I Fucking Love This Restaurant features writers’ favorite places that have been feeding a community for years: They aren’t the new spots.
On a four-lane causeway linking Wildwood and mainland New Jersey, across from the salt-corroded carcass of a definitely haunted mini-golf course, the Bright family catches, butchers, and cooks outstanding seafood. Their restaurant, Hooked Up Seafood, consists of a kitchen trailer manned by matriarch Michelle; a row of picnic tables staffed by whichever of her kids are home from college; and a couple of docks, stretching like fingers into the brackish marshes of Richardson Channel, where her husband Bill’s boats, Defiance and Retriever, moor. Timed to summer migration of Philadelphians to the South Jersey Shore, Hooked Up opens in May and closes in September. During these brief, sweet months, I eat here as often as possible. I fucking love this restaurant.
Before I get into why, there’s something you have to understand: For many Philadelphia families, allegiance to your Shore town is absolutely tribal, often governed by tradition that runs generations deep. From South Philly, where my family is from and where I live, the closest Shore point is Absecon Island, the key-shaped atoll home to Atlantic City, Ventnor City, Margate City, and Longport. My parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents all spent summers in AC until 1977, the year before the Resorts casino kicked off the gambling gold rush, and my mom’s parents, Frank and Josephine, retreated to a little white rancher at 304 North Delavan Avenue in Margate.
I was born in 1984 and spent the next 17 summers at 304. My grandparents’ house had burgundy shutters, white metal patio furniture that made waffle patterns in the backs of your thighs, and a fridge full of Clearly Canadian I was not allowed to touch. We shared the house with my grandparents and my grandmother’s sisters, Aunt Mickie and Aunt Mary. When my brother, Andrew, and I were little, my family bunked up in the back bedroom: my parents in the bed; Andrew and I on a pair of “flip-flops,” mattresses that folded up like giant accordions. It was not an ideal living situation, but it was a place down the Shore — you made it work — and I loved being there.
To a kid growing up in a concrete city grid, the Shore provided a year’s worth of nature condensed into three teeming viridian months: It might as well have been the Serengeti. Front-yard hydrangeas hid colonies of tiny wild rabbits, and horseshoe crabs made the beach look like a battlefield of medieval armor. I fell asleep to crickets every night and woke up to fuzzy green caterpillars scooching along the leaves of the big old trees outside my bedroom. Once when I showed one to Aunt Mickie, she swatted it off my palm and mashed it under a nude moccasin. They were bad for the trees, she barked, and I didn’t speak to her the rest of that weekend.
That incident notwithstanding, my childhood memories at the Shore are as positive as they are powerful. I had no reason to think I, like the generations before me, wouldn’t spend summers on Absecon Island. Then I met a girl who grew up going to Wildwood.
There are certain foods you can get only down the Shore: Steak Maryland smothered in crabmeat and bubbling blue cheese at Angelo’s Fairmount Tavern; the tacos al pastor on made-to-order tortillas at Pancho’s Mexican Taqueria; Tuesday night clam chili at The Clam Bar aka Smitty’s; Manco & Manco pizza; the immense veal chop Parm at Chef Vola’s; waffles and ice cream at Two Cents Plain; and skin-on boardwalk fries saturated in malt vinegar, a photo of which has served as my Twitter profile pic since 2007. I’ve been cultivating this list for decades. Come Memorial Day weekend, the pressure is on to eat them all.
I met Charlotte in 2009, and by our second summer together, we were splitting our weekends between Absecon Island and her parents’ beach house in Wildwood, 30 miles south. While I loved spending time with Charlotte and her family, I didn’t love Wildwood, a town with more of a reputation for Super Tully Nuts and Miller Lite specials than culinary excellence. I was a food writer marooned — until I noticed a squat blue cabin on the side of the road. With its picnic tables and crushed seashell parking lot, Hooked Up Seafood looked like exactly the kind of place where I would want to eat. We lined up at the kitchen window and ordered the steamed littlenecks in garlicky white wine broth and a couple of blackened tuna platters. We grabbed a table as the sunset turned the sky to cotton candy. The setting was humble but magical, and the seafood was the best I’d had at the Shore.
I’ve never become a regular somewhere so fast. I reviewed Hooked Up in a summer dispatch for the Philadelphia City Paper and told Saveur about its exceptionalism. Anytime I heard someone was going to Wildwood, I sent them to Hooked Up, including the restaurant critic from the Inquirer.
I didn’t realize it during those first few visits, but Hooked Up was my first entry on a new list of must-eat summer foods. Over the near-decade that followed, the index grew to include many others — apple fritters at Britton’s Gourmet Bakery, the turkey club at Ship n’ Shore Bar & Grill, pizza shingled with golden fried eggplant at Poppi’s Brick Oven — but Hooked Up will always have special significance. It was the first place in Wildwood that became my place in Wildwood.
A Shore house of our own was always the dream. For many middle-class Philadelphians, it’s the dream.
In the summer of 1999, after my freshman year of high school, my parents bought a dumpy three-bedroom place a block from the beach in Ventnor. They gutted and renovated the house, painting all the rooms a different Easter egg pastel and filling them with faux flotsam and jetsam you buy at the stores on the Ocean City Boardwalk. They were grateful to stay with their parents all those years but were ready for their own place.
By last summer, Charlotte and I were ready, too. We weren’t looking seriously until we came across the cozy circa-1920s cottage on a quiet block of Andrews Avenue near the bay in Wildwood.
After our walk-through, Charlotte said, “Am I missing something, or is this house pretty perfect?” She wasn’t missing anything — and that the house was two minutes from Hooked Up didn’t hurt.
When our offer was accepted, and all the financials were squared away, we turned to the next most pressing matter: how and when to tell my parents.
In retrospect, an hour before a memorial mass for my grandparents probably was not the best time. The words, “We bought a house in Wildwood,” hit my mom like a Taser. When the initial shock wore off, she spent the next hour alternating between interrogating me like a detective and running into other rooms to muffle tearful outbursts.
If you’re wondering why my mom wouldn’t be happy and proud, please remember our lesson from earlier: Allegiance to your Shore town is absolutely tribal. I already was in Wildwood every other week, which rendered my loyalty questionable. Buying a house there might as well have been treason. Below the surface was the reality that this would mean less time for her family to be together under one roof. The Ventnor house is her happy place, and in the quest for my own at the Shore, it was like I was setting hers on fire.
Three months before Aunt Mickie, the caterpillar assassin, passed away, Charlotte and I visited her at her house in the city. She was 96, sharp as a crab claw, eager to hear all about the Wildwood house and in the mood to drop bombs.
“You know, Poppy Giannini owned land in Cape May,” she told us. Poppy was her father, my great-grandfather. I had never heard this before and was doubtful — owning land in Cape May would have put my family in a very different tax bracket — but my Aunt Madeline, my mom’s older sister, confirmed it from the opposite end of the kitchen table. Apparently, he bought the land cheap but couldn’t keep up with the taxes, so he just stopped paying them until the city repossessed it.
Then it was Aunt Madeline’s turn to pull out a skeleton. “Before Poppy Lerro [my grandfather’s father] started renting in Atlantic City, they went to Wildwood,” she said, and I choked on a piece of Entenmann’s crumb cake. “The house was somewhere on Lavender Road.”
Lavender Road is 10 blocks from Andrews Avenue.
How had no one told me about this? This was my R+L=J moment. All of my 35 years, I thought my family’s Shore roots were in Atlantic City, when the seeds had been planted at generation earlier in Cape May and Wildwood.
“I hear your mother is beside herself,” Aunt Madeline said, which, by this time, was untrue. After a few days and plenty of assurances that we would still visit Ventnor, she came around and became preoccupied with buying Home Goods out of seashell-print towels and sheets.
A few weeks later, my parents and brother drove down from Ventnor to see the house and spend the day with Charlotte, my in-laws, and me. They hadn’t been to Wildwood in probably 20 years, and their opinions were hardened around outdated stereotypes of a riffraff-y boardwalk and dumpy motels. I could tell them all about the gleaming brand-new brewpub around the corner from our house, about the Victorian mansions with their resplendent wraparound porches, about the apple fritters at Britton’s, and the half-dozen farms, breweries, distilleries, and wineries just offshore, but I knew they needed to see it to get it. Because 10 years ago, I needed to see it to get it.
After showing them the house, we went to our favorite beach, on Raleigh Avenue, all the way at the end of the island where the last block of low-rise condos meets a marine wildlife sanctuary. The protected refuge stretches two miles to the Cape May Canal, and the ocean near it is so Caribbean clear you can see rays gliding past your ankles. It was one of those oppressively hot and still days that makes you feel like you’re in an invisible greenhouse, and we spent the afternoon going and back and forth between our chairs and the cool, crystal ocean. Pointing to the condos fronting the sand, my dad said, “Maybe we’ll sell Ventnor and downsize to one of those.”
House, check. Beach, check. I hoped dinner at Hooked Up would seal the deal. We ordered almost everything on the menu, covering our picnic table with iced Jonah crab claws, blackened tuna steaks, and John Dory fillets, foil-wrapped ears of sugar-bomb Jersey corn, thickets of golden french fries, garlic bread, orzo salad, tureens of steamed clams, and so many napkins. Silence fell over the table as we devoured the seafood feast. Really, nobody needed to say a word. I knew they fucking loved this restaurant.
Adam Erace is an award-winning food and travel writer, recipe developer and cookbook author. His work has appeared in Men’s Journal, Fortune, Travel + Leisure, and over 50 other publications. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and two maniacal Chihuahua mixes.