By SUSAN ERICSON
How many years does it take for a saloon in a marina to become legendary? At the dead end of First Street in Rumson, Barnacle Bill’s has been searing burgers on an open grill and filling glasses at the bar for more than 40 years.
With high-top tables, coveted window seats overlooking our beautiful Navesink River and cozy family-sized tables in the slightly more gentrified dining room, it’s no wonder that there’s a waiting list any given night. In warmer weather, groups happily wait outside, taking in views of the river, the boats in the marina and the mansions on the bluff across the way. In frigid January, though, the waiting masses crowd around the fireplace in the bar area, children and adults making small talk with neighbors.
The open grill keeps taste buds salivating with the continuous aroma of seared beef. Below, Sam Sherman, left, and his father, Todd Sherman. (Photos by Susan Ericson. Click to enlarge)
In its first incarnation, the restaurant was a boathouse. “Railroad tracks went from the river to underneath the building. This was the way the boats were brought in,” owner Todd Sherman tells PieHole. The little shack on the pier was the original Barnacle Bill’s tavern, he says.
Sherman’s mother, a bookkeeper for the original bar, got him his first job, as a dishwasher, here more than 40 years ago. Sherman and his wife, Patricia Quigley, an attorney, bought out their partner of 28 years, Sing Wong, about four years ago.
Now lined with dark wood and decorated with portholes, brass barometers and other nautical paraphernalia, Barnacle Bill’s is hangout for locals from the peninsula and surrounding area, including the occasional celebrity. The late Clarence Clemons used to come by and order “a big bucket of steamers,” says Sherman’s son, Sam. “My dad and him went way back”
Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi and Jon Stewart have been known to pull up a chair or barstool. One night years ago, “old jazz great Jerry Mulligan and his band came in late,” says Todd. “We fed them all.” Just two weeks ago, on New Years Eve, “we had Bernard ‘Pretty’ Purdy, the most recorded drummer in history, playing here with Rob Paparozzi singing and playing his harmonica. These guys play all over the world.”
Both Sam and his father are musicians in their own right, Todd playing acoustic guitar and piano, and Sam on the keyboards as a member of the Billy Walton Band.
“It has made the night time come alive,” Todd says of the music scene in the bar, “Customers come in for dinner and hang out at the bar to listen. It is the best change we’ve made in here, and it’s working well.”
But if it isn’t the music or the possibility of catching a glimpse of a star, it must be the food that brings so many to this restaurant.
“The menu doesn’t change much, but we add specials to the menu sometimes,” says Todd. One recent addition is a French Dip sandwich: roast beef served on toasty garlic bread, smothered in provolone and sauteed onions with an au jus dip that did not disappoint. It comes with probably the best steak-cut fries around: crispy outside and creamy inside, they can be addictive.
The Tilefish Francaise ($24.95) is the best seafood seller, says Sherman. The rainbow-colored deep-sea fish, delivered daily by Douty Brothers of Portland, Maine, is pure white meat sauteed in butter and lemon, not fried. The enormous piece of moist fish is served in a wine-touched lemon sauce, and comes with your choice of sides.
You can’t beat the fresh vegetables on the menu, either. PieHole likes the sauteed spinach with garlic as a side, feeling this must be a healthy addition to the meal.
Ten-ounce all beef, flame-licked burgers can be seen grilling at the end of the bar on any night, and this is what Barnacle Bill’s is most famous for. You can order yours smothered with onions and mushrooms ($8.95) or with a variety of cheese choices ($9.95). The burgers never disappoint, and after more than 20 years of visits, we still crave one every now and then.
Barnacle Bill’s doesn’t take reservations, so patience is a necessity. Here: peruse the menu while waiting.