Hungry? Hit A Local Joint.
Every once in a while, when I’m walking on the beach I’ll catch a whiff of dead fish.
I close my eyes and inhale deeply.
Smells like money. To me, anyway.
For three summers, I worked at a family-owned seafood restaurant on Long Beach Island, NJ. The tips I earned hustling fried flounder and broiled bluefish put me through college.
The instant you walked through the doors at Morrison’s Seafood Restaurant on 2nd Street and the Bay in Beach Haven, you were enveloped in the distinctive aroma of a good fish house.
Still love that scent.
Mr. Morrison, who’d opened the place in the 1940s, was gone by the time I worked there. A son or a nephew - can’t remember - was the owner.
Morrison's was just a one-story building with plate-glass windows that overlooked the water. It wasn't fancy. And the owner refused to let the waitresses wear slacks or khaki shorts like some of the newer cafes. Nope. We wore hairnets and polyester uniforms with unsightly white orthopedic-looking shoes. If a waitress showed up on a sweltering day without pantyhose, she went home.
Still, when the sun set or storms rolled in, the views were almost as spectacular as the food. Sadly, that landmark restaurant burned down in 2005.
I haven’t set foot on LBI, that once-unspoiled sliver of land between the Barnegat Bay and the Atlantic with broad beaches and one-of-a-kind diners with faded “Eat” signs in the windows, in more than 40 summers.
I have no idea how many chain restaurants and fast food joints now litter the barrier island. Back in the day, there weren’t many.
If you wanted to eat out, you hit a local joint.
It was the same everywhere. When you road tripped, you sampled regional cuisine, without ever calling it that.
Sure, there were hamburger chains and ho-hum HoJo’s along the interstates, but chances were if you were hungry in Buffalo, NY, you stopped at a diner where they urged you to try the beef on weck. If you were in Louisiana, you rolled into a roadside place where you sampled the gumbo. If you were in Maine, you ate lobster rolls from a curbside stand.
If you found yourself in Virginia Beach or Norfolk you tried the crab cakes, soft shells and oysters. Who came to the beach to eat burgers? Nobody.
They do now, though.
These days you can easily drive from where I live in Virginia Beach to Los Angeles and never consume anything but cookie-cutter grub and mediocre meals. And lots of folks do just that. From Chipotle to Chili's to The Cheesecake Factory, Americans seem to prefer what’s familiar over what’s fresh.
Look, its tough to succeed in the restaurant biz. Tougher still in an area like Tidewater. Our meal taxes are exorbitant. On top of that, the cities pour millions of tax dollars - our money - into shiny development projects that invariably feature eateries that compete with local restaurateurs.
Don’t take my word for it. Read this piece from last Thursday’s Virginian-Pilot. Yep, another unique, privately owned Norfolk restaurant just bit the dust. Part of the reason? Competition from The Main hotel and Waterside. Two nearby projects swimming in tax dollars or incentives.
We can make this stop.
At the ballot box. And at the table.
Before the whole world smells like Red Lobster.