If you ever passed by Mayer’s Tavern in Cape May 40-some years ago, it was not exactly what you might think of when calling to mind dining venues in Cape May. It’s not housed in a big white Victorian mansion, and the menu wasn’t composed of high-end items served on fancy plates. It was, in fact, a dive.

A real fishermen-only watering hole, it wouldn’t be unusual to come across a bar fight or two or maybe even see someone being hoisted out the front door by the back of his T-shirt and belt loops.

Fast-forward to today, and Mayer’s Tavern is one of Cape May’s hippest spots for lively locals and vacationers to go for food and drink.

Purchased about five years ago by father and daughter Keith and Alex Laudeman, the pair took two years to lovingly restore the building before opening in April 2018.

“It was in really bad disrepair … it hadn’t operated for years, it had been boarded up,” Alex says. “We came in and renovated the whole thing. Kept everything in place where it was. There’s a really big 22-foot-long bar that’s the original centerpiece and we kept that. We really just fixed up what was here to keep the old character (and) the same vibe.”

Alex, who grew up in Cape May, got her degree at I.C.E., the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, before working in fine dining establishments around Manhattan for a few years. Keith purchased the building where Mayer’s Tavern is, but sat on it for a a while. When he finally decided to get things going, there was only one person he had in mind to run it.

Despite never helming a restaurant before, Alex had a considerable amount of help in her dad, who also owns the Lobster House, arguably the most famous seafood restaurant in Cape May, if not the entire Jersey Shore.

“There was a learning curve, sure,” says Alex of the launch of the new-and-improved Mayer’s Tavern. “Opening a restaurant is incredibly complicated and difficult. But I was lucky to have my dad, who was supportive, helpful and encouraging. And the people at his restaurant supported it, too, so I had a better start than others going in cold.”

Co-owner and operator are only two of Alex’s titles at Mayer’s Tavern. She’s also the chef who, when crafting the menu, purposely wanted to keep it small, yet approachable, with a killer cocktail list to boot.

“I just really wanted something casual … a place to go and hang out when you’re on vacation at the beach. I wanted chill, but somewhere with really good food, too, with high-quality ingredients — all homemade — with really great cocktails.”

Mayer’s, even back during its more notorious days, was always known for its legendary fried scallops, which makes sense considering the restaurant is surrounded by commercial scallop boats. Alex kept the scallops on her menu, more as a sentimental nod to Mayer’s’ history than anything else. The response to her scallops blew her away.

“I put scallops on the menu and didn’t think it’d be a big thing – but it became an instant hit,” she says of the fried dish ($19) that she’s modernized with a light breading and citrus slaw.

Though the small menu is heavy on seafood, the grass-fed Angus burger with pickled onions and Dijon mayo ($15), “has gained a lot of fans,” according to Alex, as has the half-chicken ($18).

The menu is small by design because Alex makes everything herself, starting early with some morning prep work and then sharing some duties for evening service.

Mayer’s has turned into a real family affair for Alex. Besides her co-owner dad, mom Sue works as the hostess, while sis Wesley provides the restaurant with veggies grown at her organic farm in Cape May Point.

With “tavern” in its name, it was important for Alex to ensure that the bar experience was as good as the dining, so she created a cocktail menu using fresh herbs and juices that are freshly squeezed in-house daily that fit in with the good-time vibe of Mayer’s, like The Baja ($11) with tequila blanco, St. Germain, jalapeno, cucumber, agave and lemon, or the Smuggler’s Tea ($9) with Dogfish Head Distillery honey rum, mint and strongly brewed iced tea.

“It’s just fun, fresh things you want to drink while on vacation,” she says. “It’s not super fussy or complicated. It’s all good, happy stuff.”

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