Saturday, March 10, 2012

Crossing the Black Cat's path in Absecon

If you grew up near a highway in New Jersey any time before the early 1980s, you probably remember at least one piece of interesting roadside architecture. My formative years were spent in Union, so I got an eyeful of Route 22 wonders like the Flagship and the Leaning Tower of Pizza.

You can imagine my eagerness, then, to follow up on an e-mail that came into the Hidden New Jersey mailbox last month. A new reader told me about a roadside tavern in Absecon, a few miles south of one of our regular stops, Forsythe NWR. It's a can't miss because there's a big black cat on the roof.  

Black Cat bar
The Black Cat, in the day.
The Black Cat Bar & Grill has been a landmark on the White Horse Pike for generations, offering food, libations and a navigational aid to travelers on their way to and from Atlantic City. As the story goes, it's the oldest business in Absecon and was originally marked by a huge black cat sign with a blinking green eye. My source told me that as a result of Lady Bird Johnson's highway beautification efforts, the larger, operational feline was taken down in favor of a smaller one, though people still ask the owner to restore the blinker.

Using a beautiful-day visit to Forsythe as an excuse for a Route 9 jaunt, I went the extra couple of miles to the White Horse Pike to check out the Cat. The place itself is on an intersection, as all good roadhouses should be, and I had to switch directions to hit it as it should be seen -- from the east with Atlantic City at one's back. I could see why the blinking eye might have been considered a distraction: it's a good sized intersection, and from a certain angle, a driver might take the pulsating green as a signal instead of the installed traffic light.

The non-blinking cat atop the roof.
The building has clearly been updated, but the exterior still exudes a bit of a roadhouse look, including a big sign advertising package goods. "Welcome to Absecon," it said on the bottom, "home of nice people." Well, heck, how can I resist that?

The friendly people part was clear as I walked in and was welcomed by one of the bartenders. Rather than sitting at the bar, I grabbed a nearby booth and checked out the extensive menu. It included a few cat-named dishes as well as a healthy amount of seafood and burger options -- maybe about as extensive as a smaller diner, but without the breakfast choices. I went for a bacon cheeseburger with the California-style works and then took a subtle look around the place. A complete package goods store is set up not far from the bar area, and a more restaurant-y room is at the opposite end. Personally, when I travel alone I tend not to frequent bars, even for lunch, but this felt really neighborly. My biggest problem with the place was what they had on the TV: a Phillies spring training game. Being that I was indisputably in South Jersey, though, I couldn't complain, nor would I have. No sense in testing the boundaries of the Abseconites' friendliness, right? Instead, I quietly enjoyed their two-run deficit.

Any hint of 'rare' was cooked out of the burger, bacon included, but it was both tasty and held together well within the kaiser roll. I really liked the fries -- pleasantly crisp on the outside and just well done enough on the inside. When I bring Ivan the next time, I'm going to try out some of the seafood, maybe the oyster po boy or the crab balls.

Further research says that until about 15 years ago, the Black Cat was a classic shot-and-a-beer kind of place, without food. The public's changing drinking habits prompted ownership to add the dining options, opening up a whole new market. I'd feel comfortable bringing my mom there for a satisfying lunch, and, in fact, an older woman a few tables away from me was enjoying her meal and a conversation with one of the waitresses.

I think we found a new reliable for those Brigantine trips, but maybe with a slight twinge of guilt. Going to the Cat after seeing the birds might be a bit of a betrayal.


1 comment:

  1. OMG, my Uncle Tommy was a bartender here years ago! I used to call him 'Uncle Tomcat' when I was little... and never quite understood why that would make my grandma and mom mad, and make Uncle Tommy smile like... well, a cat that swallowed the canary. Not until I got a little older, anyway. And, I'll leave it at that, and the reader's mind can wander as it may. ;)

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