When you live in Manhattan, like Sondra Beninati does in the offseason, you can walk out your front door and find at least 200 fabulous restaurants within walking distance.
Yet despite all of those options, she still yearns for summer in LBI — and the food of her executive chef Richard Diemer.
“I have a fabulous chef,” says Beninati, who, for the past 15 years, has owned The Gables, a charming restaurant and inn in the lively resort of Beach Haven. “He is an amazing talent … he’s been with me for a long time. He is never self-aggrandizing … his whole life is about food. In the winter I miss his food. He is my gold standard.”
Beninati and her husband Stephen, a portfolio manager, had wanted a restaurant, but everything in New York was too expensive. While at their Loveladies home, they saw a sale notice for a large Victorian building with a restaurant on the bottom and guest rooms on top.
“I said let’s see it,” she enthusiastically recalls.
The building has had many iterations since it was built in 1892, from a mail drop and community center to a boarding house, restaurant and bed and breakfast. Some today may still recall when it was called The Green Gables in the 1960s. When the Beninatis took it over in 2005, it needed a serious makeover.
“It was just falling apart. It was very dark, painted a dark teal green with neon yellow and purple trim. It was dirty … the rooms were small and cramped. We raised the roofs and did all crazy things like that,” she says of this building she had a compulsion to save.
The outcome today is a work of art. That’s meant fairly literally, as it’s not a stretch for it to bring to mind any of the famous Impressionist paintings of convivial luncheons set in bucolic gardens when regarding The Gables.
The charming yellow building enveloped by an abundance of trees and colorful flowers stands out like a green thumb on the rather treeless, mostly residential street. The S-shaped brick walkway leading up to the Victorian building is walled in by landscaping so plush that you feel as if you’re entering an enchanting English garden. To the left of the main entrance is a lovely covered patio encircled with even more flowers. Once inside, you are greeted by live piano music. Each dining room to the left or right has its own elegant personality — like “red room” with scarlet-colored walls and red and white toile wallpaper covering the ceiling. Chandeliers of all sizes are found in every room — even outside in the covered rear garden, the epitome of a romantic dining setting if ever there was one.
Beninati, who can be seen flitting from room to room and table to table like a perfect hostess, her bubbly personality and pleasant smile the perfect complements to the quiet elegance of her restaurant and inn, admits that like in any resort town business, there have been changes in the Gables’ kitchen staff here and there. She happily reports, though, that Diemer, who essentially taught her the restaurant biz, has been a constant for 13 years. Things, however, weren’t always rosy between the two of them.
“When I first started, I found him dictatorial, unreasonable, fastidious, sensitive, picky … and then I realized that this is why we’re good,” she says of Diemer, whom she calls “totally food focused.” “It took a while to get that. We had a parting of the ways the first year.”
Three chefs came and went after Diemer’s original departure. In that time, Diemer bounced around a bit before eventually reaching out to Beninati again. Not for a job, mind you. He needed a recommendation letter for a new position.
“I wrote it and it made him look like he walked on water,” Beninati says. “He asked me, do I mean this? I said yes.
“He said, ‘can I come home now?’”