Cape May, the Jersey Shore's sophisticated sister, has more to offer visitors than beautiful beaches and charming Victorian-era homes. Thanks to its good soil and moderate climate, the Cape May peninsula is turning into a wine-growing haven, with half a dozen vineyards scattered around its southern tip. Besides the vineyards, there's Washington Street Mall, a pedestrian-friendly enclave in the heart of the city filled with restaurants plus a sugar-high-inducing proportion of ice cream shops and candy stores. Prefer to relax? Order a gin and tonic and sit in a rocker on the porch of the historic Chalfonte Hotel. Seafood, of course, is the theme in this town, with oysters the star — crushed oyster shells still line many walkways and the Cape May salt oyster has pride of place on many menus.
The crowds waiting to be seated at this sunny cafe might give you pause. But put your name in and take a seat at one of the stone tables alongside the cafe, because Bella Vida Garden Café (406 N. Broadway, 609-884-6332, bellavidacafe.com) is worth the wait. Vegans will love the tempeh veggie scramble ($12.50), and gluten-free diners will appreciate the sweet potato flapjacks ($6.95 for a full stack), but there are also plenty of meaty options, such as the Barnyard Waffle ($11.25), topped with creamed chip beef plus two over-easy eggs, or a crab Florentine omelet with cheese ($13.95). Healthier choices include the "loaded" oatmeal ($8.75) with bananas, strawberries, blueberries, walnuts, raisins, brown sugar and cinnamon, or the "loaded" chia oat bowl with almond butter ($10.99). This is a place with a religious bent: eggs Benedict renamed Morning Ben-e-diction ($9.70), and Christian music playing. Nevertheless, the food is ecumenical, the service is friendly and the people watching along busy Broadway is good entertainment.
Plan a little extra time for lunch at Beach Plum Farm (140 Stevens St., 609-602-0128, beachplumfarmcapemay.com) to wander past fields, say hello to the pigs or sheep and maybe play a little corn hole. This 62-acre working farm has a market with produce on one side and a seasonal cafe on the other. Place your order and take a seat at a picnic table, or spend a few minutes and 25 cents to toss some seed to the well-fed chickens. Lunch options might include a barbecue pork sandwich with coleslaw ($11.95), cucumber gazpacho ($9.95), a caprese salad ($9.95) made with super-sweet tomatoes, a veggie wrap ($9.95) or a farm salad ($7.95) with lettuce, kale, cucumbers, roasted squash, turnips and garlic scapes. Make sure to save room for the fresh doughnuts ($1.75 each, with seasonal flavors such as lavender, $2). If you get there in time, there's a free, guided tour of the property every day at 11 a.m., and if you linger longer, there are also farm-to-table dinners, pig roasts or an eight-course tomato feast.
Take in the real flavor of Cape May inside the Washington Inn (801 Washington St., 609-884-5697, washingtoninn.com), a plantation-style house dating to 1846. Begin the evening with happy hour in the restaurant's popular wine bar, which offers wine flights and lighter meals. In the main restaurant, choices of oysters include the day's catch ($3.50 apiece) and Key West oysters with jicama and wasabi ($15). Some of the more memorable dishes are Black Mission figs with prosciutto, Gorgonzola mousse, arugula, crostini and port wine reduction ($15); heirloom tomato panzanella ($14); espresso-rubbed Hudson Valley duck, served with moist bread pudding ($34); and a hearty cioppino in a thick tomato broth with prawns, scallops, whitefish, clams and garlic aioli ($31). Because the portions are hearty, it's a struggle to save room for dessert, which can include decadent triple chocolate mousse cake ($13) or delicate lemon sorbet ($7). Since this is clearly a special-occasion place, it seemed as if every table (including ours) was celebrating a birthday or anniversary, which the kitchen remembered with some chocolate icing and a candle in our sorbet.