It’s Fourth of July, and Bill Bright, a 60-year-old commercial fisherman who owns the best seafood restaurant between Atlantic City and Cape May, hopes nobody wants to buy crabs today.
Bright looks like Joe Biden’s outdoorsy younger brother and runs Hooked-Up Seafood in Wildwood, the southernmost barrier island of the Jersey Shore, with his wife, Michelle, and four kids. He unfolds a long arm and points toward the red, crustacean-shaped signs he planted on the road leading up to his gravel-and-crushed seashell lot in 2009. He explains, “You put a crab sign out, and it just draws people in,” an effective marketing tactic that got people to pull over when Hooked-Up was just starting out. But Bright, who opened the restaurant to spend more time on land with his family, would much rather you try the fish.
Bright’s boars, Retriever and Defiance, run up and down the coast from Virginia to Long Island, fishing off the continental shelf. Whatever they catch winds up on the menu at Hooked-Up: yellowfin and big-eye tunas, mahi, swordfish, once in a while some prized John Dory. Fueled by word of mouth and devoted repeat business, Hooked-Up has blossomed over the last nine seasons into the place in-the-know locals go for seafood. Crabs now account for only 20% of business; most diners go for hunky seared or blackened steaks of fish that Michelle, the chef, serves on sturdy paper plates with foil-wrapped ears of sweet Jersey corn.
Despite being home to an $85 million commercial fishing industry (the second largest on the East Coast by dollar value), Wildwood and Cape May’s restaurants aren’t overflowing with seafood from local waters. Bright sells most of his catch either to processors or through a broker to restaurants on the Acela corridor, but he has a dealer’s permit that allows him to sell direct to local restaurants, too. “To be honest, I can’t even sell my tuna around town. Most of the places would rather buy a cheaper imported product.”
The restaurants nearby have huge waterfront decks, liquor licenses, cover bands, and fleets of summer help. Hooked-Up has a retail counter, a kitchen trailer, and a row of picnic tables painted patriotic blue. A rickety wooden fence separates the tables from the docks, which extend into a marshy lane of Richardson Channel. Today, Retriever is unloading 200,000 pounds of squid and herring for the commodity market at Lund’s Fisheries in Cape May, while Defiance is docked at Hooked Up, its cache of orange buoys gathered in a net like a mother lode of salmon roe.
Diversity is another Hooked-Up touchstone that’s unusual for the area. Wildwood—we’re talking the City of Wildwood, in the heart of the island, flanked on either side by autonomous municipalities of North Wildwood and Wildwood Crest—has the third largest nonwhite population of the dozen towns comprising the southern end of the Jersey Shore, 34.4%. (The area is also a significant site of black history.) Despite this, the restaurants are majority-white spaces.
Meanwhile, at Hooked-Up one ferociously hot night before Independence Day, the diners around me included two black families, three white families, a Muslim family, a Mexican family and a Vietnamese family. When you consider Hooked-Up has less than a dozen tables, that diversity is staggering—and it’s not a one-off representation of the clientele. In the seven years I’ve been eating here, the diners have always represented different colors and cultures. When I mention this to Bright, he nods.
“I think seafood is a common bond of all people, so we try to be fairly priced for what we’re doing because we like to be inclusive instead of exclusive.” Recently Bright wanted to raise prices a dollar. Michelle resisted. “My wife said it’s not fair to the people that can’t afford it. She doesn’t just want [customers] that can go anywhere and buy anything.” To the Brights, quality seafood shouldn’t be a luxury for the few.
Hooked-Up’s fish dinners run about $25, which still make them splurges for some, but the portions are generous and the quality superb. Crabs, if you insist on ordering them, fluctuate with the market. Twice during our interview, conducted in the morning before Hooked-Up opens for lunch, we’re interrupted by customers looking to buy crabs. Bright sighs, “I’ve got to take those signs down.”