Destination: Long Beach Island

Traditions hang tough as change comes to the barrier island.

Ali Driben enjoys a treat from POPularity Pops on LBI.
Ali Driben, a student at American University, sinks her teeth into a colorful creation at POPularity Pops in Beach Haven. The Pennsylvania woman's family has vacationed on LBI since she was two.
Photo by Matthew Wright

A sign greets you as you slip through the door of Neptune Market (8014 Long Beach Boulevard), a bungalow-sized grocery and luncheonette in Harvey Cedars on Long Beach Island. The message: “Enter as strangers, leave as friends.”

“It’s kind of our motto here,” says Joe Lesko, Neptune’s burly head chef. Barefoot lifeguards and bikini-clad patrons sit at the barstools watching the 34-year-old Forked River native grill his locally prized Philly cheesesteaks and “Nooney burgers”—8-ounce Angus patties with lettuce, tomato, onion, hot pepper relish and mayo on a Kaiser roll.

With a deli, grocery, bakery, newsstand and restaurant squeezed into two small rooms, Neptune Market is ideal for one-stop shopping. Yet patrons like to linger. “We make each customer feel like we’re only here for them,” says Lesko. “I think that’s part of why we’re so successful.”

Established in 1946, Neptune Market has long been an oasis for LBI residents. Indeed, when Hurricane Sandy smacked the island in October 2012, owners Albert and Teri Holl were serving sandwiches to rescue workers “as soon as the Boar’s Head guy” made it over the causeway with provisions, says Albert. The Holls, who winter in Florida, renovated the market in 2006 but “kept the local flavor”—because that’s what their loyal patrons said they wanted.

Harvey Cedars is one of Long Beach Island’s six municipalities. Drive onto the island via the causeway over Manahawkin Bay, and a left turn will take you to Harvey Cedars as well as Surf City and Barnegat Light. At the center are Ship Bottom and Long Beach Township, which consolidates multiple neighborhoods up and down the island. A right turn off the causeway directs you to the livelier Beach Haven, with its beachfront motels and bayfront amusement parks.

“Harvey Cedars and Barnegat Light are unique towns,” says Albert Holl. “They’re a bastion of a time that is no longer.” For example, if a section of the Sunday New York Times is missing, the Holls call longtime friend Mike White of the competing White’s Market down the road to see if he has an extra.

But time certainly has not stood still on LBI. It’s true that many of the 18-mile-long barrier island’s 20,000 or so year-round residents have had homes and businesses here for decades. But rising taxes and soaring home prices have driven a significant number of families off the island. Many of their former homes have been torn down in recent decades, making way for larger, more opulent Shore residences. Over the past winter, one local institution, the Surflight Theatre, declared bankruptcy, ending its 64-year run.

And while the visitors who crowd LBI each summer keep coming back for old-favorite attractions like Barnegat Lighthouse (aka Old Barney) and Viking Village (1801 Bayview Avenue) at the northern tip of the island, and Fantasy Island Amusement Park and Thundering Surf Water Park to the south, they also frequent LBI’s newer, tonier attractions.

Among the more prominent newcomers is the Arlington in Ship Bottom (1302 Long Beach Boulevard), a craft-beer bar with a trendy menu that emphasizes locally sourced produce and seafood. Lacey Township-bred brothers Paul and Brian Sabarese opened the Arlington in 2013 after purchasing the weathered Bayberry Inn, which Hurricane Sandy had battered the previous fall. The brothers moved quickly, adding a new bar area and importing barn wood from Minnesota to give the renovated interior a warm, rustic look. Fish-themed touches add a seaside appeal.

Brian, 40, runs the kitchen, tweaking the menu with seasonal ingredients to complement the ever-changing beer list. Local brewers like Kane Brewing (Ocean Township), Carton Brewing (Atlantic Highlands) and Cape May Brewing are among the 23 beers on draft, as are numerous Belgian and German imports.
“There are definitely places in LBI that have craft beer on draft, but for us, it’s a constant rotation of beers,” says Paul, 34, manager of the restaurant. “Every time you come in, you should be able to try something new.”

The Sabarese brothers previously worked at Plantation (7908 Long Beach Boulevard, Harvey Cedars), a high-end eatery opened by Philadelphia restaurateur Martin Grims in 2003. Plantation upped the ante on the LBI vacation experience, as did Daddy O (4401 Long Beach Boulevard, Brant Beach), the hip hotel that opened in 2006. A stylish addition to LBI’s mostly downscale roster of hostelries, the 22-room Daddy O—located one block from the ocean—fills the bill for visitors looking for a more extravagant escape. Pampering is key. Complimentary beach badges, chairs and towels, as well as outdoor showers and changing rooms, allow guests to maximize their fun in the sun.

Daddy O’s rooftop O Bar, with its breathtaking sunset view and tropical decor, is a magnet for the cocktail crowd. Vintage ’50s-style photographs line the staircase to the rooftop, where happy-hour revelers sip 18 Mile Runs (a souped-up rum punch; $12) and Repo Margaritas (a cocktail with barrel-aged Patron Reposado; $11).  Munchies include seasonally changing bar bites and a full sushi menu. To keep the mood going after happy hour, Daddy O presents local live-music acts Wednesday through Saturday all summer. Last summer, Daddy O also introduced its Garden Bar, featuring sushi and fresh-caught seafood from Viking Village, just up the road in Barnegat Light. (Read about more place on LBI to stay.)

Despite the influx of creative kitchens and beer menus popping up around the island, many LBI visitors opt for the tried and true. That might mean Mustache Bill’s Diner (8th Street and Broadway, Barnegat Light) or Scojo’s (307 N. Long Beach Boulevard, Surf City) for breakfast and lunch; Sandbox Café (2604 Long Beach Boulevard, Ship Bottom), for casual, outdoor dining; Buckalew’s (101 N. Bay Avenue, Beach Haven) or Tucker’s (101 S. West Avenue, Beach Haven) for tavern fare; and, of course, the Chicken or the Egg (207 N. Bay Avenue, Beach Haven), for after-hours gorging and gossip.

Ice cream on LBI has long been synonymous with Skipper Dipper (9305 Long Beach Boulevard, Beach Haven) an institution since 1978. While lines still form for Skipper Dipper’s smile-inducing hard- and soft-serve cones, Manhattanites Tim and Tracy Donovan put a new spin on the LBI dessert scene last summer with POPularity Pops (216 S. Bay Avenue, Beach Haven), a gelato and sorbetto popsicle parlor.

“We always had some sort of ice cream idea, but we didn’t want it to just be fro-yo,” says Tracy. “We researched the gelato process and equipment. In Europe, popsicles are big, and here was this product that was completely unique and different.” Flavors run from fruit sorbettos to pretzel-dusted, chocolate-drizzled, salted-caramel gelato.

POPularity’s selfie wall is another cool concept. Customers pose with their pops in front of the polka-dot wall and share their photos on POPularity’s Instagram and Facebook feeds. Tracy says it’s a great way “to build POPularity’s brand.”

Yes, social-media branding has come to LBI. Yet for those who frequent the island, the LBI brand can be summed up in a single word: relax.

Christina Colizza is a former New Jersey Monthly research assistant.

Click here to leave a comment
Click to enlarge images
Read more Jersey Shore, Jersey Travel, Outdoors articles.

By submitting comments you grant permission for all or part of those comments to appear in the print edition of New Jersey Monthly.