The fried chicken wings and Jersey cakes were flying from the kitchen with their customary speed at the Chicken or the Egg in Beach Haven.
At Chef Mike's Atlantic Bar and Grill in Seaside Park, the lobster tamale could be nibbled with a grand picture window view of the Atlantic Ocean lapping at the beach below.
In Margate at Steve & Cookie's, crisply dressed diners sipped pricey Manhattans and spooned through anise-scented bowls of bouillabaisse while "Happy Birthday" broke out for June Ross, the wife of a former Margate mayor celebrating her 83d year with a french-fried lobster tail.
"If Cookie closed," said Ross, referring to owner Caroline "Cookie" Till, "I probably wouldn't go out to dinner."
That very nearly was the case. Because despite these scenes of apparent normalcy, life has been anything but normal for thousands of restaurants at the Jersey Shore that have struggled mightily to recover since October when Hurricane Sandy hit the coast like a club.
"We got creamed," says Till, who was evacuated from her destroyed home in the midst of the storm. When she got to her restaurant, she found the chairs floating and water just inches below the baby grand piano in the bar.
At Atlantic Bar and Grill (aka ABG), what chef-owner Mike Jurusz now calls his "million dollar view" was created when the storm washed away the 20-foot dune that protected the restaurant in the first place.
At Chicken or the Egg, meanwhile, the rising waters caught notice beyond Beach Haven. Devoted "Chegg" fans like Betsy Arndt watched anxiously from as far away as Charlotte, N.C., where the former Shore resident monitored the flooding from a live video feed on its Facebook page: "I watched until the camera went out."
The devastation was far-reaching, with more than 26,500 food-related business impacted, according to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. And some industry observers, like radio host Ed Hitzel, whose eponymous magazine is dedicated to the South Jersey dining scene, feared in early May that 20 percent of existing restaurants would not reopen.
But restaurateurs have clearly rallied. While the hardest hit towns north of Long Beach Island are still feverishly reconstructing - the shredded FunTown Pier on Seaside Park's boardwalk is still gated off with "Danger" signs - the loss-rate farther south has turned out to be closer to 5 percent. With housing reconstruction lagging behind the restaurants, though, Hitzel's industry contacts report, "business itself is off about 30 percent over last year."
The potential economic impact is huge, as food and beverage sales accounted for 20 percent of the Shore's tourism dollars in 2012. Tourism employs more than half of Atlantic and Cape May Counties.
But the positive psychological effects of reopening are at least as crucial, for the restaurants and their employees, and for the millions of tourists and locals who rely on them not simply for dinner, but a sense of community and the feeling that life by the ocean is as it should be.
For Jerry Klause, who walked from Ocean City across the Longport Bridge to lend an early hand in rebuilding Steve & Cookie's, getting restaurants reopened was, "the first return to normalcy. Especially for those without electricity or heat for a long time, that means something in times like that."
"It helps ground you when things are bad all around you," says Randy Stephen, an ABG regular who's in temporary housing after losing his home in Lavallette. "It's a little oasis. And Mike takes care of his people."
"Jersey strong!" said Arndt, who was almost moved to tears of joy at the register after paying for her peanut buttercup pancake breakfast at the restored Chicken or the Egg. "For all the bad press New Jersey gets, I wish more people could see this."
Getting to that point, though, wasn't easy for many. Once flooded, spaces up and down the coast needed to be gutted as wet walls were ripped out to remedy mold.
In Beach Haven, the elegantly restored Victorian-era Gables had just spent $1.2 million to recover from an Easter fire and was open only 46 days before Sandy wrought $360,000 more in damage.
At the Chicken or the Egg around the corner, where co-owner Mark Cohen's family was evacuated by jet ski as the dining room's banquettes sank beneath the tide waters, the entire kitchen was replaced, including materials for a new floor that were donated by Stonhard in Maple Shade, one of many companies that made contributions to the relief.
"My brother and I own the building," says Cohen, "and we were underinsured."
Till managed to secure insurance money to cover the $200,000 in damage to Steve & Cookie's. But she and her contractor also had extra motivation.
"We had 500 people on the books coming for Thanksgiving dinner. And I was lucky to get in there right away. My contractor's family actually comes to that meal, and he said: 'I'm going to get you open for Thanksgiving.' "
Till's contractors, brothers Richard and Michael Richmond, whose father, Joseph, was a popular bartender at Steve & Cookie's for many years, devoted 25 to 30 employees to the task every day for over a month, rebuilding the entire piano room bar, floors, walls, and walk-in fridges, painstakingly restoring the antique cypress moldings.
But the holiday deadline proved to be too steep. Till made the call to cancel Thanksgiving in favor of an early December opening. Tomatoe's, an Amherst Avenue neighbor that also rallied through a complete rehab, would reopen just a few days later.
"Ritchie almost cried," said Till. "And the turkey farm wasn't happy, either."
All the drama of the reconstruction, though, seemed like a distant memory on that recent summer night as regulars forked into a ripe slice of Till's famous blueberry pie while live music floated through the bar. The piano had been saved.
"When people tell me it still feels like Steve & Cookie's," says Till, "it's a huge compliment."
At Mike's ABG, meanwhile, guests have been soaking in the newest feature - the glorious beachside view carved from the protective dune by Sandy.
Jurusz, a longtime chef at the grill who bought the restaurant for himself in January, knows this silver lining is a mixed blessing that leaves him vulnerable - at least until the dunes are inevitably restored over the next few years.
"It's beautiful and it's scary. It's the yin-yang," says Jurusz. "But we need to replenish the dunes and I'm fine with that. . . . If another bad storm chooses to come and knock us down in the meantime? We'll get back up and do it again."