Reclaiming the Jersey Shore

Everyone loves to poke fun at the Jersey coast, but the fact is, the joke's on them. Brian Hiatt explores three legendary—and recently spruced-up—shore towns that still promise the classic American summer.

If Hotel Tides is a look at Asbury's future, then Vini "Maddog" Lopez is a part of its past. The original drummer in Springsteen's E Street Band (E Street is an actual road in Belmar, just to the south), Lopez joins us for breakfast the next morning at Frank's, a 50-year-old diner on Asbury's Main Street that, in his words, "has good mud." Lopez, grizzled and friendly, holds tight to his history: He currently plays in Steel Mill Retro, a band that re-creates the long-lost songs of the late '60s, pre–E Street days. He happily shares stories of nights at long-vanished clubs like the Student Prince and the Upstage, but he's quick to dismiss Springsteen's more fanciful visions of the city, heard in songs about wooing girls under the boardwalk. "There were rats underneath there," Lopez says.

After saying our good-byes, Jen and I swing past Cookman Avenue, an up-and-coming stretch with an indie theater (think obscure and Swedish films) and some posh boutiques like Shelter Home, a home furnishings store co-owned by a textile designer who works on Broadway productions. From there, we turn our sights south. For 20 miles we bump through coastal towns like Belmar, Manasquan, and Point Pleasant, and then cut onto the Barnegat Peninsula, a spit of sand separating the Atlantic from Barnegat Bay, as we approach Seaside Heights, the now infamous home of Jersey Shore.

For months, I've been hearing people talk about Seaside Heights as if it's some anthropology experiment, a case study in bumping clubs and boardwalk fights. But when we pull into town, it's clear that stereotypes don't hold. Instead of alcohol-fueled chaos, we find an unpretentious, kid-friendly resort town full of little cottages crowded up to the coast.

It's not yet prime season, so things are pretty quiet. We pass the police station, where at least one Jersey Shore cast member was locked up, and cruise by Club Karma, now famous for cheap shots and dance music. Yet by the beach, it's as if the show never existed. A mini amusement park sits at either end of the mile-long boardwalk, and a Ferris wheel stands on a pier. Inside the 57-year-old Lucky Leo's Amusements, everything's familiar: the wooden skee ball lanes, the barker at the wheel of fortune, the paper tickets waiting to be traded for an endless selection of trinkets. The scene is timeless—a snapshot from the classic American summer—and it stands in contrast to our final destination, Long Branch.

In many ways, Long Branch is the original shore town. The city began as a fashionable destination in the 1860s—well before Asbury or Seaside—starting with a visit from Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Honest Abe. Then, like many other towns, it settled into prolonged decay. The final blow came in 1987, when the amusement complex on its pier (including a haunted mansion I never mustered the courage to enter) burned to the ground. All that remained were a few sad little arcades, seedy strip clubs, and the occasional music venue.

That could've been it for Long Branch, but five years ago a local developer rebuilt the boardwalk and pier. Unlike the grassroots refurbishment of Asbury, the result here is a slick retail and residential complex called Pier Village, complete with upscale restaurants and bars, a bookstore, and a Gold's Gym (where we work out the next morning on treadmills facing the ocean). The Bungalow Hotel is one of the latest additions to Pier Village. The white-on-white rooms are hardly a bargain at $199, but given the fact that they could pass for ones at a $500-a-night Miami resort, they seem a worthy splurge, with South Beach–inspired faux fireplaces, faux-cowhide chairs, and Apple TV.

With all the driving that afternoon, Jen and I had skipped lunch, so we immediately walk to Avenue, a glass-and-steel oceanfront restaurant that attracts young, hip-for-Jersey patrons—and at the moment, too many of them. The place is packed for happy hour. Instead of waiting, we decide to retreat inland. A few blocks from the beach, the flash of Pier Village mellows, and old-school Italian restaurants and simple hot dog stands remain as bulwarks against the city's new image.

We opt for Tuzzio's, a squat brick-and-stucco establishment across from a dry cleaner. The crowd here (families of six and elderly couples) is anything but hip, and the same goes for the decor, highlighted by a stained-glass version of the restaurant's logo and gold-mirrored beer-company signs. But the leather booths are inviting, the vibe couldn't be warmer, and the food is a throwback: rich sausage and peppers in marinara sauce, and salad with special house dressing, a distinctly tangy blue-cheese vinaigrette. "If you don't like it," the grandmotherly waitress says with a smile, "I'll bring you something else."

A SHORE THING

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