CAPE MAY, N.J. — According to local myth, Harry Kulkowitz fell for the Carroll Villa Hotel here during a card game with the inn’s owner. He started a restaurant, the Mad Batter, on the first floor in 1976, and bought the inn a year later.
“Harry wanted to do pancakes and crepes,” says Pamela Huber, who has worked at the 170-seat restaurant since 1977 and now co-owns it and the hotel. “The first chef he hired took the food in an amazing direction, so he let others define the food more.”
Since the beginning, the Mad Batter Restaurant and Bar has been out of step with its trappings — a 19th-century, Victorian-style building. Kulkowitz put up a yellow-and-white-striped awning over the Mad Batter’s porch, cut skylights into the roof, and installed a garden terrace near the back tables. Today, Huber is married to Harry’s son, Mark Kulkowitz, with whom she co-owns the place (they met in the restaurant). They have decked out the dining rooms in florid colors, stained glass, and local art, and they give chefs the same latitude for experimentation that Harry did, resulting in dishes like orange-and-almond French toast and Moscato-peach breakfast sangria.
Breakfast is the restaurant’s main event. This wasn’t always the case. Back when Harry was running the show, the Mad Batter was known for dinner and offbeat offerings. Harry, eccentric and assiduous, held week-long specials in which the restaurant served food from Germany, Mexico, and other countries. According to a 1983 review in The New York Times, the Mad Batter was serving lychee duck and snow peas. Harry had just returned from Thailand and he brought back a Thai chef.
Though he has retired, you see Harry as you approach the restaurant; his cartoon likeness is featured on the Mad Batter sign. He has fork and knife in hand, a bottle of chilled wine in his top hat.
The inn’s exterior exhibits the Victorian style common in Cape May: a stout cupola, long windows, a white and sea-blue symmetrical front. It couldn’t be any more different from the restaurant. “Victorian architecture is beautiful,” says Huber. “But I don’t like Victorian decor. I like color. Our oldest daughter, Marta, has been doing some work changing the rooms.”
Huber herself crafted the mosaic in the bar. She colored windowpanes in the main dining room and garden terrace; she hung vibrant art on walls that are brightly painted and wallpapered by Marta. The owners play down the Lewis Carroll angle, but a diner at the Mad Batter cannot help but make the connection. Perhaps mostly because of the food.
Breakfast starts with boozy drinks, if you want. Spice-spiked Bloody Marys come in Mason jars. Mimosas with freshly squeezed orange juice get flavor and velocity from pineapple schnapps, Chambord, and the like. Each is unique, and none more so than the Man Mosa. Created by the bar staff, it is a 23-ounce whopper of orange juice, orange vodka, champagne, and Blue Moon beer.
Dishes made from batters are, of course, the stars. Harry’s original oatmeal pancakes are made with oats soaked in buttermilk. They’re simple, hearty, and a trusty companion to any breakfast drink. Thick brioche French toast gets a dip in a batter of cream, eggs, and orange juice before it hits the pan, then it is topped with slivered almonds. Belgian waffles are shot through with pecan pieces. Non-batter dishes also excel. Eggs Benedict are fragrant with chunks of crab and capers, and an egg-potatoes-and-meat plate comes with, if you dare, scrapple.
Marta and her sister, Tessa, work the restaurant’s bar. “To say that this is a third-generation business is awesome,” says Mark Kulkowitz.
The restaurant is popular because it landed on a great formula. “It’s not brain surgery,” says Kulkowitz. “We’re just trying to help you have a good time.”
Mad Batter Restaurant and Bar,19 Jackson St., Cape May, N.J. 609-884-5970, www.madbatter.com.