Hair stylist-turned-restauranteur Glen Matteo has opened a unique eatery at the site of the former Stewart's called Matteo's Beach Bay Café.
The Downbeach section of Absecon Island — most notably, Margate — has been at the forefront of the Jersey shore’s culinary ascension over the last two decades.
For Glen Matteo, operator of Matteo’s Beach Bay Café, this venture marks his return to that food hotspot, six years after closing an initial restaurant, Madison Avenue Cafe (nowadays an exceptional seafood emporium called Dune).
The South Philadelphia native began his career in another field entirely, opening a hair salon in Center City at the youthful age of 23. In the mid-’80s, he created Salon M in Northfield and quickly became one of the area’s first high-end hair stylists. That field provided him an entrée — pardon the pun — to the culinary world.
Purchasing the highly successful Margate Dairy Bar a few years later, he turned a sidecar space shoehorned next door into an inventive, seminal seashore BYOB. These were glory days for diners in Margate. Nearby were Melissa’s Bistro, Tomatoe’s and Mojo, all challenging long-held standards, altering perceptions and bringing an entirely different cultural zeitgeist to the plate.
Matteo reflects upon that period of time running both the salon and restaurant, sighing deeply while doing so. “I ended up working something like 130 hours a week,” he says. Hair stylist by day, chef/owner by night: it’s a shame the Bravo network didn’t exist at the time, as it could have created a reality show based on that hybrid formula.
At his side for the food portion of that wild ride has been his mom, Lorraine, or just “Mrs. M” as she has become known to patrons. Contributing baked goods, desserts and hand-rolled gnocchi, she continues to assist her son’s re-entry to the shore restaurant maelstrom. She even creates the luscious, house-made brownie’s for Matteo’s ice cream sundaes.
Inking a deal for the former Stewart’s space back on April 5 of this year, the cafe opened a mere month later, just in time for the summer onslaught. The lunch menu features all the expected beachy standards — burgers, dogs, steaks and chicken — with the addition of seafood options like lump crab cakes, fried calamari, seared yellowfin tuna and salmon. Prices are moderate, with only a few items breaking the $10 ceiling.
But it’s at dinner that Matteo’s creative mind comes to the fore. The tiny restaurant — with al fresco seating for 66 and 20 more seats inside — turns out evening specials to rival those offered in finer dining locations, like local specialty soft shell crabs. The glassine creatures, handled correctly, provide what we consider to be the most uniquely identifiable Jersey coastal delicacy.
Where I grew up, in Cumberland County, soft shell sandwiches are still vended like hot dogs from front-yard cookers along rural Delaware Bay communities. Matteo’s version pays respect to the product’s natural delicacy. Sauteed with white wine, capers, local tomatoes and garlic, he plates them atop pasta for an elegant menu addition.
Other selections nighttime diners can expect to see include lamb chops crusted with a Dijon/rosemary breadcrumb mixture, and scallops with champagne tomato leek sauce. Ask Matteo about chef’s recommendations and you’ll hear him enthusiastically endorse one particular product, saying he has “the best mussels, hands-down, anywhere.”
He also emphasizes flexibility and seasonality, saying “I have a whole arsenal of apps” designed to work with whatever fresh food is most abundant. Continuing to describe his cuisine, Matteo adds, “I’m all over the charts — Vietnamese, Japanese, Italian and Asian. I love all kinds of food.”
Matteo says he will keep the business open Thursday through Sunday, year-round, continuing with breakfast on weekends. Catering, especially during football season, will soon become an additional point of emphasis. Matteo tells us he’ll be adding heartier fare like chili, eggplant parmigiana and his unique twist on meatballs once Labor Day is in the rear-view mirror.
Indispensable to his success in this first campaign has been his right-hand man, Chef Rodrigo Vasquez, a veteran of both Madison and Steven Starr’s Continental. Also garnering special mention is friend Cindy Motter, about whom he says “Without her help, the opening of the café would not have been such a success.”
E-mail Frank Gabriel at email@example.com
Matteo’s Beach Bay Café
Address: 7801 Ventnor Ave., Margate
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner from 11am. Breakfast Sat.-Sun., 8am-noon.