By John Burton
SEA BRIGHT – Those who need a little more proof that life here might be returning to something resembling normal, just ask Bob Phillips as he prepares rebuild Donovan’s Reef.
“It’s going to take some time but we’re coming back,” Phillips said about the popular Ocean Avenue beachfront saloon he co-owns which was a destination for summer crowds for nearly four decades before Super Storm Sandy destroyed it in October 2012.
“We’re the balancing act” for the summer crowd, Phillips contended. “We’re the fulcrum that brings people in.”
After winning borough planning board approval to rebuild late last month, plans are in the works to begin construction – maybe as soon as April – once the owners get approval from the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
The overall project will take some time to complete. Phillips said the best-case scenario is to have the main bar area finished by Labor Day while conceding “that would be a miracle.”
But, Donovan’s Reef will have its tiki bar up and running on its sliver of privately owned beach, hopefully, by the Memorial Day weekend, or early June, he said.
As for the palm trees, usually planted every summer at the site, Phillips said he was “up in the air about palm trees this year…There’s better things to do with the money.”
The estimated cost of construction, according to Phillips, is roughly $1.2 million.
Donovan’s Reef, officially owned by LBP Corporation and located at 1971 Ocean Ave, just south of borough hall, has approval to construct a 4,375-square-foot-bar and restaurant plus a raised outdoor deck and the tiki bar, considered an accessory structure.
The new construction will be approximately 1,100 square feet larger than the former establishment and will have a full kitchen, Phillips said.
The beachfront bar structure was nearly 100 years old when it was leveled by Super Storm Sandy. The new site will be 17 feet off the ground to hopefully avoid future damage from storms. The alarm system and utility connections will all be placed underground, Phillips said.
“A lot of thought process went into this,” he said.
“This thing weighed on me” since the bar was destroyed, he said about plans for rebuilding and working with state and federal agencies to get some financial assistance to rebuild.
The owners were eventually able to secure low interest loans – with no payments for the first two years – to allow for the project to move forward.
“We have an opportunity here to turn a garden variety oceanfront saloon into a high quality joint,” Phillips said.
But what also weighed on him, Phillips said, was the role Donovan’s has played in the community for all these years.
He said it attracted the complete cross section of the area – from fisherman and construction workers to college students and young adults and Wall Street executives. Even Bruce Springsteen would stop in regularly. “Sometimes he’d play and sometimes he would just sit and drink his Miller Lite,” Phillips said.
When word began getting out that Donovan’s Reef would be rebuilt, “the enthusiasm was rampant,” he said.
Since the storm there have been persistent rumors about the location’s future. Phillips said he heard them, too. But he insisted the plan was to rebuild.
“There were numerous attempts to come in and buy the land,” he said. The very low offers were being made by those looking to “exploit the situation,” he said.
Donovan’s Reef dates back to 1971 when it was originally called Manning’s Jetty. Phillips, his brother, Jack and the other investors, all who grew up in Jersey City, purchased the business in 1976.
The group decided to call it Donovan’s Reef, after a 1963 John Wayne movie in which the Duke owns a rowdy South Pacific bar.
Their affinity for John Wayne movies extended to another location that Phillips is a part owner. Red Bank’s Brannigan’s Pub was named for one of Wayne’s last movies, 1975’s “Brannigan,” Phillips said.
In addition to Phillips, that bar is owned by Christopher Bowler, members of Bowler’s family and a silent partner.