Like airports, your average ferry terminal isn’t a spot most people look forward to spending a lot of time in. It’s a place to pass through on your way to a grander destination. It’s a necessary and convenient function of one’s journey, but not much more — and it certainly doesn’t serve as an attraction unto itself.
Unless you are talking about Ferry Park in North Cape May, that is.
Recently leased by the folks at Exit Zero, the Cape May-based company known for having its hands in everything from pubs and publishing to jazz festivals, Ferry Park is in the process of undergoing a two-year renovation, with many of its main features already open or set to open shortly. It includes no fewer than four dining locations, as well as shopping, an art gallery and both indoor and outdoor space for special events, concerts and more.
Exit Zero Owner Jack Wright and his partners Lawrence Green and Patrick Logue are the masterminds behind the project.
Wright is a native of Scotland and the man who started Exit Zero Magazine back in 2003. He followed that up by opening a series of restaurants, including the popular Exit Zero Filling Station, a sort of twist on an American roadhouse located on the site of a former gas station in West Cape May. The Filling Station opened in 2018 and has become known for its creative takes on things like curries, burgers, chicken sandwiches, Asian foods and more.
“It doesn’t make any sense, but the people really like it,” Wright says with a laugh. “You don’t always want stuff to make sense, you want it to be exciting.”
Fast forward to December 2020 — Wright and his team were offered the chance to come up with a proposal for the space at the Cape May ferry terminal. They did just that, bid on it and won.
“I did not expect to get it, because we were the least experienced restaurant group bidding, but we really believed in our concept and we ended up getting the contract,” Wright says.
Up to a million passengers pass through the ferry terminal on their way to or from the ferry itself, which connects travelers heading back and forth from Cape May to Lewes, Del., each year. But Wright isn’t making that group the sole focus of his customer base. He sees Ferry Park as a destination of its own.
“We don’t really know how many of those ferry boat customers are getting out of their cars or what their habits are, so we are just going to treat that side of it as gravy – it’s a lot of gravy, but it’s gravy,” he says. “Our whole plan is to attract the locals and the regular Cape May visitors. We do that really well at Cape May Filling Station, and we’ve got a really loyal following through that as well as our magazine and social media. We are able to promote ourselves, and we can get the people to come out. The Ferry Park site is incredible, and it’s been sort of criminally underused for years since they built the building. We looked at the space and realized that this is absolutely a destination. And we truly believe that.”
There are multiple plans in the works for Ferry Park, and a variety of events are already scheduled for this summer, including weekly movies and concerts on the green as well as yoga and tai chi.
But right now, perhaps the most exciting aspects of Ferry Park are the bars and restaurants, several of which are open for business currently.
The dining conceptsThere are four concepts in total: A casual waterfront bar/restaurant known as Boat Drinks, which specializes in breezy summer cocktails served in creative presentations along with apps, salads, paninis and desserts; Café 64, which is a combined coffee shop and retail location where you can grab a wrap, a latte or a breakfast sandwich as well as T-shirts and all varieties of Exit Zero swag; the soon-to-open Exit Zero Ferry Station, a twist on the Exit Zero Filling Station concept which will feature favorites from that spot like the Thai shrimp soup and the Hot Chick Sandwich, but will also expand upon that menu offering fun items like bang bang mussels, a Cajun flounder sandwich and a variety of Chinese dishes.
“I want the dishes to sort of make sense together, but also to come from totally different directions and to excite you. When you turn the page in a magazine you need to be excited by the next story, and when you look at our menu I want you to be excited by the next dish,” Wright says.
The crown jewelYou can have a great dining experience at any of the spots at Ferry Park, but if fine dining is what you seek, the unequivocal choice is The Lookout.
Located on the second floor of the ferry terminal, the octagon-shaped room is a truly breathtaking space to behold. Massive walls of floor-to-ceiling windows offer exquisite waterfront views (which are only topped by the sunset versions that take place each night).
A beautiful mahogany bar sits off to the right upon entering, while tones of deep blues and stark whites serve as a tasteful backdrop to the whimsical nautical details found in things like the pewter dining utensils, leather-bound menus and octopus-shaped lighting fixtures and chandeliers, all of which somehow manage to find themselves at the intersection of elegant and hip, without being hokey in the slightest.
An outdoor deck is accessible from the space, as well, where guests will find comfy seating around modern style firepits, offering a relaxing space to enjoy the views along with an expertly prepared cocktail or two from cocktail guru Green’s impressive list of libations.
The dining experience is seafood heavy, with some exquisite starters leading the way like the grilled oysters with parmesan, butter and breadcrumbs ($16); or the clams casino with peppers, onions and bacon ($16). But other options, such as the tomato and burrata ($15) — a tasty appetizer prepared with prosciutto, arugula, pistachio and lavender honey served with a blood orange vinaigrette, help to vary things up a bit.
Other raw bar favorites include oysters and clams on the half shell (market price), poached shrimp with lemon and cocktail sauce ($19), and both hot and cold seafood towers. ($75, $100)
Main course standouts include a pan-seared duck breast served with Brussels sprouts, parsnips and heirloom carrots with a carrot ginger puree and a cherry compote ($40); a macadamia-crusted ahi tuna with baby bok choy, furikake rice and seasonal fruit salsa in a citrus and sweet soy butter sauce ($41); and a particularly heavenly Scottish Salmon Wellington, served wrapped in a buttery puff pastry with creamed spinach, mushroom duxelles and asparagus in a seafood demi-glace which is a personal favorite of Wright’s.
There are three steak options including a dry-aged New York strip ($55), an 8-ounce filet mignon ($52), and the standout of the three — a generously marbled, dry-aged bone-in cowboy ribeye ($64) that was truly exceptional.
The steaks can be enhanced with add-ons such as a crab cake ($15) or a 10-ounce, cold-water lobster tail (MP) or a variety of complimentary sauces and jams including chimichurri, compound butter, béarnaise, Hollandaise, au poivre and a fabulous bacon shallot jam.
Standard sides like asparagus ($8), mashed potatoes ($6) and hand-cut fries ($7) are available, as well, with the risotto ($8) being among the best and most reasonably priced versions of the dish that we have tasted.
The futureThough taking on a project of this magnitude certainly seems intimidating, the Exit Zero team is brimming with confidence in their ability to deliver a fantastic product for years to come.
“For us, it’s really about the experience,” Wright says. “I look around Cape May County, and I don’t see anything like this with this level of waterfront views and these sunsets and the outdoor space and all the incredible food at the restaurants. I think our only problem in the future will be not having enough parking spaces — but that’s a good problem to have!”