Saturday, August 23, 2008

Vacation Review: Asbury Park, NJ

A vintage HoJo restaurant is now the Salt Water Beach Cafe, featuring fresh ingredients produced in New Jersey. I really enjoyed the Artisinal Cheese plate ($14), and DH loved the Lobster BLT Salad ($12). The hostess was excellent, but the service was poor. The waiter repeatedly forgot things we asked for, and we were left sitting with one and then two of three meals for a long time. We had to ask for flatware. No one cleared when we were finished eating. My lukewarm clam chowder ($8) was delish, but lacked the promised North Country Smoke House bacon, and I suspect the server forgot to garnish with it. It's been open more than year, so it was not a new place working out the bugs. I checked web reviews later, and service seems to be a recurring issue for them. (Photo:
Asbury Park: B+ overall
Beachfront: A, very clean
Our Hotel: C, but cheap
Food: B, needs breakfast
Parking: D+

We had never been to Asbury Park before. DD15 was going to a youth leadership retreat in Ocean Grove, and we thought to make a family weekend out of driving her there. We couldn't find an available room in Ocean Grove (a historic Tent Revival resort - whole 'nother story). We decided to try next-door Asbury Park, overcoming our vague dread of Bruce Springsteen.

I was prepared to be disappointed. "We have a hotel, a beach, and there is a restaurant. I have a book to read. Everything else is bonus." But I liked it! The beach was very clean and has friendly attendants. It's $5 for a daily beach tag. The short Boardwalk is very walkable, and not numbingly commercial. A few nice shops, good stuff to eat, mini-golf, a cute kids' water park under construction. Lots of empty shops with "Coming Soon" signs. But our focus was relaxing on a beach, and there was plenty of that. Nice beach showers and clean public restrooms. I liked that there were not so many kids that the place seemed frantic. Nice age diversity. Lots of gay and lesbian couples. Saw some cool body art.

I sampled the ocean, but was quickly humiliated by a wave that knocked me over and left me feeling old, fat, and beached by bad knees. I retreated to a bench on the Boardwalk with a book and an iced chai latte. While recovering my dignity, I overheard a lot of chatter among regulars. Apparently, this is the first summer the beach has really started to cook since they re-opened it. It's been rated one of the cleanest in NJ, and I have to agree. Right now, the beach front area consists of two hotels, Convention Hall with a great facade, a few vintage rock-n-roll bars, and some new restaurants and shops on a short Boardwalk to an empty Casino building also being restored. But the overall atmosphere was very relaxing and clean. We saw a Redevelopment Plan in a window, with spots reserved for beach clubs, condos, and a little more commercial development.

I really liked the series of small shops installed in modified shipping containers along the Boardwalk. I read that architect David Rockwell designed them. Great visual texture contrast to the larger and more permanent-looking arcades housing bigger shops. But I am a fan of container structures in general. I should have taken more photos, but I was afraid of getting sand in the camera.

My unsolicited suggestions, as a tourist: the boardwalk area could use a book/news stand, a convenience store with drinks and snacks to take back to rooms, and a place to rent a bike. Desperately needs a breakfast place along the beachfront. Locals directed us to Frank's diner at Main and Sunset, but we didn't go, for fear of losing our free parking space.

There was a concert by pop band Paramore at Convention Hall, which impressed my teen/tween girls. It was fun seeing the tour vehicles line up in the parking area, and the slow assembly of security barriers, t-shirt stands, band catering truck, etc. We could see bits of the stage being set up, through the glass doors of the hall, and DD11 tried in vain to catch a glimpse of a band member. Ticket holders started lining up at the barricades in early afternoon for the 6 PM show. The concert-goers were a show of their own, and more fun than the art show that pushed us off the boardwalk benches on Sunday morning.

Food: We had nothing but good eats, which was very pleasant. We don't go out to eat often at home. Not terribly over-priced, and all within a few minutes walk from the hotel, on the Boardwalk. The beach apparently brings out the fried seafood in us, and the first place we picked was Biggie's Clam Bar in the Convention Hall arcade. Biggie's seems to be a new location for a Hoboken family-owned restaurant. The fried shrimp basket was great with 6 perfectly-breaded shrimp and fries ($7.50). The fried clams ($6.50) were almost too many to eat, and the onions rings ($3) were light and melt-in-your-mouth. DD11 found her hot dog very good.

We had a few good sandwiches - a nice Cuban, a sausage-and-pepper, etc. Very nice Reubens on Challah bread at O'Toole's Irish Pub. Great locavore food, but poor service at the Salt Water Beach Cafe. Good drinks at Eddie Confetti's Ice Cream.

I brought a loaf of zucchini bread with us, to eat in the car. Good thing, since the hotel had only chips and soda. I snacked on zuke bread all weekend, and DH made a convenience store run to find bottled drinks.

Accomodations: We stayed at the 200-room Berkeley Hotel, built in 1923, vacant for a few years, and now renovated and re-opened. Or rather, still under renovated. Trendy black/white/tan interior redecoration, with too many animal prints. Clean pool, good towels, comfy beds. Our Double Queen room was large. It was a good value at $139/night for a hotel across the street from a Boardwalk. Free WiFi in the lobby, but few places to plug a power cord; would be much better extended to the rooms. Could seriously use small fridges in the rooms.

This hotel has a lot of rough edges and is understaffed. No concierge, little bell service, slow housekeeping service, no lifeguard. No one seems to be in charge - no one ventures out from behind the Front Desk, and all of the staff members seem stressed and defensive.

Little things are missing, like robe hooks - there is a painted-over spot on the door, where a hook used to be. A plumbing connection lacked a face plate. The digital flat screen TV has fuzzy analog cable and no pay-per-view. There was a weird little tile shim to level the bathroom vanity, making it easy to stub your toe. Elevators often don't go where they are told, and sometimes go nowhere at all, while the staff pretends to have just heard about it. Odd wires and panels hang from walls and ceilings. A lot of the renovation work looks poorly done, in the rush to open. The lobby lounge was still trashed the Saturday morning after a large family group relaxed around the pool table Friday night. Multiple building entrance doors stand open with no doorman all night, allowing anyone to enter and prowl the halls - a security disaster waiting to happen.

If you look through the crack in the floor in front of the elevator door, you can see a huge trash pile illuminated in the basement. Once DD11 pointed it out to me, we couldn't resist looking down there every time we got on the elevator. It was symbolic of our stay - the dissonance of dysfunction visible beneath a veneer of newness.

The continental breakfast is bagels (and not good ones, especially considering the NYC clientle), coffee, and watery OJ. The toasters were cheap discount-store models and worked poorly. A jar asking for tips seems awfully rude at a self-serve table with plastic flatware and paper cups. The pool railings were wobbly. Most of the landscaping was untended and half-dead. But, if these things are ironed out, it will be a decent hotel, and the price will undoubtedly go up. I have stayed in worse beach hotels, and at higher rates. If I want it to stay cheap, maybe I better quit my bitchin'.

Parking: Street parking is out of the hotel's control, and could become a real problem for them. The weekend we stayed, the city decided to start enforcing the new parking meter system. But the electronic system wasn't working right, and people were getting ticketed after having paid, or were not able to pay at all. I overheard people complaining to cops, who shrugged - city offices are not open on weekends. Bad move for a city trying to revive tourism. The hotel does not have enough of its own parking spaces out back. The semi-circular front drive is the hotel fire lane, and is not supposed to be used for more than drop-off. With a concert hall right across the street, unhappy hotel guests had to park too far away.

The only other hotel is the smaller 100-room Empress, NJ's only "official" gay hotel. Asbury Park has become a popular summer spot for the GLBT crowd, much cheaper and cleaner than Fire Island and other traditional retreats, I overheard. There is also a motel somewhere nearby, but I heard it was really dirty. Funny, Ocean Grove has dozens of B&Bs only 5 minutes away, but there don't seem to be any in Asbury Park. I am always surprised by the dramatic differences between little New Jersey beach towns.

I read somewhere that the old Casino carousel building is slated to become a farmer's market. I would like that, if I was staying for a week or so in a place with a fridge. Food tourism is huge, and the locavore movement is not to be ignored. Vacation travel is way down, but I think that if Asbury Park attracts the right projects, it could again become a popular place to vacation, even with gas prices rising. The NJ Transit train stop is a huge advantage over many other beach areas. But they need jitneys to run from the train to the downtown (a few blocks inland) to the beach-front hotels. If there were taxis, they were invisible, and I didn't see a place to rent a bike. If they focus a bit more on non-automotive tourists, they may be able to jump into a niche market.

Next time: I wouldn't mind having a summer spot we return to each year. I would bring my own supply of snacks, drinks, and a cooler. I would stay longer and visit the large weekend flea market nearby. I would try the Ketchup restaurant at the Empress Hotel, walk around the downtown shops, and spend an afternoon checking out hyper-cute Victorian Ocean Grove (above) or other nearby beach towns.

My worry: Will the crappy economy, the writhing construction industry, and the tight housing credit market kill off this beach revival before it gains enough momentum? They gotta sell some condos to make this work.


Danielle said...

OMG, my dh and I met in Ocean Grove! lol No one ever knows about OG.

What a small world.

Matriarchy said...

I never would have known about it, either, if my church's national organization hadn't scheduled a youth leadership training weekend at Grove Hall. We couldn't find a place to stay in OG on short notice, so we went next door to Asbury Park, which has its own reviving charms.

But OG is super-cute. When you drive through on a Sunday, with everyone dressed for church, its a little surreal - like they are filming a big-budget church movie with thousands of extras. LOL

Danielle said...

Ha, you should've seen it when dh and I were growing up. The blue laws forbade cars parked on the streets or drives on Sunday, so everyone without a garage had to park over in Asbury or Bradley Beach by sundown on Saturday.

BTW, in case you didn't know, I came to your blog via Sharon's food storage list. Great job on the pantry! It feels really good, doesn't it?

Matriarchy said...

Funny, you were already in my feedreader - I think from One Local Summer. It really is a small world.

I love your cute new bacon. Oops, I mean piggies. :-)

I am really loving the pantry thing. I spent an hour going through the food ads and coupons in the Sunday paper - and I hardly wanted anything at all. I either have a cheaper source, or don't use the brand name stuff.