New York

Where to Eat on Your Next Road Trip Down to the New Jersey Shore

From burgers and seafood to ice cream and curry, there’s a little something for everyone.

While it’s only a two hour drive down NJ-109 to get “down the shore” (about 125 miles top to bottom, from Sandy Hook to Cape May), once you get close to the ocean and the salt air begins to stream in through the car’s windows, you’ll Zen-out and realize: the destination is but a small part of any journey. If you do a Jersey Shore road trip right, you can take your time, gloriously eating and drinking your way onward for days seeing sights, experiencing local communities, and living your best life.

What we’ve put together is less an itinerary than a map of unique food destinations spanning fine-dining to greasy spoon. Burgers, seafood, ice cream, curry—there’s a little something for everyone, but one thing is certain: each and every place you’ll find below is well worth pulling off the road and taking time out to experience. We start up north and end down south, but this is by no means a prescription—once you’re on the road, you’re in charge, so what’re you waiting for? Here are our essential beach eats for your next road trip down the New Jersey shore.

Frank’s feels as if it sprung to life from the lines of a Springsteen song. This is quintessential pork roll, vinegary Italian-mix sub, cup of coffee, and local ads on the place mat in front of your counter-stool New Jersey. But don’t mistake this longtime (cash-only!) Asbury Park staple’s no-frills atmosphere for inattention: they bake their own breads, make their own magnificent donuts, and their warming pasta fagioli tastes like your nonna’s. If you don’t feel like ordering a more wieldy lunch for a beach picnic, sit down to a massive plate of house-made corn beef hash, a gooey open-face Ruben, a stack of pancakes, or the simple perfection that is a salty pork roll, egg, and cheese sandwich on a house-baked onion roll.

Talula's Pizza

Asbury Park

Just steps from Asbury Park’s legendary boardwalk, “the hearth is at the heart of Talula’s,” a mostly-Italian restaurant where, alongside excellent Neapolitan style pizza and sourdough-centric offerings, patrons will find a cocktail bar, craft beer on rotation, a thoughtful selection of Italian natural wines, and a menu chockablock with seasonal, vegan, and gluten-free fare. In the mood for pizza but not dairy? Talula’s can sub any cheese with house-made vegan mozzarella or ricotta without breaking a sweat. If it all sounds a little... ‘Brooklyn,’ you’re not wrong; the owners are a married couple who cut their teeth in NYC’s restaurant scene. The vibes may skew hipstery (read: exposed brick, faux-industrial chic, and minimalist decor) but alongside foodie credentials, what Talula’s brings to downtown Asbury Park is thoughtful casual dining, appreciation for the artisanal, and a passion for inclusivity. No matter who you are or what you’re looking for, Talula’s welcomes you.

Self-described as “less a donut shop than a donut stand,” OB-CO’s barn-red roadside outpost has been delighting locals and visitors since 1953. They open every day at 5 am and serve until they run out, which, if you’re reading between the lines, means that you’re destined to queue up and wait... unless you call your order in ahead of time. Just remember to bring cash. Unless you’re headed to the beach super early or plan on scarfing donuts from a box on the hood of your car (and that has its own charm), you’ll be a hero walking through the door of your lodgings with a dozen (or two) of OB-CO’s best. Reserve space in your order for their insanely yummy signature donut, the Sugar Raised: a classic ring with a dusting of cinnamon sugar.

There are a lot of places for seafood down the Shore, but there’s something truly magical about having a frozen piña colada in one hand and a shrimp cocktail in the other as you gaze out at the Manasquan River at sunset from The Shrimp Box’s outdoor patio. The massive anchor, hand-painted name, and neon beer signage out-front tell you pretty much all you need to know about the interior ambiance, which is friendly, unfussy, and comforting. It’s first-come-first served at this over-75-year-old former commercial fishing dock turned restaurant whipping up all of the buttery, briny, steamed, broiled, blackened, and fried perfection you’re imagining, and at a competitive price to many of the other big seaside sea-to-table eateries (for our money, the New England clam chowder is the menu’s star and should not be missed). But our recommendation is waiting for a warm, clear evening, grabbing a table outdoors, ordering a cocktail with a little umbrella in it, and watching boats glide toward the Atlantic.

The Gables

Beach Haven

Overflowing with flowers and greenery, The Gables’ elegant butter-yellow Victorian destination consists of a boutique inn upstairs and downstairs, a reservation-only fine dining restaurant, spilling out onto the veranda and back garden. Indoors you’ll find chandeliers, upholstered chairs, and white tablecloths. Outdoors, briny sea air and tasteful string lighting. The locavore-leaning menu matches the refined setting, presenting sumptuous plates worth throwing on a collared shirt for. We recommend inaugurating the meal with the Raviolo al Uovo—hand-made pasta stuffed with ricotta, spinach, and a runny egg yolk—a mainstay on the market-dependant menu. While The Gables doesn’t have a liquor license, they offer wine from New Jersey’s own Bellview Winery, so plan on uncorking a bottle or two, dining in style, then ambling over to the white sand beach for an after dinner stroll.

Mustache Bill's

Barnegat Light

Out on the northern tip of Long Beach Island’s spit of picture postcard-worthy land is a James Beard American Classic Award winning diner. Yes, a 1950s-style countertop and mint-green swivel stools and booths, shiny and chrome diner. What, you thought we were going to run down New Jersey and not include a diner? Well, cash-only Mustache Bill’s is one of the best around; everything on the menu is made fresh, in-house and all of the seafood is sourced locally. The only caveats here are that Mustache Bill’s opens for the season Mother’s Day weekend, seats 60 at max-capacity and is only open from 6:30 am-3:30 pm—there’s no getting around a wait if you want their mind-bogglingly good Chipped Beef (which you do). Luckily, the tiny community of Barnegat Light is as lovely a place to take a stroll as you’ll find, so put in your name and don’t stray far.

What’s that? You want a deviled egg with a fried oyster on top, a jalapeno-infused pickle brine vodka oyster shooter, a wood-grilled 14oz NY Strip with lump crab and gorgonzola cream sauce? Of course you do—you’re only human. The food at OC is tasty, they have a great selection of tap beer, a nice wine menu, and whimsical seasonal cocktails—the vibes here are lively, so this is where you want to go for a carefree night out. That said, they’ve also got $1 oysters during the daily 3 pm-6 pm happy hour, so... maybe a little day drinking is in order too. Why not? Want to enjoy all of this fun without worrying about how you’re going to get back to Long Beach Island? Having planned for just such a contingency, OC runs a free shuttle to and from. All you have to worry about is enjoying yourself.

There’s a ton of places to eat in AC, and in the sweetest-spot of the cost-quality-accessibility matrix is Kelsey & Kim’s Southern Cafe—a proudly Black-owned business serving up mouthwatering soul food. Ribs that fall off the bone, golden crunchy fried chicken, rich smothered turkey chops, mac & cheese, collard greens—this is the stuff of your southern-fried dreams. The atmosphere is casual with warm tones and a friendly staff, so dress up or don’t—up to you. Besides boasting some of the best soul food you’ll find up north, K&K’s is prepared to vanquish your hangover with a bountiful breakfast/brunch menu. Long night of throwing your money into casino owners’ pockets? Head here, where you can smother a delicate piece of whiting in Crystal Hot Sauce, add cheese to your grits, get refills of iced tea, and cross the finish line with some red velvet cake (supplied by NYC’s distinguished Junior’s). We promise, you’ll feel like a million bucks.

You only get to be part of the old-school if what you’re doing holds up over time, and Voltaco’s has been a consistent Ocean City favorite since 1954. This is where you should eat lunch, or rather, this is where you should pick up lunch to take out because A. there’s no seating, B. there’s a guaranteed crowd midday, and C. the beach is right there, ya dingus. Their pizza and pastas are terrific, but for our money, a sub is the move. Their chicken parm is to die for; the perfect balance of gooey cheese, perfectly salty/sweet sauce, crunchy chicken cutlet, chewy italian bread, and (no disrespect, Philly!) their cheese steak is LEGIT. Vegetarians and/or health-conscious, fear not: Voltaco’s has salads aplenty and Italian favorite sides like broccoli rabe with white beans and pasta fagioli, so during your beach picnic, you can lunch along with the best of ‘em.

The adoring curation of 1950s kitsch makes this locals’ favorite feel less like a return to that era than something out of Pee Wee’s Playhouse or a John Waters movie, which—to be clear—is a wonderful thing. It’s impossible to walk into Cool Scoops without a smile on your face, and that goes triple if you’re sitting in a booth shaped like a classic Cadillac. This place is a playful tribute, not just to Doo Wop’s heyday, but Wildwood’s place in it (in 1960 a young Chubby Checker performed The Twist for the first time in Wildwood’s own Rainbow Club). Friendly, welcoming, and cash-only Cool Scoops serves up timelessness in the form of cones, shakes, malts, sundaes, fries, and hot dogs of all kinds but happily sneaks some contemporary energy into proceedings by offering visitors gluten-free and vegan options.

Who would’ve imagined a free weekly magazine, gas station, airstream trailers, a bar, hamburgers, and Indian/Thai fusion would not only converge in one of America’s oldest beach resort towns, but harmonize perfectly? At Exit Zero (named after the weekly periodical published by Scottish-born owner/proprietor, Jack Wright) you can see for yourself just how neatly all the elements click over a bowl of spicy Thai lobster curry or a sublime bacon cheddar burger. No appetite for meat? No problem. Nearly every dish’s protein can be swapped for Impossible. One of the coolest features of Exit Zero has to be the reservation-only private dining experiences. For an extra $50, you can book your party’s meal inside a custom-decorated airstream trailer outfitted with a vinyl record player, so you and your friends can avail yourselves of the delightfully eclectic records, food, and drink (featuring hyper local beers and spirits from Cape May Brewing Co. and Nauti Spirits, respectively) in sweet, complete privacy.

Julien Levy is a contributor for Thrillist. 
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