‘Key West Attitude’: New Waterfront Bar Surf City is More Relaxed and Family-Friendly than the Sand Bar

Surf City, the new waterfront megabar and Zeppelin Hall’s sister bar, was still a construction site just over a month ago. It had been in planning for three years, ever since the building’s previous establishment, Sand Bar USA closed down, and received its building permits only the Friday before it opened in late June. General Manager John Argento, co-owner along with the Mocco family, waited a long time on purpose. “We wanted the Sand Bar’s reputation to die down,” Argento says, noting that the biggest obstacle he faced in opening the bar wasn’t permits, but the public’s impression of the old bar, which he and the Moccos also owned.

Surf City boasts “Key West Attitude with East Coast Latitude” and strives to be an antithesis to the Jersey Shore in Jersey City-themed Sand Bar USA, which had regular noise complaints, a traffic problem and a “fist-pumping crowd.” The term “Guido” makes several appearances on the old bar’s Yelp page, and its profile picture has four open-shirted orange “muscleheads” with flawless walls of hair spikes pre-partying with Corona as they’re about to enter the club. In addition to two dance floors and four lounges, the bar also had a large hot tub, according to its page on clubzone.com.

Now the attitude is more relaxed and family-friendly. When I went on a recent Monday, there were parents watching over kids playing in the sand. Dogs were sleeping on the boardwalk as their owners lounged in beach chairs next to the water. The beach furniture, mostly picnic tables and benches, had a bluish faded beach look, which matched the twilight reflecting off the water. The developer Paul Silverman had driven his boat up to the bar’s slip to grab a quick drink as he gave a tour of the waterfront to visiting friends and family. They sat at a picnic table in the sandy beach area. “Isn’t this great?” he said. “They have the best burgers.”

In the renovations, the basic structures were kept but revamped to include tiki gods and surfboards as décor, and the space was expanded. The complex now takes up three acres and has a capacity of 3,000 people. Its panoramic views of the skyline and New York Bay, along with Liberty State Park and Marina, have already earned it bookings for fashion and film shoots. Surf City has four bars with 25 draft lines each of American craft beer, focusing on lighter summer styles. It also has a frozen-drink stand and a raw bar. The menu is mostly typical beach food, heavy on burgers, hot dogs, fried fish and clams. Items range from $2.95 for a hot dog to $14.95 for a lobster roll, which is one of the most popular items.

There is an enclosed live music venue but it’s not open yet — though when it does open, it will offer mostly cabaret, karaoke and open mic nights with no cover charge. Argento says that in the fall and winter, it will feature live party bands and interactive games like foosball, electronic shuffleboard and a Bocce court. Next year there will be another expansion, and the space will have a separate open area for private parties that will fit about 200 people.

In addition to the docking strip for boaters, there are 74 acres of free parking.

“The Sand Bar’s reputation is gone,” Argento says. “We’ve been open a month and not one complaint from the neighbors or one incident inside the restaurant.” He plays a heavy rotation of Jimmy Buffet to keep the atmosphere intact. “If you don’t play nightclub music, you will not get a nightclub crowd and all of the attendant bad behavior problems… I’ve said it about the beer garden and I’ll say it about Surf City, this place is for the 95 percent of the public that do not go to nightclubs, use steroids or wear Ed Hardy attire.”

So far the bar has been seeing about 2,000 people on the weekends, according to Argento, who says crowds are not a problem. “Nightclubs are focused around an act or DJ and 3,000 people arrive at once,” he says. “Here at Surf City, people come and go all day long, so you can do the same numbers through the door and not have problems with traffic, parking and crowd control.”

But the Flordian tropical theme isn’t working for everyone and some people are still skeptical. “Surf City is a dirty, dirty place. It’s just like the Sand Bar but with different music,” said one patron who declined to give his name. He predicted that in time it would revert to old fist-pumping ways, but his girlfriend, who was with him, disagreed. “Oh stop it, it’s nice,” she said.

According to Argento, Surf City will also be different from Zeppelin Hall, the German beer hall around the corner in Liberty Harbor, which fits more than 1,200 people when its outdoor garden is open and is also co-owned by the Moccos. “It will be as different as Key West is from Munich,” Argento says. The cafeteria style-kitchen and rules are the same, with dogs and children permitted before 9 pm, and baggy pants are still listed as not allowed.

Surf City is located at the end of Marin Boulevard on the water. It’s accessible by PATH, Light Rail, car, Water Taxi and boat. There is also a fueling station in case your boat runs out of gas. It’s open Mondays-Thursdays from 4 pm to 2 am, till 3 am on Fridays and Saturdays. It’s also open for lunch on weekends.

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Photos by David English

a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Jersey City Independent. She's also a comedian who was born and raised in Jersey City, a Fiction MFA candidate at the New School and drinks way too much beer.