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I think you’ll definitely find something you won’t find anywhere else.

Spotlight On… Mayer’s Tavern!

Nestled far from the busy summer crowd in Cape May, away from the hustle and the bustle of Washington Street, sequestered from the throngs of humanity on Beach Avenue lay a favorite of the locals, denoted only by an easily-missed sign on Lafayette Street.

Mayer’s Tavern. Long a fixture as a “dive bar” in the area, it had been closed for several years before the lauded Laudeman family snatched it up. Longtime owners of The Lobster House, the newest Laudeman restaurant sits across the street and back one block at 894 3rd Ave.

We got together with owner and head chef Alex Laudeman to get the lowdown on this diamond in the rough.

IMG_2847“We’ve tracked records of the building back to the forties,” she tells us. “As far as we can tell, it’s been Mayer’s from the beginning.”

The Mayer family is still in the area — the children of the original owners still live up the road. They’d originally run the business as a tavern with boarders upstairs, making simple meals in the original, much smaller kitchen.

It changed hands in the 70s until it the Laudemans purchased it about five years ago. At that time, it was in serious need of refurbishment. It sat unoccupied for several years, then the Laudemans began slowly renovating the establishment about two years ago.

“It needed a lot of structural work,” Alex tells us. “The layout is the same and the bar is exactly the same — this is the same bartop and rail — but all of the siding, ceiling, everything except the studs had to come out.”

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They ripped out some walls in the kitchen to expand the back-of-house area, rearranged the bathrooms, and brightened up the place significantly.

“The windows are all in the same places,” Alex tells us. The original bay window overlooking the deck has been replaced, and they discovered more windows as they completed the renovation.

“These three, large windows were boarded up into a small window,” she explains. “When we pulled the plywood down, we were like, ‘Oh, my God! There’s these really cool windows here.’”

We’re not sure why anyone would have wanted to board up those windows — they let in a tremendous amount of natural light, illuminating the entire bar area. In addition, they found a number of old matchbooks and souvenirs from “way back” — there was a treasure trove of memorabilia dating back to the fifties.

Now, the restaurant still has that “dive bar” feel even though everything is obviously new and clean and fresh. They’ve captured the rustic feel of a dive bar — everything but the feeling of impending doom that many dive bars seem to cultivate. Even the bolted-to-the-floor barstools send the message of “dive bar” without the aura of, “Hm. I might die before I leave here.”

“We’re aiming to hit a spot that I personally found wasn’t in Cape May,” Alex says. “It’s nice enough that you can get really good food and nice service and feel like you’re in a nice place, but with a very casual atmosphere.”

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There’s certainly a dichotomy of restaurants in Cape May. For the most part, everything is either gloriously fine dining or beach bar. They’re all great in their own way, but there’s definitely a need for something that bridges the divide — particularly for the locals.

“Right now, our crowd is almost all locals,” she tells us. “I don’t think the tourists have discovered us yet. It’s funny, because Saturdays are our slowest day. We’re busy during the week, full of people from around here. Hopefully, that will change a little bit, but, right now, it’s mostly a local or semi-local crowd.”

Alex says the crowd is relatively laid back, though it can get a little rowdy at times.

“It’s really nice the way it’s set up,” she says. “You can sit in the dining room and the bar can be packed and rowdy, and you might not notice.”

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The bar has eight taps, two of which are currently devoted to Always Ready and Cape May IPA. The remainder of the taps boast other local brews, augmented by a number of packaged beers.

“IPA and Always Ready have been selling well,” Alex says. “I feel like, lately, Always Ready is edging out IPA. The lower ABV over the summer seems to be what people want.”

Alex has also created a mussels dish using Devil’s Reach. Friends, they have Beer Mussels.

“It’s really popular,” she explains. “It’s shallots, beer, dijon mustard. It’s very beery.”

We gave them a try, and they’re absolutely perfect. Served with a slice of garlic bread — and you’ll want more to sop up the sauce –, you can really taste the Devil’s Reach coming through. It’s like a white wine sauce, but without white wine.

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“I have mussels marinara, too,” she says, “and, at first, people were only ordering the mussels marinara, and then people started getting the beer mussels. Now, people have it, and they’re like, ‘Oh, my God! This is so good!’ We’re selling them more and more.”

The remainder of the menu certainly deviates from “dive bar”, as well. A small menu, it’s not a mantra of greasy burgers and fried heart-attacks-on-a-plate. There’s only one obligatory burger on the menu, no mention of mozzarella sticks, and an attention to fresh ingredients and quality dishes.

And, of course, the scallops. Mayer’s has long been synonymous with scallops, and Alex’s interpretation doesn’t disappoint.

“The scallops are the thing that’s everyone’s favorite,” she says. “It’s like, the thing. Mayer’s was always super famous for scallops, and when we were redoing the menu, we were like, ‘Well, we have to have scallops.’ People have absolutely lost it over them.”

The scallops at Mayer’s had always been prepared very, very simply, and Alex took the cue from the former owners, keeping them very simple. They’re deep fried with only a light breading, slightly underdone to keep them from becoming chewy.

“We make our fries here,” she says, “so we think that’s a bit of a step up.”

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All we’d heard about in the weeks prior to the interview was the quality of Mayer’s scallops. Everyone was raving about them, and when we finally had a chance to sample them, they didn’t disappoint. They’re served with a bit of tartar sauce, but, even for a lover of tartar sauce, they’re better without them, and even better with a pint of IPA. Even the fries were light — and, if you’re out of garlic bread for the mussels sauce, they’ll do in a pinch.

We also sampled their black kale salad, broiled oysters with pimento cheese, and smoked bluefish dip. Served with Triscuits, the dip was the perfect amount if you’re looking for a small nosh at the bar. Squeeze the lemon and mix it in — it’ll add just a little zing, bringing out the flavor of the bluefish, and perfect with a pint of Always Ready.

Closed on Tuesdays, they manage to keep relatively early hours, at least as far as restaurants go. They open at 5pm on weekdays and close around 10pm, opening at 4pm on weekends.

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“It’s been an earlier crowd,” Alex tells us. “People stop out for cocktails, happy hour, they’ll have some food, and then they go out somewhere else.”

They have live music from time to time. The Clavicles, a local duo, plays there on Sunday nights, and Blue Bone — “a famous, old Mayer’s band” — has been there playing “bluesy rock.”

“They were famous for playing here at the old Mayer’s,” Alex says. “Very rowdy. We’ve had them twice, and they’ve been a big hit.”

Regardless, Alex and the rest of the Laudemans have created something that Cape May has certainly needed: a spot for the locals to call home that is neither too fancy nor too casual — and has easy parking.

“It’s a little bit of a weird spot for people to find,” Alex says. “We’re off the beaten path, definitely, from the Cape May-tourist track. But I think you’ll definitely find something you won’t find anywhere else.”

For more information, see mayerstavern.com or call (609) 435-5078.