Tad Stern is a man who has packed a diversity of experiences into his 73 years thus far, with no sign of stopping soon.
He is also a man clearly proud of his Jewish faith and its traditions, but the rigors of the business world and everyday life did not always jibe with maintaining a kosher diet until somewhat recently.
“I’ve been in business since I was 21 but didn’t always keep kosher until maybe 10 or 12 years ago,” Stern says. “When my wife and I became observant, we looked for a business that was consistent with our lifestyle.”
Elizabeth Stern, Tad’s wife, has always been an exceptional cook, says Tad, which is a trait that can be traced in large part to her Italian heritage. That and the fact that Tad is a self-professed “pizza maven” made opening Bubbies Bistro in Ventnor — which blends Italian and Mediterranean culinary qualities with a menu that follows strict kosher protocol — a wise choice eight years ago.
“I remember, as a little kid, my mother taking me to this kosher restaurant in Atlantic City,” says Tad Stern, who was born and raised in the resort town. “I could tell you the décor, who was there, what was playing on the radio at the time — it was an excellent experience, and it was the best pizza I ever had in my life. And this goes back to when I was a little kid.
“Ever since then I’ve eaten pizza all over the world and never found anything to duplicate, in my mind’s eye, what I had that day as a child,” he adds. “I said to my wife ‘When we open this place, we have to find a way to duplicate that.’ And in my opinion, she did.”
Pizza takes center stage on Bubbies’ menu, with 10 varieties of personal-sized, 12-inch pies to choose from. Other options are also abundant, including an extensive selection of salads, sandwiches, fish and pasta dishes, all of which fall under the explicit guidelines of Jewish orthodox food preparation.
“We make our own dough, we make our own falafels (a chickpea-based Middle Eastern staple), we cook the eggplant, the fish, we make our own red sauce and garlic sauce — I’d say over 90% of what we serve has been purchased locally and prepared in-house,” Stern says.
“This is a niche business,” he adds. “We’re strictly kosher, but that doesn’t mean that what we offer can’t appeal to those who are not strictly kosher, or even Jewish. We use only the freshest ingredients and make most of what we sell from scratch, which is something that’s going to appeal to anyone, regardless of whether you stick to a kosher diet or not. Once people taste it, they like it, and they come back again.”
Bubbies first opened in Ventnor in 2011, about a block west of its current location. Relocation to its Atlantic Avenue site was as much a move of necessity as desire. A fire in another part of the former conjoined building did not affect the restaurant itself, but compromised the entire structure’s integrity. Rather than wait indefinitely to bring the building back up to code, Stern simply relocated one block closer to the beach.
“This is a nice open, airy space, and because of our proximity to the boardwalk and Restaurant Row, we have more of a mixed clientele here than we did down the street,” says Stern, who also took advantage of better vistas by making some outdoor seating available. “It actually turned out to be a better location.
“Look what we’ve got,” he says, pointing to the view down Weymouth Avenue, which runs perpendicular to the Ventnor boardwalk. “This is like a whole new world. There are people coming here that never even knew there was a restaurant down on the other corner.”
Bubbies is officially Tad and Elizabeth Stern’s first venture into the restaurant business, but not in providing food to hungry masses. The two both possess U.S. Merchant Marine captain licenses, and from 2001 to 2009 operated Black Whale Cruises that rallied passengers between its home port of Beach Haven on Long Beach Island and the Farley State Marina in A.C. One of their party boats was the 78-foot Crystal Queen — a 19th century riverboat replica complete with faux paddlewheel.
“When we had the boat business, we used to have a little seafood shack that was part of it in Beach Haven,” Stern says. “My wife came up with this recipe for crab cakes that we called Captain Stern’s Famous Original Crabcakes — a sort of tribute to Captain Starn’s in Atlantic City (a well-known restaurant that operated from 1940 through the 1980s in A.C.’s inlet district).”
Since shellfish is off limits in the kosher community, Elizabeth Stern had to come up with an alternative to serve patrons crab cakes at Bubbies.
“We use surimi (a ground and pressed fish cake sometimes used to mimic the texture and taste of shellfish) for what we call our mock crab cakes, but the way we spice them up and cook them it’s hard to tell the difference,” he says. “Everything else we serve is essentially the same as conventional restaurant menus, except that all food is handled in a kosher manner.
“We’re offering a taste of what Old Atlantic City was like,” he adds.