Back when I was in college, my mom used to worry whenever I relayed greetings from Asbury Park.
“Be careful,” she would text when I ventured there for a day trip with friends. I’d laugh as I passed by boutique stores, music-filled bars, trendy restaurants, or sands packed with jovial beachgoers. What was there to worry about in this picturesque City by the Sea?
Now 28 years old, I am too young to have experienced Asbury at its lowest point. Doing some reading, listening to Bruce Springsteen’s somber “My City of Ruins,” and seeing structures that survived rock bottom are all the evidence I have that this place was once far gone. Yet, as I stroll the boardwalk and beyond, I can appreciate just how far Asbury has come.
On a bright August day, my trip begins at Convention Hall. Built early in the Great Depression, this remnant harkens back to Asbury’s past and enhances the shorefront’s current charming aesthetic. But my girlfriend Aimee and I are not necessarily thinking about that. We’re focused on getting coffee from Asbury Park Roastery (1300 Ocean Avenue), one of several shops and restaurants inside, before our day can truly start.
Fueled with caffeine—and dismayed by a gift shop’s hoodie prices—we exit toward the boardwalk. We soon see the famed fortune teller Madam Marie’s, where Springsteen used to have his fortune read back in the day. Aimee is delighted by the idea of me receiving a reading. I’m skeptical, but I give it a go. My suspicions are only confirmed when the fortune teller asks if there’s anyone special in my life. That was a freebie, I think to myself, with Aimee standing just two feet away.
Our next stops strike a stronger chord with me. First, we pass the legendary Stone Pony (913 Ocean Avenue), where I’ve enjoyed many a concert, both inside and outside.
The musical trip continues with a stop at Transparent Clinch Gallery (210 Fifth Avenue), where renowned rock photographer Danny Clinch displays images of everyone from Springsteen to Tupac. The glass-walled gallery even features a small stage for intimate performances.
From there, it’s off to lunch. We venture to Cookman Avenue, where we stop at Talula’s pizzeria (550 Cookman Avenue, #108). Aimee and I quickly agree on the Margie, a pie with tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, burrata, olive oil, basil and sea salt.
Midway through our meal, however, we realize that Yappy Hour is approaching at Wonder Bar (Fifth and Ocean avenues). So we pick up the pace and head back toward the beach for a couple of beers and, more importantly, barks. We haven’t brought our own pups to this dog-friendly event, but we are welcomed in the bar’s sandy section, where dogs mingle, splash in pools and beg for attention. We’re more than happy to mix in.
After pets and pale ales, Aimee and I decide it’s time for drinks with more potency. Once again, we veer away from the beach—we could have planned this day better, but where’s the fun in that?—in favor of Asbury Park Distilling Co. (527 Lake Avenue). I’m out of my element, as I prefer beer to hard alcohol. But the distillery’s Breakfast cocktail, made with vodka, cold brew and horchata, provides a pleasant surprise (and another round of caffeine).
Afterward, we return to the beach for a walk in the sandy tide. I haven’t had a chance to change into the bathing suit I brought, but the chilly water on my feet makes it clear that I was never going for a swim.
I settle for saltwater via taffy. At the boardwalk’s Sugarpop Candy Bar, I truly feel like a kid in a candy store.
Aimee picks up a few treats for herself before we return to the Clinch Gallery. We’ve been invited back for one of those intimate performances we’d heard about earlier, this one with a young punk rock group for 30-40 guests.
Once the band finishes up, Aimee and I set off on a mission. We’ve seen Instagram videos of a tropical-looking speakeasy called Laylow (603 Mattison Avenue), and we are determined to find it. The spot is hidden beneath Reyla, a Middle Eastern restaurant on Mattison Avenue. The eatery has an upstairs bar that’s cozy and elegant in its own right, but this is not what we have come here for. After speaking with a hostess and a short wait, we are led through an unassuming door, which gives way to a staircase. Suddenly, everything is illuminated with neon lighting and gives off an island vibe.
I notice a cocktail made with Thai iced tea, one of my favorite non-alcoholic beverages. At Laylow, the orange tea is infused with rum and includes basil, coconut and lemongrass. I’m thrilled with my choice, and Aimee smiles ear to ear when her order arrives in a large, fish-shaped glass that’s more of a bowl.
Content with our speakeasy search and the drinks it resulted in, we head back to Cookman for a late dinner. We’re in the mood for Japanese food, and we’ve heard great things about Taka (660 Cookman Avenue). The restaurant is packed, but a table for two is no trouble. The crispy karaage chicken appetizer is an excellent choice before an assortment of sushi rolls.
We had planned to end the day with ice cream, but we’re too stuffed. A piece (or two or three) of saltwater taffy suffice for dessert.