I spent the last two summers covering the rustic seafood shacks that dot the shores of South Jersey for my “Shackin’ Up For the Summer” column that runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day each year. In that column I often feature seafood markets that offer cooked food, and there was one spot this year that folks kept recommending, but I ultimately decided not to feature — Matthews Seafood Market & Restaurant in Cape May Court House. The reason I did not include it in that series was simple — it was too nice.
Although the name implies a humble seafood market, a visit to Matthews for lunch or dinner is its own unique experience. While most markets that double as restaurants offer simple classics like fried shrimp or crabcakes served in styrofoam containers, Matthews skews more high end, with fancy platings and a focus on a more refined seafood experience, despite the fact that it is also clearly an active fish market.
“The whole thing kind of evolved. I originally wanted to do a fish market, but you kind of need to do the restaurant side too in order for it to work, says Tom Matthews who owns Matthews Seafood Market. “I got lucky and had a chef knock on our door named Claude Pottier. He was a French chef who worked with me for three years and he did some more upscale stuff. So I learned a lot from him and put it into the restaurant. I wanted to keep it casual but still use high quality food. You can do a fish and chips, but you have to know how to dress it up,”
Matthews is a local boy. He grew up in Middle Township where he graduated high school and eventually began working as a commercial fisherman, which led him to his current role.
“In the early 2000s I started fishing in the Delaware Bay. Conching, crabbing and eventually scalloping commercially, doing 12 or13 hour days dock to dock. I did that for about 10 years and then I opened up Matthews in 2013,” he says.
Inside the fish market takes center stage, but tables flank the perimeter of the room sharing the space with surprising harmony. And while most seafood shacks might throw a few picnic tables outside and be done with it, Matthews goes for an elegant al fresco vibe, complete with sidewalk tables with matching chairs in dark woods, each protected from the elements via the large overhead awning. In many ways a meal here feels like an intimate summer evening spent dining on the patio of a friend’s house, which makes sense, as the building that houses the restaurant looks like any other well-kept house on the street. If not for the sign outside, one might walk right past it, assuming it to be a residency.
But it’s not, and if you DO have a friend that invites you over for seafood dinners that are this elaborate and delicious, you should make a point to stay on good terms with that person at all times.
As you might expect a wide range of treats from the sea dots the menu at Matthews. What you might not expect is that many of them focus on simple, light preparations. Starters include U-Peel shrimp as well as steamed littleneck clams. Soups skew traditional, with both New England Clam and Maryland Crab Chowders making appearances alongside a garden salad that can be paired with grilled shrimp, tuna or salmon.
Lunch entrees include a salmon burger grilled to medium rare and served on a brioche bun with lettuce, tomato and tartar sauce; a grilled shrimp hoagie which makes good use of a toasted baguette by lining it with coleslaw and tomato and piling on grilled shrimp seasoned with old bay; and a pair of fish tacos (also available on the dinner menu) served on tortillas with cabbage, pickled red onion, scallions, cilantro and mild sriracha paired wit a side of sour cream and a lime wedge.
“It’s really tough to pick a favorite dish on my menu, but I think I would have to go with the fish tacos. I’m a taco guy and our tacos have a lot of different ingredients in them, and the combination of flavors just works,” Matthews says.
One of the most interesting concepts on the menu at Matthews is their seafood grain bowl. Essentially a fresh fish mix and match not unlike what you might find at a fast casual restaurant, you start by selecting a grain (options include two kinds of basmati rice, lentils, farro or quinoa) you then add your choice of greens (spinach, baby kale, broccoli, mushrooms and sweet potato round out the list), followed by a protein (pick from salmon, shrimp, scallops, flounder, clams or mussels), then pick your sauce (Mediterranean, Asian or Vinaigrette) and finally pick a crunchy topping (scallions, radishes, cucumber or celery).
The concept for the bowls may seem innovative, but it came out of a simple dinner at home.
“My wife is from Spain and she was making dinner one night and what she made had a little bit of everything in there. We started talking about how we could find a way to bring something like this to the restaurant where people could make their own choices. People love to customize a dish and I always say ‘If you want to customize, order this.’ You literally have thousands of options on how to do it.”