Spotlight On… Twisties!
If it’s good enough for Al Capone, it’s good enough for CMBC.
Twisties at 236 Bayview Drive in Strathmere has been overhanging the back bay since 1929. If you remember your US History, you may recall those Dark Ages called Prohibition — alcohol wasn’t even legal when they opened. Apparently, Harold Charleston didn’t really care and operated it as a speakeasy called “Dirty Gerties” until the 21st amendment passed in 1933. The sign out front says circa 1933 — gingerly sidestepping the issue.
“Started in 1933, but not officially licensed locally until 1940,” owner Denise Riordan says. “Because, again, Prohibition.”
It was a dark time.
According to lore, Capone stopped by at some point — as he controlled the illegal contraband that was coming in through the bay at that time — and Harold’s wife Gert lent Mrs. Capone a dress to go fishing. The story has a bit of corroboration — family members of the original Charlestons still live across the street.
Rumor had it that Capone donated much of the funds needed to construct the Jake Nevin Fieldhouse at Villanova, so it only makes sense that Twisties has Demisemi on tap. It doesn’t hurt that Denise is a fellow graduate. Or that Coach Wright once called it “one of [his] favorite places in the world.”
We asked when Denise was at ‘Nova, letting her know when Ryan and Hank graduated. “Before that,” she responds cagily, as she takes a seat at a bare wooden table.
The whole atmosphere of Twisties is — to put it mildly — authentic. Tablecloths would be wholly out-of-place here, with the restaurant’s bare wooden floor and and ancient cash register capable of ringing up as much as a whopping $7 sale.
“This isn’t recreated,” she says proudly. “This isn’t Disney World that went and had a remodel. This is the real deal,” she says, referring to everything around her. “That’s the original bar. Everything’s original.”
There’s originality even in the coconut heads and taxidermied fish that line the walls, originally collected by the Charlestons, who used to winter in Florida.
“They were made by the Seminoles for tourists,” Denise tells us. “They’d bring back a couple every year. But they’re unique.”
Some of the heads are, honestly, just a little creepy. Shades of Beetlejuice abound, and we need to keep reminding ourselves that they’re only coconuts.
“Yeah, you don’t want to look too hard at these guys,” Richie says. “Especially after having a few.”
Denise proudly shows us “the one who stares back. You can be anywhere in here, and he’s watching you.”
We didn’t find it creepy at all that our smartphone camera recognized him as an actual face.
The next owner, Jimmy Twist, didn’t have as much a penchant for the bizarre as the Charlestons, but he was a big enough character to end up with his name on the sign, even though he called the place The Strathmere Inn at the time.
Gary and Denise Riordan began operating Twisties in 2000, after taking over operations from Gary’s father Marty. Gary was engaged behind a table saw during our visit, feverishly preparing for the season.
“Our family’s actually been the longest owners of the establishment,” Denise tells us, with Marty having taken over in the early 70s. “He just loved the place. He realized that it was in a prime location and so unique.”
Twisties has nine taps, and we’re lucky to be the only local guys on the menu.
“I’m only picking up one local brewery,” she says, “we really only have space for one. We’d been looking at the local breweries and this one came to mind because, one, they’re ‘Nova graduates. ‘Nova people support other ‘Nova people — that is a given. The second was high quality. That’s important to us.”
They’ve brought on a few other local guys over the years, but they’ve all fallen by the wayside. Until CMBC.
For a self-described “small place,” Twisties has a decent beer selection. With twelve bottles and nine taps, there’s something for every taste.
But people know Denise’s strong connection to Villanova — even Coach Wright mentioned it in the article referenced above — so she’s not planning to get rid of Demisemi anytime soon.
These days, Twisties is known as much for its food as its atmosphere. Denise tells us that, during the Jimmy Twist years, the food had been a main draw. Mrs. Twist was Italian, so she built out the menu with as many Italian delicacies as possible. When Marty took over the establishment, the reputation was more for atmosphere — and its jukebox — than the food.
“We feel we’d done part of what we were trying to do when Zagat recognized us,” Denise says, proudly referring to the premier dining magazine naming Twisties one of the 10 Hottest Restaurants at the Jersey Shore in 2014. “That tells us, ‘It’s very casual. It’s very laid back. But the food is very serious.’”
Unfortunately, the kitchen wasn’t open while we were there, but Richie made the instant decision that he was returning for lunch later in the week. Since then, he has been raving — maybe more like “gloating” — about the food, emailing us a picture of his Shrimp Tacos with the caption, “Wish You Were Here”.
“It’s fresh, and we have amazing, talented people in the kitchen,” Denise says.
The menu boasts delicious sandwiches and delectable entrees, such as their Twisted Scallops — caramelized over sauteed haricot verts with tomatoes, bacon, creole mustard, and white wine — or their fresh Littleneck clams over Linguini. With specials that change every day — including an “outstanding” fish entree and sandwich — their menu is nothing to shake a stick (or coconut head) at. There’s a good amount of the typical bar fare — wings, chicken tenders, and nachos — but enough of “something different” that will keep your palate entertained.
“I will say that I’ll put our Sesame Tuna up against anyone’s,” Denise says.
And while you dine on Twisties’ singular fare, you’ve got to drop a quarter in the jukebox. (Well, several quarters.) It’s one of the most famous at the Shore, with Twisties’ patrons being as possessive of the music as they are passionate about the food.
“It originally had 45s, but when we needed to go over to CDs, we told the company that they had to find all of those records on CD,” Denise says. “This is music that had been on here for years, and people said, ‘Don’t mess with it; don’t change it.’”
Richie geeked out over the jukebox longer than we’re going to report. Martha and the Vandellas. Prince. Otis Redding. Bob Marley. Elton John. Eclectic is the word we’re looking for.
But it’s Twisties’ views that keep people coming back — and the three outdoor tables in high demand. Even inside, Twisties is a great place to watch some of the parades on the bay, including Nightmare in Strathmere in late August. And with gorgeous sunsets over the back bay, we can see ourselves setting up camp when they open and not giving up our seat until well after the sun goes down.
With full-time hours starting on June 18th, Twisties looks like a great spot for Father’s Day. They open at noon for lunch and start dinners at 5pm, closed only on Tuesdays.
“We get a lot of families, earlier in the day, early evening,” Denise says. “This is a comfortable, friendly, family place.”
The unique thing is that Twisties’ entire reputation is built on word-of-mouth. They don’t advertise. They don’t really need to. The locals in the area have known about them their entire lives, and the visitors to the area will find them. Eventually. That is, if they behave themselves and get accepted by the locals. Strathmere is a tight-knit community — Strathemerians are possessive of their relatively-unknown beach community. The out-of-towners that find them do so through dedication and perseverance — there’s no bridge connecting Strathmere to the mainland, so you’ve got to be willing to drive through either Ocean City or Sea Isle to find it. It’s much easier to get there by boat — and use one of Twisties five slips — if they’re not already taken.
But it’s worth driving through either of those shore towns to find Strathmere. Like Cape May, it’s off the beaten path, far from the maddening crowd.
And definitely worth it to get to Twisties.
“This is our life,” Denise tells us, simply.
And it’s clear to see that it’s a fulfilling one.
For more information, see Twistie’s website at twistiestavern.com.