Lou Altobelli is known for doing things the right way or not at all. Whether as the former owner of four lucrative auto body shops in three counties or the way he approaches real estate, Altobelli is the ultimate businessman.
His “go big or go home” modus operandi is clearly on display as soon as you drive up to his first venture into the restaurant business: South 9 Bar & Grille, a sprawling, gorgeous, modern and stylish bar, eatery, catering facility and packaged goods store on Route 9 in Cape May Court House.
“The vision is to have a place where someone can come in their shorts or a suit and feel comfortable,” Altobelli says. “You can come in and have a great, simple meal or go more upscale with steaks and seafood. It’s a place for everyone.”
That is an understatement.
South 9 Bar & Grille is simply stunning. Featuring warm woods, towering, vaulted ceilings, a giant 50-seat bar serving as the restaurant’s hub surrounded by flat-screen TVs with a coal-fired pizza oven in the corner, a dining room separated into two areas that features a striking gas fireplace, a centerpiece brick wine wall and seating for 200 people, as well as an adjacent 200-seat space that can be used for additional dining but particularly private parties and conventions, complete with its own bar and state-of-the-art offerings that will soon include a giant projection screen.
Familiar locationIf the location looks familiar, it should. South 9 Bar & Grille is located in the former Atkinson’s Tavern space that has been completely overhauled. Altobelli bought the legendary watering hole about five years ago and even operated it as Atkinson’s while waiting for Middle Township to approve his South 9 project.
“It was a very old place, very dated and was the first liquor license awarded in Middle Township after Prohibition,” says Altobelli, who sold his body shops to a venture capital company. “I already bought the restaurant but didn’t get around to demo-ing it and working on it, but once I sold those businesses I concentrated on putting the new building up. Then COVID hit, so it wasn’t worth opening. I originally bought it as a Real Estate venture I knew I couldn’t go wrong with it. And then as you go through life and friends and family get in your ear and tell you how it would be nice to have a place to go, and then officials in the township told me it would be a real asset in the community to have a nice, newer place to add to the businesses already here … I decided to go for it.”
Awesome foodOn a recent visit, we flipped for the pizza and appetizers and really loved the affordability of the menu overall. The pizza was surprisingly good for a bar/restaurant. Generally we are disappointed with bar pies, but South 9 really nails it with a light, airy dough cooked for 5 to 7 minutes in their gas-fired brick oven. We had a scrumptious white pie with mozzarella, ricotta, parmesan and garlic that was a steal for $12. South 9 offers a slew of toppings for their red- and white-style pies, and when we go back we want to try their specialty pies including the Cape May Seafood Pie ($18) with grilled shrimp, clams, garlic, tomato, basil and lemon zest; the buffalo chicken ($15) with crispy chicken and blue cheese dressing; and the Philly cheesesteak ($14) with Whiz and fried onions.
Appetizers are elevated comfort food with everything from Cape May steamers ($14) and PEI mussels ($13) to a giant pretzel ($12), pork belly and gravy fries ($12) and wings ($8 to $16) in a variety of sauces. But we really loved the tomato tower ($13) featuring fried green tomatoes and mozzarella stacked and drizzled with balsamic dressing; and the nachos ($12), multi-color chips topped with pico, mixed cheese, jalapenos, black olives and Whiz. We added nicely seasoned ground beef — something you don’t find in most gastropubs — for $4.
A variety of soups and salads are offered, including New England clam chowder ($5 cup, $7 bowl), and a spinach salad ($10) with hard-boiled egg, red onion, bacon and croutons, and their burgers are super popular. Featuring 8-ounce, all-beef patties, South 9 recommends the Wild Mushroom Burger ($11) with crumbled blue cheese and the Main St. Burger ($12) with cheddar, fried tomato and “comeback sauce.”
The large sandwich list is certainly tempting with items including pulled pork sliders ($10), a crab cake sandwich ($15) and a fried shrimp hoagie ($14). We weren’t thrilled with our Memphis Hot Chicken sandwich ($11) that seemed like a frozen chicken patty slathered in the sweet Thai chili sauce as opposed to the hot chicken we are used to in Memphis, Nashville or pretty much anywhere else. It was sweet — a no-no for a hot chicken sandwich — not hot at all and in need of some redevelopment.
South 9’s also features a strong list of entrees, including fish and chips ($12) with beer-battered cod, seared scallops ($26), grilled salmon ($24), an IPA-braised pork chop ($22), a 16-ounce ribeye ($38) and chicken parm ($18). We had the pork Milanese ($19) with thin pork cutlets that could have been crispy as advertised with a flavorful pork gravy and mashed potatoes.
Check out the cocktail menu, craft beers on tap and in bottles/cans, and there’s even a kids menu ($8) with items including burgers, chicken tenders, hot dogs, linguini and meatballs and pizza.
Service was stellar despite South 9 being new and super slammed on the night we went, a testament to the fine management of Operations Manager John Beitel.
More than a restaurantThe banquet hall is a major addition to Cape May Court House. With seating for about 200 people, South 9 has already booked multiple events even though it has only been open about a month.
“I think it’s a big addition to the community,” Altobelli says. “It’s located on the ground level, so it’s very convenient for anyone to attend. And we will be adding some things in there like the movie projector to make it a great place to have any type of meeting or event.”
Altobelli says South 9 will focus on four keys to success — good location, a good facility, a good product and good service — and would even consider more restaurant ventures down the road.
“Everything I have always done in business, I had multiples of them,” Altobelli says. “So I wouldn’t rule out another restaurant or bar if the right building and liquor license came available at an acceptable price. I would definitely consider it, but let’s see how this one goes first.”