Salsa music pulses through the gauzy curtains behind me at Olón. A whole fish sizzles on the wood-fired grill, and I spoon happily in syncopation through a tangy saffron brew of paella-flavored seafood ceviche just as the sun sets over the Atlantic City Boardwalk and white sands that stretch as far as I can see. Sigh. It’s a moment I’ve been looking forward to.
And this new restaurant at the Tropicana (tropicana.net) marks one of the biggest comebacks of the season. Chef Jose Garces, almost two years removed from watching his restaurants go down with Revel’s closing, is back at the beach in a major way — not only with this breezy, Latin-flavored seafood room, but also a moody Japanese izakaya pub called Okatshe with grilled skewers, sake drinks, and sushi hidden away behind the trompe l’oeil shelves of a Japanese candy store.
Still, Garces may not even be the biggest celeb chef opening in A.C. this year. That would be Cleveland’s Michael Symon, cohost of ABC’s The Chew, who has opened Angeline at the Borgata (theborgata.com) as a swanky tribute to the Italian cooking he grew up with, including updated takes on his mom’s meatballs, porchetta, and Sicilian-style swordfish.
Some big names, familiar at least to regular Shore-goers, have opened notable new projects in other towns along the coast. Lucas Manteca, who owns Cape May’s Red Store and Quahog’s in Stone Harbor, has opened the plainly named Taco Shop (tacoshoptacos.com) in an industrial park at the Cape May Airport, conveniently right next door to the Cape May Brewing Co. The stylish transformation of the old Golden Inn in Avalon under Icona (iconagoldeninn.com) continues with the gastropub ambitions of its new Avalon Brew Pub and executive chef Paul Drew.
Other intriguing restaurant makeovers are happening farther north. The 21-year-old Albanian chef Tony Hoda, formerly at Philly’s La Veranda and Sea Isle’s A Modo Mio, has turned Ventnor’s former La Grotta into La Padella (lapadellaristorante.com), where he specializes in grilled calamari, homemade ravioli, and slow-braised veal over polenta. On the bay in Beach Haven on Long Beach Island, the team behind the Black Whale and Mud City Crab House is reinventing the Boathouse as Parker’s Garage & Oyster Saloon (parkersgaragelbi.com), conceived as something both “adventurous and approachable,” with chef Kyle Baddorf, fresh off a post at Ambra in Queen Village.
The transition will be perhaps more subtle, meanwhile, at the Beach Haven classic Terrace Tavern (terracetavernlbi.com) and its more upscale Delaware Avenue Oyster House next door (delawareaveoysterhouse.com). That’s because new co-owner Toby Sweeney bought it from her father, Steve Eisenberg, who ran the restaurant, known for crab pots and smoked ribs, for 31 years. “I started here as a 10-year-old standing on a crate washing dishes,” said Sweeney, now 38. “But to buy it with my husband and be here with my own children, thinking about everything, is an absolute dream come true.”