Scenes from a recent Tuesday night at Boondocks. That’s owner Kelly Ryan at upper left with Mike Harper and Megan Prenderville. At upper right is chef Chris Kelber; lower right, the blackened grouper platter. (Click to enlarge)
Think of it as waterfront access for the rest of us.
Anyone familiar with Red Bank’s northern edge knows that river access is at premium. Hotels, private residences and marinas hog most of the Navesink River shoreline. It’s inaccessible to all but the most adventurous from Riverside Gardens Park. And while one might drop a baited line or crab pot from the pier at Marine Park, there’s no getting one’s feet wet never mind that the pier and promenade are completely off-limits now for a planned reconstruction.
Hell, there’s even a battle raging over how much access the public should have to about 50 feet of frontage at the foot of Maple Avenue.
So it’s no small thrill to find that, after a two-year interval, waterfront dining is back on the Navesink here. And for many patrons of the new Boondocks restaurant, it’s a double thrill to discover that the simple seafood menu is done with panache.
After opening in late May and enduring a rain-sodden June, Kelly Ryan’s place, nestled with the bounds of the Irwin Marina, next to Marine Park, has been attracting a growing and devoted clientele. It’s particularly popular on Tuesday nights, when Ryan offers two one-pound lobsters for the price of one, recently at $22.95.
Ryan, who once had a bar in Manhattan and later started and sold a juice bar near the Red Bank train station, has been running the kitchen at Donovan’s Reef in Sea Bright for 10 years, a gig she still has.
About a year ago, marina owner Chann Irwin reached out to her, hoping to get her thoughts on what he might do with the empty building near the entrance to his boatyard and docks.
For a dozen years, the place had been the home of the Navesink Café, and later had a brief run as a sushi bar. But it had lain dormant since 2007.
The challenge to keeping an eatery as a tenant, in addition to the usual ones associated with the restaurant biz, was weather, says Irwin. “Most restaurateurs aren’t used to seasonality,” he says.
But Ryan was intrigued by the million-dollar location.
“I came and looked at it and fell in love,” she says even if she did wind up naming her place Boondocks after telling so many people that it was “in the middle of nowhere.”
She signed a lease, bought all the equipment necessary to run a kitchen, and with the help of a friend designed simple bench tables.
From the get-go, she says, the idea was to keep things laid-back and simple. So customers line up, cafeteria-style, to place their orders at a window, though the food is served to their tables by waitresses.
The menu, too, is no-nonsense, consisting of about a dozen appetizers (including Cajun grilled tuna bites, garlic shrimp and blackened grouper fingers) and entrees (flounder, haddock, scallops and grouper). The menu also features one hamburger and one chicken dish for non-seafood eaters.
So how do Ryan and her chef, Chris Kelber, make seafood stand out at the Jersey Shore?
“It’s fresh and it’s simple,” says Ryan. “We don’t camouflage it. It’s basic good, fresh food.” Kelber gets his fish every day from the Lusty Lobster in Highlands.
It seems to be working. On nice summer nights, the place has been drawing crowds to the boondocks of Red Bank. With it’s dark red umbrellas on a lower dock and a view of expensive boats and more expensive homes across the river, Boondocks has become a place to see and be seen.
A recent visit by redbankgreen found a former Red Bank mayor, Ben Nicosia, with his wife and daughter, Lauren, who chairs the zoning board; man-about-town George Sheehan Jr.; and bandleader Joe Muccioli.
“My wife, Chris, says the restaurant has made the marina cool,” says Irwin. “Kelly does everything first class.”
Ryan, with two jobs, is feeding off the vibe, which she says helps make up for the days when she’s rained out.
“So many people know each other here, and that’s what I love,” Ryan says.
Boondocks serves lunch and dinner seven days a week and breakfast on weekends, mostly for marina clients. Ryan hopes to stay open through September and reopen next May. Takeout orders may be placed at 732.747.7177.