Mix It Up in Asbury Park

1. Where to Stay

The EmpressPhoto: Courtesy of the Empress

Owned by former Madonna producer and eighties D.J. Shep Pettibone, the Empress (from $149) was the first of Asbury’s old-guard waterfront hotels to undergo major renovations. A young, heavily gay crowd swarms the 101 balconied rooms, swimming pool, and on-site nightclub on summer weekends. If you’re here for the beach rather than the party scene, request a third- or fourth-floor room, farthest from the thrum.

Opened in January after a three-year renovation, Sixth Avenue House (from $140) is the only B&B in Asbury’s rainbow-flag-waving Victorian district. Just two blocks from the beach and one from pretty Sunset Lake, the inn has five rooms (No. 2, on the second floor, is the largest, and the only one with a whirlpool tub) and a two-room suite, plus a dreamy wraparound deck.

The four-story Laingdon Hotel (from $159) in nearby Ocean Grove (see Oddball Day) has unobstructed ocean views, breezy terraces, and four-poster beds, all intended to make converts out of Hamptons diehards. Request one of the east-facing rooms with a wet bar—a real asset in a dry town.

Farther south along perfectly manicured Ocean Pathway, the handsome Ocean View Inn (from $85 with shared bath, $175 with private bath) combines luxe modernity (plush linens, A/C, wi-fi access) with the quiet charms of a Caribbean beach house.

2. Where to Eat

Photo: Courtesy of Scott B. Rosen/www.digitalrailroad.net/scottbrosen

Located in the landmark Art Deco building long occupied by Howard Johnson’s, the Saltwater Beach Café (1200 Ocean Ave.; 732-774-1400) opened on Memorial Day with a former Four Seasons chef and a killer, open-faced crab-cake sandwich. Spiffed up as it is, the restaurant’s dark-wood-and-tile interior can’t compete with the people-watching on the boardwalk patio.

Meet the locals—including (possibly) Bruce Springsteen—at Frank’s Deli & Restaurant (1406 Main St.; 732-775-6682), where three generations of the same Asbury clan can be spotted behind the counter. Grab a red vinyl counter seat, and gird yourself for a heart-stopping Jersey classic: the pork roll, egg, and cheese sandwich.

Arrive early to avoid a long wait at Spanish-Portuguese Bistro Olé, across from the train station—it opens at 5 p.m. and doesn’t take reservations. Well-spiced paella Valenciana, pesto-topped sea bass, and a charismatic owner (the one-named Rico) keep the place packed.

No weekend in Asbury is complete without one heaping Italian meal. Jimmy’s Italian Restaurant is as old-school as it gets: There’s valet service in the lot; a buttery sole Juliet on the menu; and a booths-and-mirrors interior crowded with photos of the late Jimmy arm in arm with Sinatra, Nixon, and, of course, Springsteen.

The beach scene in front of Convention Hall.Photo: 2007 © Jewell Marketing Associates

3. What to Do

Hit Asbury’s well-groomed, uncrowded sands just south of historic Convention Hall, where you’ll have easy access to the boardwalk and its cleaned-up facilities. The city’s resurgent arts scene starts right where the sand ends, at the beachfront Exhibit A, where you’ll find locally made abstract paintings on wood and canvas, plus cool found-object sculptures and collages.

Rent a bike at Brielle Cyclery’s new boardwalk outpost ($5 per hour) to get to newly redeveloped Cookman Avenue downtown. Stop by the second-floor loft space of Crybaby Gallery for often provocative photographs, screen prints, sculptures, and paintings; a new show of erotic art begins July 21. Also on Cookman, browse the retro-fashion finds at Manhattan-based Allan & Suzi; the stylish housewares and kids’ stuff at Moxie; and the ecofriendly clothes and fair-trade imports at Organic Style.

Pedal back to the boardwalk for a frozen daiquiri at the Beach Bar (happy hours from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. on weekdays), then hop next door to consult the schedule of the just-refurbished Beaux-Arts Paramount Theatre for theater and opera happenings. If that’s too highbrow, look to the clubs: The new Mattison Park, adds a dressed-up dimension—tapas menu, martini lounge, occasional D.J.’s—to Asbury’s torn-jeans bar scene, while the Saint is a smallish rock hall that showcases rising indie bands.

Two endangered landmarks: Wonder Bar and Asbury Lanes.Photo: From left, courtesy of Scott B. Rosen/www.digitalrailroad.net/scottbrosen, Asbury Lanes

4. Insider’s Tip

Asbury Park, like Coney Island, is engulfed in a redevelopment battle that pits gentrification-minded builders against a petition-signing public. Give yourself a tour of the endangered businesses, many of which have already been bought up by developers. On Fourth Avenue, the nearly century-old Baronet Theatre, with its Art Deco signage, hosts free Newark Black Film Festival screenings on Friday nights through August 3. Next door is the for-now shuttered Fastlane, a legendary club that once booked Jon Bon Jovi and U2 but now only opens for events like this June’s School of Rock festival. Then there’s Asbury Lanes, the local version of Bowlmore, where you can drink, eat, listen to live punk bands, and knock down pins all at the same time.

On Fifth Avenue, the divey Wonder Bar offers music, booze, pub grub, and Springsteen lore. (You’ll recognize it by the grinning clown, “Tillie,” on its crumbling turquoise façade.) A few blocks south, the legendary Stone Pony still gets a lot of big names, like Pete Yorn (July 28) and Robert Randolph & the Family Band (August 11). But that won’t necessarily save it from the wrecking ball—it’s smack in the middle of the redevelopment zone.

Ocean Grove's tent colony.Photo: Courtesy of Scott B. Rosen/www.digitalrailroad.net/scottbrosen

5. An Oddball Day

If you grow weary of the dark, dank dives of Asbury, head south to beautiful, sedate Ocean Grove (at one square mile, it’s easily explored on foot). Join the Historical Society’s walking tour ($6 donation; Sat., 11 a.m.; Wed. and Fri., 1 p.m.), which covers much of what’s weird and cool about the town, from the gorgeous aggregation of authentic Victorian buildings and the 110-year-old Great Auditorium, to the curious “tent colony,” where fifth- and sixth-generation Grove families set up camp for the summer.

Afterward, soak up all the small-town charm you can stomach along leafy Main Avenue. Get your caffeine fix and some local gossip (probably real-estate-related) at the Daily Grind (No. 48; 732-775-8500), then browse the nostalgic fifties-era housewares of Kitch & Kaboodle (No. 76; 732-869-0950). Join the line at the artfully restored Nagle’s Apothecary Café (No. 43; 732-776-9797)—its Brooklyn-style egg-cream recipe comes straight from Tom’s Restaurant in Prospect Heights.

6. Related Links

Asbury Park’s official site lists major events, while Asburypark.net keeps a comprehensive list of daily happenings and venue listings.

Weekly community paper, The Coaster, is a good source of local news.

For wistful “memory mail” dispatches from Asbury visitors, check out Asbury Boardwalk.

GLBT-friendly clubs, hotels, and events—like the upcoming sixth annual, weekend-long “Road Trip” event (July 27 to 29)—are catalogued on Gay Asbury Park.

Mix It Up in Asbury Park