Equal parts block party and seafood shack, Smitty’s is worth the trip to Somers Point.
On a literal dock of a literal bay in Somers Point—the mainland fishing town half-overlooking Ocean and Atlantic cities like an older brother who’d buy you beer—the tide isn’t the only thing you can set your watch by.
May through September, the flocks descend on Smith’s Marina every night at five sharp, hungry seagulls that look surprisingly like humans. What’s up for grabs isn’t a half-eaten hoagie or carelessly held Choco Taco, but one of 30 stools at the Clam Bar, aka Smitty’s, and believe you me, once you’ve partaken in this most Jersey shore of communions, you’ll understand how a swiveling, cracked-black-vinyl pad on crippled salt-rusted legs can look so very good.
There’s a strict protocol one must follow for procuring one of said stools. Sure, you can put your name in with the hostess for a table in the charmingly shabby dining room, but the bay breeze, harbor view and setting sun on your back is only available outside. First, claim your stool by sitting directly behind it in one of the rickety wooden benches that flank the bar. When the diner on the stool in front of you leaves, that spot is yours—unless of course another patient saint was there before you, and then you must defer.
I’ve waited for a stool at Smitty’s as little as 20 minutes and as long as an hour and a half; the best tip I can provide for avoiding the latter is to dine early or late—and definitely do like the locals and BYOB (beer and wine only). On Smitty’s crushed-seashell parking lot, coolers are as common as sunburns, lubricating the hands of the clock with their spoils. (You’d think the unorthodox seating policy and the flow of alcohol would be a recipe for fisticuffs, but Smitty’s summery, sun-blissed vibe is the ultimate anti-inflammatory.)
A dedicated Smitty’s staffer patrols the area armed with a corkscrew and tower of paper Coke cups. Drinking from the bottle is forbidden, a preemptive strike on broken glass, but also an effective equalizer; disguised by the anonymous red-and-white cups, there’s no knowing Coors from Cantillon, Chateau Lafite from Chateau Lasheet. At Smitty’s, one couldn’t be snooty even if one wanted to.
And isn’t that the point of places like this? The pretense is exactly zero—and that applies to both the carnivalesque atmosphere and the food, all manner of fried, steamed and broiled seafood served up unceremoniously in checked paper boats by freckled girls wearing “You Still Can’t Lick our Clams” T-shirts.
On the blue laminate bar top, written menus with kindergartener coloring-book covers nestle between napkin caddies and syrup pitchers full of cocktail sauce. The stools look into the open kitchen and server station, where a carefully choreographed ballet of clam-shucking, order-taking and chowder-ladling unfolds with the kind of hard grace that only comes with endless repetition. Owners Peter and Patrice Popovic have been in business since 1973. It shows.
A marker board in the kitchen advertises the daily specials. Here I found addictive kernel-studded corn fritters glossed with groovy honey butter, as well as mammoth seafood “potato skins,” possibly the most ingenious collabo ever. Shrimp, lobster and crab blended with cheese and sour cream formed crusty-outside, creamy-inside caps on a split baked Penobscot. It was a carbohydrate bomb of a meal—accompanied, naturally, by french fries.
With old-school jarred applesauce, the same slender straw-yellow frites escorted a platter of fried oysters so creamy and buttery they made me rethink my half-shell allegiance. Enrobed in crisp, golden jackets, the Maryland oysters are exactly the kind of lemon-squirted, cocktail sauce-dunked thing you want to eat outside in the summer.
From one bivalve to another, Jersey clams are prepared every which way at Smitty’s. I’d suggest the steamed littlenecks, white-and-gray-striped shells yawning open to reveal tender buttons of meat best eaten with lots of lemon and butter, as well as brimming bowls of New England chowder—Manhattan too, for heathens—so overloaded some soup invariably goes overboard. It’s true what the waitress’ shirts say; you still can’t lick Smitty’s clams.
Go ahead and skip the desserts, outsourced and saccharine. Your beach body will thank you. So will the bench seagull burning a silent hole in your back, eagerly awaiting your departure like a sandwich dropped in the sand. ■
PW's Taste of Philly 2014