Sailors are a superstitious bunch. In the 1800s, when Cape May was called Cape Island, fishermen would don a good-luck charm called a lucky bone—the hook-like claw of the male horseshoe crab—before setting sail.
Fishermen today are only slightly less superstitious, but the propitious effects of the old talisman live on at Lucky Bones Backwater Grille. It opened in 2006, when developers “were turning all sorts of spaces into condos,” co-owner David Craig told me. The Pelican Club, one of the Craig family’s two fine-dining restaurants (the other being the Washington Inn), lost its lease when the building went condo. Rather than relocate the Pelican Club, the Craigs, with fine dining covered, saw an untapped market for high-quality, reasonably priced, family-friendly dining, and so created the casual Lucky Bones on Cape Island Creek.
The sprawling, 150-seat establishment is a year-round favorite of locals, who go even in summer, when the enclosed porch is packed with wannabe diners clutching blinking pagers. For year-rounders, Lucky Bones is a Saturday-night date spot and an any-night pizza take-out place. From the brick oven come my favorite pizzas in Cape May, thin and crisp, from a simple Margherita to a new-school Croque Madame with Gruyère, bacon, sopressata and a sunny-side-up egg.
The Craig family knows what locals want because they’re locals themselves. “My parents are originally from Delaware,” David explained. “They were teachers, and, in the middle of their careers, decided to move to the beach.” His mother, Rona, taught in Cape May, while his father, Toby, switched to construction. In 1977, the family bought and fixed up the old Washington Inn. In 2002, Craig’s father bought the Cape May Winery.
Cape May Winery’s award-winning wines sell out every year, leaving not enough to serve at Lucky Bones. But the bar offers an array of sangrias, mojitos and beer. Even in the dead of winter, the stools at the central bar fill up fast. Booths and high-top tables surround the bar, fanning out into two dining rooms decorated in marine bric-a-brac. Avoid sitting in the dreary, charmless area in the back of the restaurant. Instead, request the dining room on the right, lined with windows and spread out beneath wooden ceiling trusses.
No matter where I sat during my visits, the food unfailingly brightened the experience. The menu at Lucky Bones—a collaboration among Craig, his brother Michael, co-chefs Bob Zizza and John Cocchi, and their sous chefs—satisfies many price-points and palates.
Looking for beer and bar food? Lucky Bones has you covered with crunchy, hot Buffalo-balsamic wings and salty thickets of hand-cut fries smothered in melted Jack cheese, scallions, jalapeños and ranch dressing.
Rather eat healthy? Treat yourself to a bowl of creamless, clam-packed, “dishwater”-style chowder (way more delicious than it sounds) and a fine beet and goat cheese salad that, while nothing new, got a lift from woodsy yet elegant thyme vinaigrette.
Going gluten-free? There’s a dedicated menu for you, featuring plates like the inch-thick, spiced and grilled pork chop on buttery mashed sweet potatoes. (Mine, unfortunately, was slightly overcooked.)
Seared filet mignon was perfectly medium rare (as requested) under a bubbly snowcap of melted Gorgonzola. Falling-apart ribs burst with two levels of flavor: a chipotle dry rub and a tangy, smoky, espresso barbecue sauce.
Seafood is Lucky Bones’ forte. “Cape May is the second largest port on the East Coast, and we take advantage of that,” Craig said. “We can pick up the phone and know what’s on the boats coming into port”—like the delectable black bass, the nightly whole fish one evening. Its shimmering body was scored, fried head to tail and dressed with tangy-sweet ponzu sauce—so delicious I picked it clean with my fingers.
Calamari—flour dusted, fried golden and served with creamy roasted red-pepper aioli—comes from nearby Lund Fisheries. Chowder clams hail from Atlantic waters, from Jersey to New England. Larger surf clams are caught by boats out of Atlantic City. Short of the iridescent New Zealand breed of mussel, I’ve never seen mussels as large as these, their plump, pillow-like bodies nestled in shells bigger than iPod Nanos. Their white-wine broth, fortified with marinara, hunks of Gorgonzola and caramelized garlic, is so good you won’t want to leave a drop, which is why they give you a spoon.
The crustacean in the rich, coral-pink crab bisque isn’t local, but the tomatoes that give the soup its color are. They come, in season, from Higbee Beach farmer Bob Halbruner. Also in the crab category, my absolute favorite thing at Lucky Bones: old-school crab imperial, moist under its browned top, served with baked potato, sour cream and redemptively non-fattening, slender string beans.
Generous portions carry through to dessert, but only the bread pudding, made with Formica Bros. brioche and candied pecans, is worth the calories. Double-chocolate pizza was pasty, the ice cream sandwich so laughably thick I needed to unhinge my jaws like a python to take a bite. I’d rather grab a waffle cone at any of Cape May’s ice cream parlors or skip dessert and end the night at Lucky Bones’ lively bar. You’re guaranteed a good time—and good food—at this “new” Cape May classic. No lucky charms needed.
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Cuisine Type:American - Pizza - Seafood - Steaks