CAPE MAY - Boasting what is said to be the oldest bar in Cape May, the Merion Inn had been operating as an establishment of gentility and grace since it opened in 1885 as a "fine marine boarding villa" called the Collins Café.
The place catered to the "first class" traveling trade that had begun to make the resort their summer playground. Fine aged whiskies, Milwaukee beers and fresh seafood were offered on the menu.
By 1906, the inn had a new owner - the chief steward at the Merion Cricket Club on Philadelphia's Main Line - and a new name, the Merion. Members of the exclusive club had provided Andrew Zillinger with enough money to buy the place so the Cricket Club members could assure themselves a quiet and genteel summer oasis. The upstairs rooms were converted into dining rooms and the restaurant on Decatur Street toddled well into the 21st century.
That was until a fire in 2010 ignited a subsequent series of lawsuits and financial issues for the Merion Inn's current owner, Victoria Watson. The restaurant reopened within weeks of the fire.
But issues with the repairs and cost overruns resulted in lawsuits between Watson and Camden County disaster contractor allRisk Propety Damage Experts. The contractor was eventually awarded a $50,000 judgment in court, which Watson is appealing.
But the legal battle left the restaurateur with a cash-flow problem that delayed this year's spring reopening of the restaurant by more than three months.
Besides the quaint Victorian décor - with an old mahogany bar as a centerpiece - and its regional seafood cuisine, the Merion had been courting a local jazz scene and was packing the dining rooms nightly.
But recently, some locals said they feared the restaurant would never be reopened by Watson, whose family bought the Merion Inn in 1970. Rumors circulated that the restaurant's liquor license would be sold and the place converted to a BYOB.
But Watson found investors - a husband-and-wife team from Philadelphia who own a summer home in the Cape May Beach section of Lower Township - to partner with. The terms of the agreement with lawyer Victor Keen and his wife, Jeanne Ruddy, a former Martha Graham dancer who owns a dance studio, were not disclosed.
But Watson had a soft opening for family and friends on Monday night and was open to the public Tuesday night with a limited menu. The restaurant will resume its full menu by the end of the month, Watson said.
"We have to wait to get in, but it's worth it," said Jeannine Dunlap, 63, of Vineland, who has been dining at the Merion Inn since she was a little girl. "We've been waiting since last year for it to reopen, so what's another 40 minutes. I'm just glad it is still here."
Jacqueline L. Urgo