In natty blue blazer and tailored slacks, Andrew Latz, 57, greets every guest who enters Latz’s by the Bay in Somers Point. Many he knows by name, as well as the names of their kids and pets and how they take their coffee. “I’m Andrew,” he tells newcomers. “Welcome to Latz’s.”
His pearly smile conceals a lifetime of ups and downs, mostly connected to Atlantic City’s legendary Knife & Fork Inn. It opened in 1912, his paternal grandparents bought it in 1927, and his parents took it over in 1947. Latz grew up in the iconic, castle-like structure at the south end of the Boardwalk and managed it proudly from 1983 to 1995. After that, clashes with his autocratic father, Mack, shattered the peace. In 2004, Latz filed suit to stop Mack from selling the Knife & Fork to a competing A.C. restaurant family—the Doughertys, owners of Dock’s Oyster House—but he did not prevail.
Latz and his wife considered moving to Florida. Instead, he took a job at the Showboat managing two of its restaurants. Two years ago, he and his son, Drew (who was born on the day Mack signed the papers to sell the Knife & Fork, Latz said in a phone interview after my visits) were driving down Bay Avenue in nearby Somers Point. Drew pointed out an empty cottage for sale. It happened to be across the street from the spot where Latz’s grandparents ran Latz’s Inn on the Bay from 1918 to 1942. “I saw this space and it clicked,” Latz said.
Latz’s by the Bay is his baby, the first restaurant that is all his. But it’s had a bumpy ride since opening in September 2011. The first chef quit Fourth of July weekend. The second left in September, shortly after Mack’s death at age 95.
Fortunately, Latz’s has improved with each of my visits. The wait staff has gone from awkward and shaky to poised and warm, and chef Jeremy Cooper, 27, a veteran of Chris Scarduzio’s Showboat steakhouse, is cooking straightforward, boldly flavored American food with confidence.
Unfortunately, the menu remains wildly expensive. It’s hard to stomach paying $29 for a single crab cake, even if it is almost as big as a baseball, packed with sweet lump meat, and there isn’t a better one at the Shore. The spicy seafood appetizer, nominally for two, is $26. You get a dozen steamed littlenecks and a handful of tender shrimp smothered in a crabmeat-enriched cocktail sauce. Four medium-rare, double-cut, mustard-rubbed lamb chops over creamy sweet-pea risotto costs $34.
Those who recoil from such tabs can make a tasty meal of Cooper’s $7 soups (robust Tabasco-kissed clam chowder one night, smoky sausage stew another) and $9 crisp fried calamari tossed with pine nuts, chilies and fresh figs. I guess the restaurant can make up a bit of the loss with the dollar it charges for every soda refill.
Knife & Fork old-timers asked Latz to resurrect certain classics, like corn fritters, which look more like johnnycakes and are so good I ordered them on each visit. Another golden oldie, lemon pie, filled with supple citrus curd, makes a triumphant return. Server Craig Hamilton, who shares dessert duties with baker Robin Price, contributes a tall, dense cranberry clafoutis with clotted cream, called Maried, a recipe from his Scottish aunt. Latz’s could build a new following on these desserts alone.
“People always knew the Latzes,” Latz told me. “It was a name synonymous with fine quality. I’m proud to bring it back.” To keep it around, he ought to rethink his prices and give Cooper freer rein to appeal to a younger clientele. After all, people who remember the old Knife & Fork will soon be few and far between.