Era architecture and is revered as America’s oldest seaside resort, the town has another rich history as one of the country’s most abundant fisheries. This is the salty story that The Ugly Mug Bar & Restaurant tells.
That tradition is preserved through the many mugs that decorate the ceiling. “The Ugly Mug started in the 1940’s as an old fisherman’s club,” explains bartender Will Piacentine. “The Mug Club members all had their own mug and when they went out to sea they hung their mugs facing toward the ocean to tell their drinking buddies that they were out at sea and wouldn’t be at the bar.”
Now, as decades have passed, the mugs that face the ocean have another meaning … they honor the lives of former members that have gone to sea for good.
Today, the only way to join the Ugly Mug Club is to be crowned the United States National Froth Blowing Champion.
“The first Sunday after Labor Day is the Froth Blowing Contest. Whoever is able to blow the most froth out of their beer glass wins,” manager Heidi DiLarso says. The new member receives their mug, which will be forever hung from the ceiling of the establishment.
Food for everyone, at every time
Tradition may have given The Ugly Mug its name, but it’s the food that keeps customers coming back. Gary Romberger has been at the restaurant since 2004 and currently oversees the kitchen operations.
“The Ugly Mug’s menu was designed to have something for everyone, and what’s unique is that the whole menu is available from the time we open at 11 a.m. till the late-night menu takes over, usually around midnight. Plus we are open 365 days a year,” Romberger says.
That means you can order everything from a 16-ounce center cut New York strip steak to a full lobster dinner to salads, burgers, nachos and more pretty much anytime.
After decades on the mall, many menu items have become staples.
“We use a lot of fresh local seafood,” Romberger says. For example, the flounder mug ($27.99) has been on the menu for decades and features local flounder topped with ripe tomatoes and sharp cheese then broiled. Another classic is the crab mug (market price) which starts with jumbo lump crab meat, which is then mixed with their imperial sauce, topped with sharp cheese and broiled.
The Ugly Mug’s award-winning burgers have also become favorites throughout the years.
The Maryland burger ($17.99) is a 10-ounce patty topped with homemade crab imperial and finished with sharp cheese. The ocean burger ($17.99) is topped with homemade shrimp imperial and sharp cheese.
For a newer addition to the menu, check out the full lobster dinner special ($23.99) which includes a whole 1.5-pound lobster.
“Our owner wanted to offer a shore classic at a reasonable price year-round. We have whole, live Maine lobsters delivered daily,” Romberger says.
Another popular dish is the Ugly Mug’s lobster roll ($19.99) which includes whole, large chunks of fresh lobster, served with fries and coleslaw.
For a crowd-pleaser, you can’t go wrong with the grande nachos ($14.99), tortilla chips piled high with chicken or beef, refried beans, Monterey jack cheese, cilantro, sour cream, guacamole, lettuce and tomato.
The Ugly Mug also features the famous “Carnegie Deli” Reuben ($16.99) with 12 ounces of Carnegie Deli’s signature corned beef, sauerkraut, Russian dressing and Swiss cheese.
“We went on a search for the best corned beef out there, which is Carnegie Deli. People ask us all the time, how we can have Carnegie Deli corned beef when the deli closed. And, that’s because they still have a wholesale business,” Romberger says.
Even before the Ugly Mug opened, thirsty sailors and seaside visitors had been toasting in that location.
“There was a tavern here even before the great fire in 1878,” DiLarso says.
The Ugly Mug currently features 13 beers on tap with two local Cape May beers, as well as a seasonal drink menu with drinks such as the hot apple knocker with apple whiskey, hot cider and cinnamon that will warm you up on even the coldest days. Or opt for Mug classics such as the Ugly Mary, with house made bloody Mary mix.
“This is just a really fun place to be, there’s always sports on, good music and fun people,” Romberger says.
The Ugly Mug has a happy hour from 4 to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays with $3 Miller Lite and Yuengling drafts, $5 house wine and $5 well drinks.
During the winter, there is live music on weekends and holidays, and beginning in the spring, there is live music daily.
“Restaurants open and close in Cape May and at the Washington Street Mall all the time, but The Ugly Mug has been the same for generations, and people love that,” DiLarso says.