For 40+ years, Boulevard Clams has been a vacation tradition for the crowds that flood the island every year. “The whole reason I do this? Endless summer,” declares Neil Sulish of Boulevard Clams. As the second-generation owner of the iconic Long Beach Island seafood shack, Neil balances a life of grueling hours in the kitchen with blissful off-seasons spent surfing. Everything he does revolves around finding the highest quality; ingredients, relationships, and time spent doing what he loves.
How did Boulevard Clams begin?
My dad, Michael Sulish, started this 42 years ago picking rocks up out of the bay. He put me through college picking up those rocks. He was a commercial clammer and thought, “Hey, I can clam in the morning and sell what I get.” Then it became “Why don’t we sell fish?” or “Why don’t we sell oysters?” and it grew to a full-fledged fish market and restaurant over the years.
Fun fact: the restaurant was built out of dumpster stuff!
We’d see what pieces of wood that these million-dollar homes were throwing out, so we’d grab them and make a table. We didn’t have big pocketbooks like a lot of people here typically do. Still, we had a few famous clients – Bon Jovi would always come by when I was a kid. I’d see the red Ferrari parked out front, and I’d know to get my friends over!
How did you get involved?
I was a financial advisor for a while. I made some money on investments and bought land in Costa Rica so I could surf there, which is what I thought I wanted. I did the whole retirement thing, and then I found out I didn’t like it. I missed working. This would be around the time that mom and dad said they wanted to be done at the shack, so I said ‘Okay, I’ll run it. With your guidance, of course.’
I have this one memory of Boulevard Clams on my seventeenth birthday. I got up and surfed from five in the morning until noon. I got out of the water, ate a big tuna steak, and went to work for a little while.
I remember standing out back on the pavers after I was done and looking around thinking: this is what life is about.
Some things are right, and you may not even want to know that they’re right, because it’s scary to dive in and say: ‘Hey, this is my reality – now and forever.’ But I knew I’d still be working here, back then.
Are there any Boulevard Clams traditions?
There used to be “Clam Up Wednesdays” where you come in and say “Clam Up!” and get the restaurant age as the price of your clams. For example – in our 29th year, it would be $29. That tradition has died off, however, since our years started getting more expensive than the market price! Also – the walls inside the restaurant are covered in sharp stuff: fishing poles, shells, all kinds of weird things.
We say, ‘If it gives you stitches or if you went to the hospital, it deserves to go on the wall.’ People love hearing those stories.
Our parking lot is completely white from 42 years of clam shells. We take them out in the bleach buckets and dump the shells on a low spot. I always look for the nicest car, put it right behind them and watch the driver jump when they hear the crunch. It doesn’t do anything but, well – that’s just one of my little guilty pleasures.
Sounds like the people and the relationships are pretty long-standing too. Those partnerships your dad started–did you inherit them?
Oh, yeah. His fishermen friends, they’re still the same guys running the boats now. And the guy that dropped off the swordfish this morning? I’ve been to Costa Rica with him a few times. It’s an old boys’ club for sure, and you have to pay your dues. Respect isn’t given to anybody until it’s earned.
The relationships are old-fashioned, and it’s a small town. If you do something shady, it’s gonna come back and bite you.
You take care of each other too. When my father spent some time in the hospital, these guys were tremendous. Our clammer is one of my dad’s best friends. They really help by checking in with me like, ‘Hey, at this time of the season, your dad normally orders this or does this, what do you think?’ Or, if I order too much, I’ll get a call saying, ‘Neil, did you mean to order this much?’
I know they have my back. I know it’s not just a money-making thing, it’s taking care of people at the same time.
Let’s say it’s my first time visiting. What should I get?
We were voted ‘Best Fried Clams south of Rhode Island’! Our forte is whole belly fried clams—that’s something no one else does, and it’s due to the old-school partnerships that my father formed with the fishermen.
Our hot-buttered lobster roll is the best on the Island, and we have premium crab cakes that took about nine years to put on the menu because we weren’t satisfied with them.
Our whole mission is purist. We’re not fancy. We always try to provide the white tablecloth food without the attitude. People know that if they come here, it’s gonna be good, it’s gonna be big, and it’ll be the best fish. I personally handpick every fish that comes into this store.
I’m sure if this wasn’t my life, if I hadn’t grown up with these experiences, I would look at this and go, ‘Why would you do that? It’s so much work!’ But there’s no other job where I’d be able to do these hours without breaking—that’s how much I love it. I can take a walk up to the beach in 45 seconds and it’s the little things that keep me going.
And then when the season’s over, I pack up and head to Costa Rica for the surf and I have those extra 200 days to find my soul again.
Not many people can say that.
2006 Long Beach Boulevard, Surf City NJ 08008
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Images by Boulevard Clams Staff | Editing by Kristen Reames