There are certain places you’d be hard-pressed to escape on a visit to Long Branch. Chief among them is Pier Village, anchor of the town’s beach scene. Built on the oceanfront in 2005 as a replacement for the burnt-out Long Branch Pier, Pier Village is posh and slick, as befits a destination developed and run by Kushner Companies since 2014. (Yes, that’s Jared’s family’s business.)
Pier Village offers a mix of more than 30 varied shops and restaurants just off the beach and boardwalk. Havaianas, the flip-flop brand, has a stand-alone shop at Pier Village; the boutique Molly & Zoey has two. McLoone’s Pier House restaurant is here, as is the chic Avenue restaurant and club; both have ocean views. Teens and students get their fix of healthy fare at Playa Bowls, while burgers and root beer floats rule at Stewart’s Root Beer. Pier Village even has a Gold’s Gym, where passersby can glimpse those glistening beach bodies being built.
You can live at Pier Village—luxury apartments range from $1,425-$5,000 a month—or you can day-trip like Marta Gorgievski of Wayne, who used to push on to points further south.
“My sister-in-law told me Long Branch is closer and nicer,” says Gorgievski, attired on this summer day in floppy hat and sandals. “I think she’s right.”
In fact, Long Branch has been attracting summertime visitors since the late 18th century. Among the early vacationers were millionaires, Broadway stars and U.S. presidents—especially presidents. Seven of them, including Ulysses S. Grant and James A. Garfield, summered here—and Garfield died here in 1881, almost three months after being shot by an assassin in Washington, D.C.
Reminders of the presidents abound, including Seven Presidents Oceanfront Park, a family-friendly, 38-acre county park/beach replete with playground, skate park, snack bar and guarded swimming areas. Its carefully maintained dunes are a haven for threatened or endangered Shore birds. The Episcopal church on Ocean Avenue where the commanders in chief worshipped, once named Church of the Presidents and now called the Long Branch Historical Museum (1260 Ocean Avenue), still stands, but has long been in need of restoration. The Garfield Tea Hut, on the museum grounds, was built from salvaged wooden railroad ties that had been used for the special rail extension built to transport the doomed President Garfield.
Not all of Long Branch’s history is tied to upscale visitors. There’s also a long-standing competition between two hot-dog rivals that has embedded itself deep in the local consciousness. Max’s Bar & Grill and WindMill Hot Dogs are both located in Long Branch’s West End, a part of town that has none of the glitz of Pier Village. Max’s (25 Matilda Terrace at Ocean Avenue) has been around since 1928 under its old name, Max’s Famous Hot Dogs. Last year, Max’s closed for much of the summer, reopening in late August with a new look and its new name. The quarter-pound grilled hot dogs that are allegedly a favorite of Long Branch-born Bruce Springsteen (he’s also said to be a Windmill fan) are now accompanied on the Max’s menu by fancier fare like lobster rolls. Outdoor picnic benches and a bar with craft beers are new, too.
WindMill, launched in 1963, is less historic but perhaps better known because it has seven outlets in Monmouth and Ocean counties. One of its Long Branch locations (near Seven Presidents Park) closed last September, but a new site opened in April in a shopping plaza it will share with Hoffman’s Ice Cream and other businesses. Thankfully, the Long Branch original (586 Ocean Boulevard), an iconic, windmill-shaped building a few blocks from Max’s, is still going strong. The restaurant’s grilled dogs, famous for their slatherings of chili and cheese, are so beloved they’re available for overnight shipping anywhere in the country.
Max’s and WindMill have their diehards, but crossover is not unheard of. Last summer, Nancy Clarke of Jersey City and her husband, the Rev. Winston Clarke, were seated at the narrow counter inside WindMill eating hot dogs and fries. It was the annual celebration of their anniversary; they had honeymooned in Long Branch 59 years earlier. Usually they went to Max’s to reminisce, but last summer, during the renovation, it was lunch at WindMill.
“Max’s has chicken on the menu that we like. But the food is good here, too,” said Nancy. “At both places, they grill the hot dogs, which makes them taste better.” But Jose Rodriguez, who grew up in town and now lives in Jackson, says WindMill is the favorite among locals: “This is a staple for anybody who knows Long Branch.”
Other Long Branch staples include New Jersey Repertory Company (179 Broadway), a professional, nonprofit theater that specializes in world premieres by up-and-coming playwrights. Not far away at Monmouth University is the Pollak Theatre (Howard Avenue, West Long Branch), which attracts national touring acts; recent performers include the Ailey II Dance Company and singer/songwriter Jason Isbell.
There’s also culture for kids. The Art Shack (161 Lincoln Avenue), an open studio in town, offers camps and drop-in classes for tykes as young as two (adults can come in the evening to paint and sip). Outdoorsy types can spread picnic blankets at Manahassett Creek Park (536 Long Branch Avenue), or lace up sneakers and hit the basketball courts and baseball fields. Kids who like a challenge, and the caregivers who indulge them, will want to spend an hour unlocking mysteries at Escape the Puzzle (473 Broadway), which bills itself as the Shore’s “highest-rated escape game.”
And then there’s nightlife. Post-sunset, Pier Village ratchets up its sheen several notches. The see-and-be-seen crowd replaces the serenity seekers. Short dresses and sky-high heels replace sarongs. The dolled up direct themselves toward Le Club Avenue (23 Ocean Avenue) and neighboring Sirena Ristorante (27 Ocean Avenue). Both have bars serving swanky cocktails like blood-orange martinis (Sirena) and multi-star kitchens. Those who brave the weekend lines at Avenue may suspect they’ve landed in St. Tropez; its chichi lounge, which heats up around 11 pm, features a rooftop pool, outdoor fireplace and oversized lounges.
The lines at clubs like Avenue could soon get longer. Kushner Cos. is planning a May opening for the Wave Resort, its new Pier Village hotel, a six-story, 67-room luxury property. And the Lofts Pier Village, an Extell Development Company project featuring 245 luxury condo units priced at $569,000 to $2.4 million, will open soon.
WHERE TO STAY
Ocean Place Resort and Spa: A full-service oceanfront resort with a spa, restaurants and easy beach access. High-season rates: $142–$459. 1 Ocean Boulevard. 800-411-6493.
Bungalow: This ritzy Pier Village boutique hotel features ultra-modern rooms, including fireplaces and waterfall showers. High-season rates: $400 to $1,200. 50 Laird Street. 732-229-3700.
Cedars and Beeches: A romantic B&B that offers packages including massage, roses and wine, with shuttle service to the nearby beach. High-season rates: $225–$300. 247 Cedar Avenue. 732-571-6777.
WHERE TO EAT
Avenue: Deft and lively French bistro with excellent wine, cocktails and raw bar in one of the handsomest seaside spots on the Shore. Boardwalk seating as well. 23 Ocean Avenue. 732-759-2900
Sirena: Joseph Cetrulo’s handsome, light-filled ode to fine Italian cuisine, from salads to pastas to pizzas, seafood and meats. 27 Ocean Avenue. 732-222-1119
Turning Point: Year-in-year-out most popular brunch spot, and worth the wait. 92 Ocean Avenue. 732-923-1104.Click here to leave a comment