Starn's at the Inlet
Starn's at the Inlet
By Jim Waltzer CAP: At its peak, Captain Starn's served 2,000 meals a day during the summer. --> After the youthful fisherman had hooked the huge tiger shark, wrestled it onto the deck, and later displayed its carcass in a tent at 10 cents a gape, his appetite for showmanship was whetted. He now realized that there were many ways to make money on the water -- not just by hauling fish or ferrying sportsmen. The sea, Clarence Starn understood as early as 1922, was spectacle.
Years later, when Capt. Starn's Restaurant and Boating Center was in its prime, the attraction was indeed more than just cuisine. Porpoises leaped and sea lions yelped in watery outdoor pens, while lobsters drifted in a tiled pool and mesmerized diners. A fleet of sailboats and motorboats provided sightseeing excursions round the island. A seaplane took the courageous on thrill rides, ending its run with a nerve-wracking dive into the ocean. Starn's may have offered a four-star stuffed flounder and broiled Alaskan crab, but it was the atmosphere that kept the place packed.
Jutting into the inlet at Maine and Caspian avenues, Capt. Starn's was an Atlantic City staple in the 1940s and '50s. The site had been a commercial hub since 1876, when the Camden and Atlantic Railroad built a pier and two-story pavilion here so boatmen could accommodate fishing and hunting parties. In the 1880s, the often contentious captains united to establish the Atlantic City Yachtsmen's Association, which leased docking rights from the railroad until 1935. By then, Hyman's Hotel and other nearby structures were showing their age, and the inlet had lost its luster. The Pennsylvania Railroad, the new landlord, sought a buyer.
A Pennsy exec fingered sea captain Clarence Starn as a candidate. Starn had moved his sailboat operation from the inlet to Steel Pier, but was always on the lookout for opportunity. He anted up, tore down Hyman's, and salvaged its lumber to build a new restaurant, whose dining room was situated on the remaining first floor of the original pavilion. On June 26, 1940, Capt. Starn's opened for business.
During the next two decades, Starn, who bore a resemblance to Dwight D. Eisenhower, expanded his business into a diverse enterprise that both cleaved to inlet tradition and chartered a fresh course. He recruited veteran sailboat operators, built his own vessels and a line of Miss Atlantic City speedboats, installed the "performing" sea life, and added a marine supply shop, a fresh fish market, a packing house to receive the haul from his fishing boats, and a dockmaster who broadcast the daily catch on radio. The restaurant itself grew like a guppy on steroids, tacking on a main dining room to the original, the outdoor Captain's Mess complete with raw bar, the elongated Over-the-Sea Bar, and the Yacht Bar wrought from an actual yacht. For either dining or spectating, Capt. Starn's had plenty of options.
Starn's nephew and namesake, Clarence "Skeetz" Apel, took charge of the excursion business. "We ran a million people up and down the beachfront each year," recalled John Kurtz, son of the original dockmaster. Some of those were celebrities playing Atlantic City and eager to pose for ever-ready photographers plying their trade on the docks. For everyday folk, a snapshot aboard a speedboat was a nice souvenir.
At its peak, the restaurant had a seating capacity of 750, served 2,000 meals a day during the summer season, and employed more than 200. Waitresses wore sailor collars and ties, white linen draped the wooden tables, and every served plate sported a sprig of parsley. Starn lived in a stately home on the water within casting distance, and here he moored the sloop Helena G., named after his wife and built for him by rival restaurateur Harry Hackney. Inlet Park, with its amusement rides and ball fields, was close by, as were the transit barns that stored railroad cars and then trolleys.
That world exists only in memory and city ledgers. Clarence Starn died in 1969, his business surviving for a decade of decline. Casino interest in the property failed to take hold. The hodgepodge Starn's complex with its cavorting sea lions and spooky lobster pool was a quaint reminder of another era. Skeetz Apel maintained an office on the site in the 1980s, but the only action was a few clam boats at the end of the dock. In 1992, Starn's was bulldozed.
Today, modern housing claims much of the scenic inlet, and this area that was at the core of Atlantic City's emergence has revived. Captain Starn, who certainly had an eye for real estate value, would have understood. But those of us partial to idiosyncracy might consider mortgaging a small part of the future to slip through a time warp and hitch a ride on a seaplane.
Jim Waltzer's Tales of South Jersey, co-authored by Tom Wilk, is published by Rutgers University Press.
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