One Shore spot that pulses 365 days a year is Steve & Cookie’s By the Bay in Margate. That was the goal owners Steve and Caroline “Cookie” Till had in mind when they launched the restaurant in 1998. The restaurant has 220 seats in five rooms, including three bars—and after 18 years, it is busier than ever.
Little wonder. The well-executed menu has something for everyone, from singles on a budget sharing a $12 sausage, radicchio and white-bean casserole to the grandma whose devotion to the $33 crab imperial knows no bounds. The young women at the host stand are warm and welcoming, while the seasoned gents shaking martinis behind the bars emanate an old-school charm.
On midsummer nights, you might wait an hour or more for a table. And that’s only after the desperate search for a parking spot. (There’s a lot, but it fills quickly.) When you do sit down, the crush means that service, while professional, can feel brusque.
All the more reason to visit in winter, because the food—while hardly ground-breaking—is fine enough to merit a jaunt from the mainland, let alone from the offshore towns that flank Margate.
Cookie, an Atlantic City native, met Steve in a bar one night in 1979 and soon began waitressing at Margate’s Crab Pot, where he was owner and chef. After earning her master’s in nutrition from Drexel, she took a corporate job with Campbell’s, but left in 1993 to help Steve open a new incarnation of his seasonal seafood shack. They married a year later. In 1998, when they lost their lease, they bought a building and opened Steve & Cookie’s, insulated to stay open all year. Ten years ago, after Steve died at 55 in a fishing accident, Cookie took over sole ownership.
The raw bar is a point of pride. Till and longtime chefs Kevin Kelly and Warner Christy get their superb shellfish direct from local harvesters. The $7 jumbo lump crab bisque was smooth and lightly peppery, its value obvious as it’s poured tableside over a generous pyramid of lump meat.
Fin fish were less successful. One evening, blackened halibut was overcooked, and Chilean sea bass, though moist, was flavorless, especially disappointing given its $35 price. For about the same money, a better choice is the 2-pound steamed Maine lobster. Its meat was tender and tasty, and it came with a baked potato and great, crunchy coleslaw.
“A lot of people see us as a seafood restaurant,” Till told me on the phone after my visits. “But then they venture out and try our meats, and they’re usually surprised and amazed.”
That’s no bum steer. Grilled lamb “lolichops,” a $16 appetizer (three or four rib chops in a lemon-mustard vinaigrette) was the most exciting dish I tried, with crispy chickpeas and soft polenta providing textural counterpoint.
Till once tried to remove the $29 double-cut pork chop, but popular outcry brought it back. Stuffed with cheddar, apples and bacon and drizzled with a sweet sauce made from Jack Daniels, butter and maple syrup, it’s a worthy rival to the big lobster.
In recent years, Till has focused her wine list on interesting values from the United States, France and Italy—the $35 Mother of Invention Viognier from Lake County’s Kivelstadt Cellars is a good example. (If the dining room is busy and you plan to order more than one bottle, ask for the second well before the first is finished, or you might not get it in time.)
From the beginning, Till baked all the desserts herself. Her summer peach and blueberry pies are famous. But since opening a Ventnor bakeshop last year called No. 7311 (at 7311 Ventnor Avenue), she has given over most duties to pastry chef Tito Sanchez. He has the knack.
All the pies except banana cream—pecan, apple raisin, brownie, lemon mousse with raspberry sauce, and chocolate peanut butter—are available as $1.75 mini-bites. One of the best ways to appreciate Sanchez’s talent is to order the sampler, mini-bites of all five for $7.50.
“Some people might only dine out once in a while, so they will want to do it up with sweets,” Till says. “But a lot of our customers dine out all the time. The minis give them a guilt-free way to end the night on a happy note.”Click here to leave a comment
- Cuisine Type:American - Modern
- Price Range:Expensive
- Price Details:Appetizers, $5-$16; entrées, $17-$59; desserts, $1.75-$28.
- Ambience:Updated nautical charm.
- Service:Friendly; hectic when busy.
- Wine list:14 by the glass; 29 half bottles; $18-$181, and more than 350 bottles, $27-$350; 24 beers.