Donovan’s Reef Reclaims Its Place in the Sun

April 23, 2017
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The new, rebuilt Donovan’s Reef is looking to open for business toward the end of May. Photo by Nikole J. Ghirardi

By John Burton |

SEA BRIGHT – It will really seem like summer again in 2017, as Donovan’s Reef, one of the borough’s longstanding al fresco hangouts looks to fully reopen next month.

Chris Bowler, a co-owner of the popular watering hole at 1171 Ocean Ave., is hoping to have his location up and running by the third week of May – just in time for the Memorial Day weekend and the return of summer. “We’re trying for that,” Bowler said.

The prospect of meeting the deadline after more than four years of work and planning and contemplation over whether even to rebuild has Bowler “excited, and I would say stressed,” he acknowledged.

Donovan’s Reef, its structure nearly 100 years old and overlooking its privately-owned oceanfront beach, was so severely damaged in Super Storm Sandy in October 2012, that the building had to be demolished.

In the interim Donovan’s operated an outdoor, tiki-style bar in a temporary structure on the beach for two summers.

The nearly finished new facility will be larger than its predecessor, Bowler said, and have a full kitchen, as compared to the original which operated with a small grill. The main, multipurpose room, at approximately 45-by-50 feet, will serve as a sometime dining area and a space to accommodate live bands and patrons. “It’s quite large,” Bowler said. Donovan’s 2014 plans submitted to the borough indicated, and co-owner Bob Phillips confirmed at the time, the overall structure would be approximately 4,375 square feet.

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The site’s first floor will now be 17 feet above sea level, providing some protection from storms and possible flooding, and situated at the same height as the protective seawall. The second floor will be dedicated for storage and office space. The location will have three bars and six garage doors, with three of them opening eastward, toward the beach, so “You’re basically sitting inside and looking at the ocean,” Bowler said.

Following Sandy’s impact to the area and to Donovan’s Reef, Bowler said, “I’ll be honest, the first year somebody came in and offered a very large sum of money,” for the property, to which he and his partners gave a lot of thought. Ultimately, they decided to move forward with rebuilding.

The reason, Bowler said, is, “The business had been doing well. After we sat down, we decided we can make it successful again.”

However, they became entangled in state and federal bureaucratic red tape, which delayed approvals and construction schedules, Bowler said.

Bowler’s family has been involved with the bar going back to its earliest years. “I was there on the first day” it operated, when he was 10. Originally called Manning’s Jetty, it opened in 1971. In 1977, Bob Phillips and family members, along with other investors, took control and changed the bar’s name to Donovan’s Reef, taking the name from the title of a 1963 John Wayne movie, referring to the rowdy South Pacific bar owned by Wayne’s character in the film.

Over the years, the beachfront bar became increasingly popular with a wide cross-section of clientele, from college students and locals – including commercial fishermen and construction workers – to musicians (Bruce Springsteen would pop in back in the days when the E Street Band’s then saxophonist, the late Clarence Clemmons, lived in Sea Bright) and Wall Street movers-and-shakers and business executives. The crowd would be especially large on summer Sundays as customers gathered on the beach while bands played.

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When Donovan’s returns, “It’s going to be everybody, all walks of life,” again making up its patrons, Bowler predicted. “The same people who were there in the past.

“And,” he ventured to guess, “there’ll be more people coming who have never been there,” given another generation of young people have come of age since Sandy.


This article was first published in the April 20-27, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.

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