When restaurant designer and former restaurateur Raymond Haldeman signed on to renovate and rebrand Fins Bar and Grille (formerly The Pilot House) in Cape May, New Jersey, he wanted to make the restaurant more than just another nice place to eat. He had goals for making the restaurant and nightlife spot one of the quaint town’s biggest tourist attractions; truly a spot worth mentioning in every new guidebook.
Cape May, a small city on the Jersey shore, is known for its rich history and multiple examples of classic Victorian architecture. By contrast, Fins’ radiant blue storefront and flashy, aquatic-themed interior is quite a departure. Though the restaurant’s standout style was initially met with some resistance, Haldeman says that by the completion of the project, city officials were telling him it was the biggest thing to happen to the town in 50 years.
The space contains plenty of interest-provoking pieces, from its two 12-foot aquariums to the glowing, LED-illuminated, glass-top bar at the heart of the restaurant. The ceiling treatment in the main dining area is even backlit to reveal images of fish, giving customers the impression of dining underwater. Only Haldeman’s grand ideas for a submarine room got nixed by Fins’ owners, who also own Cape May’s iconic Peter Shield’s Inn and Restaurant.
Despite the restaurant’s over-the-top, “wow-factor” quality, the 30-year restaurant veteran makes sure form doesn’t trump practicality in the newly re-designed space.
To address operational concerns, the restaurant is now broken up into three distinct spaces, making it easy to adjust for seasonal crowds and easy to save money on utilities in the offseason.
These areas are also designed with customer experience in mind, giving the operator flexibility to open or close sections according to the level of business to ensure that guests are met with a lively, vibrant space that is always bustling.
“For me, dining out is all about the company, but one of the things I do appreciate is if there’s some kind of external experience I can have also—if there’s something exciting and thrilling about walking into a place and seeing things differently, things I haven’t seen before,” Haldeman says.
To do this, he says, owners not only have to spend money in a creative way, but they need to spend money where it shows. For Fins, that meant custom designing all of the furniture and investing in the restaurant’s aquariums.
“The owners told me that everyone loved the fish tank in the old Pilot House, but they (the owners) didn’t want to be bothered by it, and I said that sometimes, a pain-in-the-ass thing can be the thing that draws in all the people,” he says. Thus did the establishment’s one small tank become the new concept's two sizeable focal pieces.
By pairing elements of clever and bold design like the large-scale acquariums with a crowd-pleasing menu, Fins has managed to carve out a space for itself as a unique dining experience in Cape May.
By Emily Byrd
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