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May 26, 2015
The restaurant is officially named “The Harvey Cedars Shellfish Company,” and it’s often called “The Clam Bar,” because that’s what it says on the sign. But we – the people who frequent the establishment – call it “Nell’s.”
Nell, the woman who controls the place, is synonymous with the quirky nature of seating protocols, the exemplary service and the food. And the food is excellent, whether you want their freshly-made clam chowder, the grilled mahi mahi, or just an order of definitive French fries.
The food is why the place exists; it’s both priceless and affordable, a combination rarely found anyplace, but completely null and void on Long Beach Island, New Jersey. In the land of the millionaire, your dining choices are pre-set: prepare to pay (unless you’re looking for a burger or a hot dog, and there are great places for that, too).
Nell’s is tucked away on Centre Street, Beach Haven, a short bike ride from our humble hippie shack, where you have to either know what you’re looking for, or you stumble upon it while doing something else. Which is how my wife, Marsia, and youngest son, Rett, happened upon the building, modestly sitting between residential homes and just a block from a boat yard on Little Egg Harbor Bay.
They went in, the way any normal customer would, and sat down on stools in a window seat. The main floor is small: a half-circle wooden bar extends from one side of the room toward the front door, and curves back to the other side of the room. The inner part of the half-circle is where clams are shucked, drinks are poured, chowder is made and kept hot, and all the dinnerware exists. There is seating for about 25-30, depending, with a couple of additional stools in the windows. Meals are served on that wooden bar, and it’s comfortably cramped, as if someone turned the living room of their two-story colonial into a seafood restaurant.
They sat there waiting for a few minutes before Marsia finally spoke up and said to a passing waitress, “Can we place an order?”
There were people in all the 20-odd seats around the semi-circle table, eating dinner, and, as people of hive minds do, their heads turned as one to see what would happen next. Nobody said a word. Total silence.
The woman kept working, busing some of the dinnerware between customers, and she didn’t turn to face Marsia when she loudly responded, “I’ll get to you when I can! Can’t you see I’m busy!”
Marsia was shocked. She said to Rett, “Let’s just go.” Rett, being our offspring, said the same thing I would have said, “No. We’re staying. You can’t let her treat you that way.”
It turns out my wife and son had ignored the rules, set by the woman they had just met, which are unwritten-but-etched-in-sand: SIGN YOUR NAME ON THE WHITEBOARD NEXT TO THE DOOR, AND WAIT OUTSIDE UNTIL YOU ARE CALLED UPON.
Thus began our now five-year relationship with Nell, the matriarch of what I believe is the best seafood in this beach-side community, where seafood restaurants are legion and legendary. She oversees everything, examining the food as it comes out of the kitchen, taking orders from customers who include regulars (like us) who call her by name, and over the phone for takeout. She shucks the clams. She pours the drinks. She hobnobs with her long-time clientele who bring friends and family from all over the country to see her in action. And it’s a scene out of a sitcom, only a hundred times better because it’s live, in person and almost as good as the food.
After that first meeting, Marsia called her “The Clam Nazi,” so-named for the famous “Soup Nazi” on Seinfeld. (Marsia used to eat at that real-life place, too, long before Jerry had made it famous, but that’s another blog.)
Ignoring the protocol can land you in real trouble with Nell. She doesn’t want people standing around the doorway, clogging the already-cramped space, so she lets them know. If you give her any backtalk, saying something like, “there are three empty seats right there!” She’ll respond in kind, “Well, there are people waiting outside who get those seats. Put your name on the board and I’ll call you when it’s your turn!” At this point the regulars around the table look at each other with knowing glances, understanding the order and procedure Nell has put in place, laughing to themselves because they probably had a similar experience sometime in the past.
She doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Ignoring the regimen she has put in place will get you reprimanded the way a 3rd-grader might be scolded for speaking out of turn in class. Which makes sense, because in the off-season, Nell works in the local school system. To her we’re all kind of like her students for the meal, and she treats us with the firm, disciplined-but-sincere way an elementary educator might treat her class.
Weekend evenings are jam-packed, as you might imagine, with people coming for the great food and ready to enjoy the floor show that might take place. Often there are as many people waiting outside on the plastic furniture, standing on the sidewalk, milling about as we hope our name gets called soon. As newbies walk up and look around, some of us will explain the situation: “You have to go in, put your name on the board, and come back out. She’ll call you when it’s your turn.” It’s either that or allow people to get chided and see how they react. When things are really hopping and they’re doing 30 meals-per-hour, that’s when it gets dicey. I hate to admit it, but sometimes we look forward to the fireworks.
We were there this past Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend. Nell was in a great mood. It was early, around 5:30 p.m., and the place was busy-but-not-swamped. Nell was in a gregarious mood, talking with the customers, breaking clams, and she personally served our dinners (quintessentially perfect, by the way). I mentioned that we had seen a “FOR SALE” sign out front this past spring. She denied it. “No way we were for sale.” Nell’s – er, the Harvey Seafood Shellfish Company/Clam Bar – was open for business and rocked the summer after Sandy, and they’re ready for another successful summer this year. Her co-workers are gracious and we always enjoy seeing them and talking when we go in for dinner.
Marsia is jealous. I have forged a relationship of sorts with Nell. She answers my questions and I’ve even seen pictures of her dog. Nell rarely acknowledges my wife. I keep telling Marsia, “She’s an icon. You have to know how to handle a star.”
We’ll be there a couple of times a month this summer. Hope to see you!
If not, come join me at The Comedy Cabaret, Doylestown, PA on June 5 and 6! It’s gonna be a blast!