Blue Pig Tavern at Congress Hall

No visitor to Cape May will be able to escape the beauty and magnificence of “Congress Hall,” the grand hotel that is at the center of town (figuratively if not literally).  Congress Hall was originally built in 1816 as a Colonial-era boarding house for the burgeoning tourist trade.  Builder Thomas H. Hughes named it “The Big House,” and it’s easy to see why; a staggering number of 55 white columns encircle the block-long edifice.  Since “The Big House” proved not the most savory of names for a hotel, new proprietors changed it to Congress Hall after Thomas was elected to the House of Representatives in 1828.

When a fire all but decimated the property some fifty years later, Congress Hall was rebuilt and restored to look much as it did back in the day.  In the years that followed, the hotel continued to prosper, housing a number of vacationing US Presidents, and inspiring famed jazz composer John Philip Sousa to create the “Congress Hall March.” 

Sadly, like much of Cape May in the early 1900’s, Congress Hall also fell into a state of disrepair, shutting its doors for almost 20 years!  These days, after a series of lavish renovations, the hotel is the crown jewel of Cape May, and The Blue Pig Tavern, its premiere dining option.  On a visit to Cape May in August of 2011, we decided to finish off the three-day trip with a dinner at one of Cape May’s most lauded restaurants.

The Blue Pig Tavern offers both indoor and outdoor seating, though one look at the pink-and-white broad stripes inside had us clamoring back out the front door for the garden!  After a bit of confusion at the maitre d’ stand, we were seated smack dab in the middle of a brick-covered patio, only partially covered from the encroaching drops of a mid-summer heat storm, not that it mattered.  In truth, there is no better spot at dusk to take in the local color and hubbub of Cape May’s summer scene than the Blue Pig’s picturesque patio which is lit from above by charming strands of antique light bulbs!  

After opening the enticing dinner menu, we were immediately impressed with Executive Chef Jeremy Einhorn’s “seaside American classic” dishes that offered more than a casual nod to comfort food.  While appetizing steak, seafood, and burger choices abounded, it just happened to be “Tuesday Pasta Night,” and thus, we opted for specialty selections as suggested by our waiter.  A combination of little neck clams with pesto, bacon and Blue Pig Tavern ale was tasty, yet entirely filling - particularly after a one-month long respite from carbs!  Our libations were equally as impressive.  (If memory serves, we opted for the “Blind Pig” and the “Blueberry Caipirinha;” both went down a treat!)  

All in all, the only aspect of our Blue Pig Tavern experience that missed the mark was the service.  Our 20-something server spent most of his time chatting up a nearby “six-top” of cougars when he should have spent more time on smaller tables that did not already have the tip percentage added into the bill.  Aside from having to wait 10 minutes for our check, we truly enjoyed the experience at Blue Pig and certainly wished we had made the trek down here earlier in the trip for breakfast or lunch.  There’s always next time!

The Blue Pig Tavern is open daily for breakfast from 7:30 AM until 11:00 AM.  Lunch is on tap from 11:00 AM until 3:00 PM.  The dinner menu is served Sunday through Thursday from 5:00 PM until 9:00 PM and Fridays and Saturdays from 5:00 PM until 10:00 PM.  No matter what time of day, the overstuffed Blue Pig Tavern menu (complete with “Blue Plate Specials”) makes it a must-stop for anyone visiting the Cape!

Blue Pig Tavern at Congress Hall - 39 Perry Street, Cape May, NJ  08204, (609) 884-8422 ‎

George’s Place

Those seeking a casual, but cool diner vibration while visiting Cape May have found what they’re looking for in George’s Place.  In business at the corner of Beach and Perry Streets for more than 40 years, George’s Place is small, but busy!  We stumbled upon the establishment during our first trip to Cape May in 2005.  And since that premiere visit, we’ve seen George’s cull attention from not only in a series of stellar restaurant reviews, but also an appearance on a popular Food Network program!

So, what’s George’s secret?  In short, it’s the food.  Hummus, Halloumi cheese, falafels and several other dishes we can’t pronounce (or spell) make up a Greek-inspired menu that prides itself on dishes comprised from fresh and healthy ingredients.  Portions are decent and, yes, very tasty!  Though they’ve got some tough competition from Uncle Bill’s across the street, breakfast and brunch are really the specialties here, and people come from all around the state to taste samplings like George’s “Cinnamon Nut Pancakes” and “Tiramisu Waffles.” 

The staff seems jovial, if not a bit rushed, though their joking made the experience of eating here as fun as it was tasty.  Set of Drifters tip:  Don’t miss the “Harvarti Panini” that features grilled chicken, fresh basil pesto, tomatoes and honey! 

Now if we’ve already sold you on George’s Place, there are some things you should know.  According to their Facebook page, George’s is only open from 8:00 AM until 1:30 PM, though we hear dinner is also served Saturdays from 5:00 PM until 8:30 PM.  Look out for extended hours in the summer season.  And expect a line.  Though we managed to squeeze in for lunch after only about a five minute wait, we hear that’s a rarity.  Finally, bring cash.  George’s Place does not accept plastic!

George’s Place - 301 Beach Avenue, Cape May, NJ  08204, (609) 884-6088

Elaine’s Dinner Theater & Haunted Mansion Restaurant

Most travelers to Cape May will arrive by car via Route 9/ Highway 109 which ultimately segues onto Lafayette Street.  You’ll know you are in town once you reach the small triangular park at Decatur that showcases a true signpost of Americana at its center - the bandstand gazebo.  But those new in town might also want to look to the right, for it is here where you’ll also pass Elaine at precisely the same time.  Some days, the “piratetress,” festooned in gypsy-esque bangles and sashes, peers from behind a shuttered window, while on others, she stands more proudly at the terrace of the beautiful Victorian mansion in which she resides.  But who is she?

She is in fact a dummy, the frightening kind you might spot on sale at one of those annual Halloween stores that sell everything from adult baby costumes to mummies popping out of cauldrons.  As the mascot of a dinner theater and “haunted mansion” that shares her name, “Elaine” has been there for years, looking better or worse depending on the current state of her ghostly coat of white paint.  Yes friends, if you’ve been looking for kitsch in Cape May, your search is over.

Now in the effort of full disclosure, Elaine’s is first and foremost a Bed & Breakfast.  Here, visitors to Cape May can enjoy a pleasant homebase that is centrally located just two blocks from the beach and only one from the much-ballyhooed Washington Street Mall (see “goodies.”)  But Elaine’s Bed & Breakfast also comes with a special feature that you may not find everywhere.  It is apparently haunted by a young child who roams the hallways at night searching for its parents!  How pleasant.  It is this paranormal association that takes Elaine’s to an all-new level.

Embracing their resident ghost, and the Victorian charm found all over Cape May, Elaine’s has transformed their ground floor into what could almost be described as a small amusement park - complete with well-stocked gift shop thank you very much!  A charming bar stands in as the waiting area for not one, but two different dinner theaters.  One room showcases Victorian-era themed farces in an elegant setting just this side of utilitarian.  Rotating shows mock fun at the morals of the day, and charm with their innocent attempt at bringing authenticity to life.  Just down the hall, a second theater caters more to families.  This is the Haunted Mansion Restaurant, a black-lit dining room crammed with tables and dripping in all items of the macabre (many of which were not actually functioning during our visit.)  Sadly, the vibe here is more “State Fair Haunted House” rather than “Disney’s Haunted Mansion.”

Thanks to a trying-too-hard-to-be-funny moose head that hangs above the entrance, expectations for our dinner show were lowered somewhat upon arrival.  And once said moose head actually started talking as one of only three characters in a multi-act “play,” we knew things would only get worse.  (Did we mention that the moose head’s mouth did not actually move?)  Nevertheless, this experience was one of those times where our expectations were ultimately met, albeit in reverse.

Our waitress had a little difficulty getting our group’s orders from the prix-fixe menu, but not for want of trying.  (We did have no less than 17 people lining the sides of our very long table).  Still, once the food started flying, we were quite impressed with how well the staff handled plating different courses in between “acts” of the play.  We really enjoyed our asparagus bisque appetizer, and were pleasantly surprised to find the following 8 oz. cut of strip steak cooked to perfection!  Tasty garlic mashed potatoes and Key Lime pie rounded out a meal that was ultimately much better than we anticipated, and regretfully superlative to the show itself...  

Our “Haunted Mansion” mystery revolved around a typical ghostly cliché, a specter who does not know he is dead and must find a way to pass onto the spirit world.  While the writing of the show was limp at best, the two main actors did their best to make the most of it, ad-libbing here and there in accented voices that truly poured on the ham.  Obviously, this was a presentation meant to humor both adults and children alike, and yet the jokes were so middle-of-the-road that neither constituency could really appreciate them.  If you have kids in tow, they will likely enjoy the ambiance in and of itself, especially if they are one of the few singled out to participate in sight gags.  Truth be told, our “Haunted Mansion Restaurant” experience really hit its stride once the room erupted into a conga line set to, what else?, “Jump in Line (Shake, Shake Senora)” from Beeteljuice!

We left Elaine’s feeling there were a lot of missed opportunities that could have enriched the presentation much further.  The most obvious perhaps was the exclusion of the rickety skeletal bartender that features so prominently at the entrance.  He should have been the “straight man” for the other two live performers rather than that silly moose head, specifically since it is bartenders who often have such great war stories to tell!  Nevertheless, posing for photos at the well-decorated spot gave everyone in our group a small thrill, even despite the large tip jar that one of the actors joked doubled as their “vodka fund.”  No doubt.  If we had to perform hokey jokes night after night for large families of tourists, we’d certainly need a drink or two as well!

“Elaine” hosts dinner theater experiences nightly at 7:30 PM.  The cost is not cheap.  Adult tickets to the Victorian-era dinner cost $44.95 USD, while children can get in for $24.95 USD.  Oddly, a “teen” price is also listed on their website at $34.95 USD. (Prices do not include tax, tip, appetizers, sodas or drinks from the bar.)

Set of Drifters tip:  The actors from the Haunted Mansion Restaurant also double as ghost tour hosts that take groups out onto Cape May streets immediately following the show.  This is at an additional cost around $10 USD for adults and $5 USD for children.  If so inclined, make sure to let the actors know on your way out of the theater since space is limited and tours fill up quickly on busy nights.  For more on haunted Cape May, see “sights.”

Elaine’s Dinner Theater - 513 Lafayette Street, Cape May, NJ  08204, (609) 884-1199   or 609-884-4358

The Rusty Nail at the Beach Shack Hotel

We noticed the Rusty Nail the very first time we ever visited Cape May some seven years ago.  And while it looked good on paper, or at least from the front of its ‘70s wood and brick facade, we weren’t very inspired by the clientele milling about whenever we would pass on by.  (Sorry ‘bout it.) 

In the years since, however, this retro surfer bar and restaurant has had a super makeover by Cape Resorts, the same design group behind revamps of the Virginia Hotel and Congress Hall elsewhere in town.  (This team sure knows a good thing when they see it; the Rusty Nail, and its sister hotel property, the Beach Shack Hotel, are situated on a stretch of land just steps from Cape May’s shoreline main drag.)

Though we cannot vouch for accommodations at the Beach Shack Hotel, its chic, colorful and laid back vibe suggested it as potentially one of the more happening places to stay while in town.  Part of that relaxed allure comes courtesy the Rusty Nail, and its indoor/ outdoor al fresco party, complete with live music multiple nights a week.  This truly is a fantastic pit stop on a hot summer’s day or night, though don’t fret.  If it gets too chilly after sundown, the fire pit is the perfect spot to chill with a glass of wine while waiting for your table.

And wait we did.  With a party of at least 20, it was probably 45 minutes before we were finally seated.  But hey, this is the beach!  Who cares?  Our downtime gave us the perfect excuse to explore the specialty cocktail menu and wander through the original “Rusty Nail” bar that still retains a hint of yesteryear behind all that new paint.  (Set of Drifters tip:  Try “The Hammer.”  Similar to a Piña Colada and served in a ceramic coconut, this one goes down a real treat. Once coupled with the tasty “Nail Burger,” or some lump crab or mussels, you’ll have the makings of the perfect lunch!  

Dinner creations at the Rusty Nail run the gamut of upscale American, with gourmet burgers, fresh locally-caught seafood, salads and steaks.  And don’t forget to check out that tantalizing array of pasta dishes.  (Your tummy will thank you.)  They even have a doggie menu in case Rover needs some “Bowser Beer” or a “Hot Diggity Dog,” sans bun.

And don’t forget dessert.  The over-the-top sundae is to die for.

The Rusty Nail serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, but only during the tourist season (May - September).  Don’t miss it while in town.

The Rusty Nail at the Beach Shack Hotel - 205 County Highway 604, Cape May, NJ  08204, (609) 884-0017

We also recommend:

The Mad Batter - 19 Jackson Street, Cape May, NJ  08204, (609) 884-5970,

Freda’s Cafe - 210 Ocean Street, Suite 1, Cape May, NJ  08204, (609) 884-7887