Saturday, July 23, 2011

Deauville Inn, Strathmere, NJ

A Strathmere Sunset - Deauville Inn Postcard

THE DEAUVILLE INN – 201 Willard Road, Strathmere, NJ (609) 263-2080

Strathmere used to be the end of the barrier island where you could get away from the crowds that only locals knew about. Well the secret is out.

Down at the Deauville Inn at prime time there’s no place to park, the deck is full, there’s a wait for a table and its three deep at the bar. There’s music on the deck on weekend afternoons, the Beach House bar is cookin', and everyone’s anticipating the featured attraction of every afternoon - the sun set in all its glory.

It wasn’t always this way. It was even more grander a hundred years ago, when the place was only a few decades old and tourists came by train and steamboat from Philadelphia and New York to dine, drink and gamble in the second floor casino. Into the Roaring 20s, during prohibition, it was a rum runner’s haven, and during the Big Band era, the ballroom featured big stars of your grandfather’s day – Jimmy Durante, Eddie Cantor and Sophie Tucker.

Then the Deauville faded into a fifties funk, for decades, when Madelyn Weiss ran it as a local’s bar only, and wouldn’t even unlock the front door to let you in if she didn’t know you, personally, and liked your company. Those who did get in, like bartender Jack Hahn, remember the plants and cats that were everywhere, and the front bar was like her living room. In fact it was her living room where she lived, leaving the rest of the sprawling old hotel to slowly deteriate.

There were a few lazy and slow decades before Walt and Gloria Carpenter came down from Woodbury in 1980, looking for a retirement project, and they liked sleepy little Strathmere.

Like the T-shirts say, “Where the hell is Strathmere?” is a good question. Officially it is located in Upper Township, Cape May County, but you can’t get here from there because its cut off from the rest of the Township by the bay waters and Sea Isle and Ocean Cities.

Sitting on the north end of the barrier island that also includes Sea Isle City and Townsend’s Inlet, the Deauville Inn stands out as Strathmere’s icon, a Victorian wonder that’s survived storms, the depression, wars and the ever changing fortunes of generations.

For Walt and Gloria and the Carpenter family it was a daunting task to renovate and give the old Willard Hotel a makeover. While Strathmere has no police department, it does have building codes, and convincing the inspectors that the place could be salvaged at all was as much of a challenge as actually restoring the place, which they did over the course of a few years.

Since Madelyn Weiss wouldn’t let me in that day when I came knocking, I was surprised to see the front door invitingly open one day in the spring of 1980. Gloria Carpenter invited me in and gave me a tour of the old hotel, showing me the casino room on the second floor that they made into a family quarters. Then there was the broken pipe on the top floor that leaked, for years, dripping through two floors and a ceiling.

Keeping the place open while they worked on it, they kept a cash flow going and utilized the expertise of their extended family and friends to restore the place, renovating the dining room, porch and enlarging the picture windows to better appreciate the bay views and sunsets.

Kenny Brown, who married Walt and Gloria’s daughter Linda, for many years ran the bar along with bartenders Jack Hahn and Frank DiStascio, all three former Ocean City firemen, so they know most of the locals and the locals know them.

Today most people come from all over just to go to the Deauville for its seafood, sunsets, drinks and entertainment on the deck, but in the fall, when the crowds thin out, the locals come back and the entertainment shifts from the deck to the dining room.

For many seasons, over a decade, Lew London performed on the deck and now he’s back as a guitarist with the Bubba Mac Band, one of the best bands at the Shore, who play the Deauville every Wednesday from 6-10 pm.

While the Deauville is the crown jewel of Strathmere, if you time yourself you might be lucky to find its neighbor Twisties open. Down the street about a block, just past the old Coast Guard Station, Twisties is another throwback in time, a rum runner’s bar that’s never been renovated (except for the bathrooms) and retains it 1920s style and motif.

Twisties too was once a Strathmere secret, but now the cat’s out of the bag and like the Deauville, its been rediscovered by a new generation.

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