SEA BRIGHT – It was a busy day last Friday at the newly rebuilt Donovan’s Reef, as it prepared for its long-awaited reopening. Contractors worked furiously, installing big-screen TVs and huddling on the floor by electrical outlets, putting the finishing touches on the popular oceanfront bar and entertainment spot. Bar employees hurried about, filling beer coolers, stacking glasses, issuing staff T-shirts for those who would be having their first full shift over Memorial Day weekend.
Bob Phillips, Donovan’s co-owner for more than four decades, looked out at the activity buzz around him. “It’s been a long time coming,” he said with a satisfied sigh.
Donovan’s Reef, 1171 Ocean Ave., opened on Saturday, May 27, just in time for the Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial kickoff of summer and the all-important season for the beachfront bar.
“Basically, after a five-year absence we’re back in the scene,” Phillips said.
Donovan’s Reef, like much of Sea Bright, was devastated by Super Storm Sandy in October 2012, with so much damage the original structure eventually had to be razed. For a few summers the owners had operated a makeshift tiki bar operation on its beachfront while they hammered out the details for the eventual rebuilding.
Phillips acknowledged, and co-owner Chris Bowler had said previously, the long haul to rebuild was due in large part to the owners working their way through government red tape and securing financing for the project, as well as addressing the necessary changes in design to meet possible future storm challenges. “There is a higher level of requirements,” in Sandy’s aftermath, Phillips explained. “That is the progressive nature of building now.”
“The town of Sea Bright has been truly supportive,” Phillips added. Mayor Dina Long had said previously, “Without Donovan’s in Sea Bright it feels like something is missing.”
The new facility, at approximately 4,375 square feet, is larger than the original structure and is now elevated 18 feet to spare it from potential flooding. The new location has a much more extensive kitchen operation and an expanded menu over the previous limited fare available. To accommodate the larger operation, Phillips said, Donovan’s Reef has increased the staffing from approximately 57 in the summer before Sandy to about 75 employees now. The location will continue to have outdoor service, with its new tiki-style bar, and will again have live music. Phillips said Donovan’s Reef will soon play host to Brian Kirk and the Jirks, a popular longstanding attraction at the spot. What won’t be here this year, he acknowledged, are the traditional palm trees that had been planted around the location. Those trees, he said, won’t be back until next year.
Co-owner Bowler had told The Two River Times previously that following Sandy there was consideration to not rebuild, with owners contemplating selling the beachfront property. Phillips disputed that, maintaining, “It never cross my mind…I knew we would rebuild.”
Phillips didn’t want to say how much the rebuilding cost exactly, indicating it was “in the millions.”
Donovan’s Reef has been a go-to spot for more than 40 years. Phillips said the bar’s T-shirts have been spotted in Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia and “at the Eiffel Tower” in Paris. Phillips proclaimed Donovan’s Reef is “still a real saloon” – a rarity among dining and libation locations on the shore these days.
And what makes for a “real saloon”?
“It’s the cats and the dogs,” he quipped, meaning a broad cross-section of the area’s population. “A real saloon offers a greater comfort zone and exposure versus a restaurant-slash-bar,” he said. His spot has been attracting Wall Street executives, commercial fishermen, construction workers, musicians (including Bruce Springsteen, who used to come in regularly when former bandmate, the late Clarence Clemons, lived in Sea Bright decades ago) and college-age kids since it first opened. “We appeal to a broad band of people,” he observed.
Phillips, 80, lives in Avon and in Florida part of the year and has been in the bar business most of his life. The appeal of this business is “being around people,” he said, including the employees he’s known over his time.
As for whether the investment will pay off, Phillips said, “We’ll see.” But as Donovan’s Reef was readying for its second act, he was optimistic about the future. “I feel good, absolutely,” Phillips said.
The location first opened in 1971 as Manning’s Jetty. In 1976, members of the Phillips family, Carducci Family and Bowler family purchased the spot, rechristening it as Donovan’s Reef, after the 1963 John Wayne movie, referring to the rowdy South Pacific gin mill owned and operated by Wayne’s character.
This article was first published in the May 25-June 1, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
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