Tradition reigns supreme at Highlands’ most famous seafood spot, Bahrs Landing

By:  | June 26, 2024 Dining Monmouth County

By Lauren Lavelle

 

Summertime and seafood dinners go together like surf and sand and while there are countless seafood joints dotting the shoreline, there’s one that has always stood out from the rest. 

“We hear all the time: ‘My parents took me here when I was a kid.’ or ‘Today’s my 95th birthday. I started coming here when I was 10,’” said Jay Cosgrove, owner of Bahrs Landing, the legendary seafood restaurant and marina in Highlands. “That's a unique thing. This is a go-to place for families. You can bring grandma, you can bring the kids, you can bring neighbors and celebrate any way you want to.”

Bahrs Landing was established in 1917 by Cosgrove’s great-grandparents, Jack Bahrs and his wife, Florence. 

“[My great-grandparents] had a summer business in Highlands renting boats and selling bait and tackle,” Cosgrove said. “They were approached by the mayor of the town at the time who was their landlord and he said ‘You’re doing really great. I’ll help you buy 2 Bay Avenue.’ They moved their rental boats there in the fall.”

The new property consisted of a two-story, beached boathouse that the former owners used as a bed and breakfast for fisherman and visitors looking to escape the city during the summer. The Bahrs continued to operate the space as a bed and breakfast until a Nor'easter rolled through, wrecking many of the boats housed on the property. 

“So, in order to raise money to rebuild all the boats, they started selling breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Cosgrove said. 

Soon enough, Bahrs Landing became a New Jersey seafood destination, with people coming from far and wide to experience the eatery’s nautical atmosphere and fresh seafood dishes. 

“Frank Sinatra used to come by boat. We’d serve him lobster dinner,” Cosgrove said. “Babe Ruth was here, Joe DiMaggio, Sammy Davis Jr..”

As the years went on, the restaurant was passed down from generation to generation within the Bahrs family until finally landing in the hands of Cosgrove’s father, Ray, in 1974.

“[My dad] started bringing my brothers and I to work on the weekends,” he said. “Whether it was washing dishes, bussing tables, bagging steamers, shucking corn on the cob, tying up boats or pumping gas, there was always something different to do there. I jokingly say that I was planning on working on Wall Street like all my friends did, but I decided to take on the challenge and stick around and see what I could do.”

Now, over 100 years after the Bahrs originally made their mark on Highlands and with Cosgrove now at the helm, Bahrs Landing has changed a lot from the boathouse bed and breakfast it once was, but still maintains that old-fashioned feel that keeps people coming back for more. It's an accomplishment Cosgrove doesn’t take lightly. 

“We’ve kept it as consistent and original as possible and not too many restaurants can pull that off,” he said. “Somehow, we’ve been able to do it, and our customers appreciate it.”

One element of the restaurant that has stood the test of time is the atmosphere that pays homage to the early days of the seafood spot. 

“My grandfather was a big collector of nautical antiques and I’ve collected some over the years too. Old ship models and fishing gear, scrimshaw, old compasses,” Cosgrove said. “When you walk in the door, you’re like ‘I feel like I’m on a ship.’ It takes you out of the element of coming down the Turnpike or the Parkway from North Jersey. You hit Highlands and all of sudden, you see the ocean, smell the ocean and all of that works together.” 

Fresh seafood has also been a consistent staple at Bahrs Landing since the very beginning. With much of its seafood sourced locally, Cosgrove says there’s never a dull moment in terms of cuisine.

“Good seafood is a lot more expensive now than it used to be back in the day, but we still keep it local,” he said. “New Jersey has very good scallops, flounder, tuna and clams. And it's never boring. You can go to any restaurant and get chicken or steak or different types of pastas, but pasta tastes like pasta. With seafood, the variety is endless.”

And what’s the fan favorite menu item that people come back for time and time again? 

“The hot lobster roll,” Cosgrove said. “Lobster salad is typically made with celery and mayonnaise, but the hot lobster roll is just poached in butter, served on a toasted bun and that's it. [We serve it with] homemade potato chips and it is by far our top seller.”

For those looking for dinner with a view, a fairly new add-on to the space is the addition of an outdoor dining area complete with a tiki bar and the Sandy Hook Bay landscape just steps away. 

“Everybody wants to sit outside when it's nice out,” Cosgrove said. “At some point in the 90s, people wanted to fine dine outside so we expanded and figured out how to do that.”

And diners who want the Bahrs Landing experience from the comfort of their own boats are welcome to dock at the marina and indulge in the popular “dock and dine” offering. 

“At our Marina, we have an extensive amount of docking available,” Cosgrove said. “People can just pull right up. [We’ve had people] come from Oceanport, Red Bank, Keyport, Staten Island, Brooklyn.”

Another perk that Cosgrove emphasized is the staff members working to deliver the Bahrs Landing experience day in and day out. Many have been on staff for years, working their way up through the ranks, while others are employed for the summer season. 

“[We have] friendly and professional staff,” Cosgrove said. “Some have been here for over 30 years and some just started. Some came up the ranks. We also have staff that come in just for the summer.”

When asked if he thinks Bahrs Landing will last for another 100 years in Highlands, Cosgrove remained hopeful. 

“I think it will,” he said. “At this point, there’s a fan base and loyal customers that will insist on it and, somehow, some way, it will. Everyone knows the restaurant business is challenging, but you throw in seafood, all these outside tables and the weather, and we’ve been able to do it.”

 

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