Kyle Williams is building an Atlantic City restaurant empire. Known for Back Bay Ale House and Scales, both located in Historic Gardner’s Basin, Williams opened his third restaurant in March: Vagabond Kitchen & Tap House, a casual eatery located on the bay near Surf Stadium that specializes in the good things in life: burgers and beer.
Vagabond fits into Williams’ philosophy that diners are looking for casual, inexpensive options to eat out as alternatives to the more pricy casinos. So like Back Bay and Scales (see sidebar), Vagabond makes sure you don’t need to take out a second mortgage to eat and drink well.
“I love craft beer and I love pub-style food, and we have some of the best craft beers and pub-style food — wings, sliders — that you will find around here,” Williams says. “I think there was a void for a good place like this. In this economy, casual, affordable restaurants are what people are looking for. And we offer that.”
Vagabond, named to suggest that people can stop in to have a drink and a bite to eat with no pretensions and then drift to another place, was formerly Jonathan’s on West End and the West End Grille, but it was a spot Williams had his eye on for years.
“I used to drive by it every day when I lived in Ventnor Heights, and I always thought it was a good location,” Williams says. “So when the West End closed, I went after it again.”
Local diners should be glad he did.
Standouts include his burgers and sliders, done in a variety of styles including the Surf & Turf sliders ($12.99) with filet mignon, bacon-wrapped shrimp and garlic aioli; The Baja burger ($8.99) with avocado, roasted corn pico de gallo and pepperjack cheese; and The Onion burger ($8.99) with fried onions, caramelized onions, fried onion straws and bleu cheese on an onion roll, of course.
Small plates worth checking out include the BBQ New Jersey clams ($8.99) baked with fire beer BBQ sauce topped with cheddar cheese and bacon; steak quesadilla ($12.99) with smoked Gouda cheese and crab bisque for dipping; and the wings ($8.99) served in three styles, including Buffalo Beer and Calypso Island, the latter glazed with a sweet Thai chili, mango and jerk sauce.
Super sandwich choices include the Cubano ($9.99) with roasted pork, smoked ham and sliced pickle with mayo mustard and Meunster cheese; and the crown jewel, the Turkey, Apple, Brie ($8.99) served on walnut-raisin bread with a sweet, smokey pepper jam.
There’s also more upscale choices, such as the filet on toast ($12.99) with rosemary onions with garlic butter for dipping; scallops ($13.99) with roasted cream corn sauce; and lamb lollipops ($13.99) with New Zealand chops and a mint demi.
“We are just trying to bring some higher quality items so people used to going to casinos paying $30 or more for lamb and filet or scallops can come here and afford to get a good taste of a good product,” Williams says.
As far as seafood, Vagabond’s specials menu focuses on it, offering fresh fish and seafood daily until it sells out.
But the main attraction may be the french fries. Hand-cut and fried with skins on, the fries come out — and stay — crispy thanks to a special process that took the Vagabond staff a week to master. They come accompanied with a choice of more than a dozen sauces influenced by Williams and working partner Erin Howze, who oversees all three restaurants. Sauces include Old Bay mayo, jalapeno aioli, white cheese, hot brown gravy and avocado ranch.
“There is a lot of word of mouth about the fries and the sauces, so it was worth the effort we put into them to make them just right,” Williams says. “I never liked ketchup on my fries and always used mayo. Belgian-style fries used mayo-based sauces, so we created some of those, as well as some different ones with ketchup and mustard bases. And they are awesome.”
If the fries don’t hook you, the beer will. With 12 craft taps and a lot more in bottle, you can always find multiple Dogfish Head taps, including 90-Minute IPA, Weyerbacher’s Merry Monks and Allagash White, as well as seasonal favorites.
“Half of the handles are local beer from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, and the rest are great crafts that constantly rotate,” Williams says. “We give people samples to try them because we want to educate them. Some people just don’t realize what great flavors are out there, and we want to introduce them to that.”
Beer may be what separates Vagabond from other restaurants. A recent tap takeover featuring Dogfish Head drew more than 250 people, giving Vagabond its best night since it opened.
“And we are going to do more,” Williams says. “We are here to stay. We want to do more tap takeovers and beer dinners and special events like Oktoberfest in the fall. The goal is to build another bar in the back room with another tap system. We think we found a nice niche here.”
Scales and Back Bay Ale House
Williams’ other two restaurants — Scales and Back Bay Ale House in Gardner’s Basin — are certainly worth checking out.
Williams opened Scales in the former Flying Cloud location in 2011 and revamped the whole menu and renovated the 500-seat restaurant and outdoor deck overlooking the inlet. Offering casually priced seafood, new menu items this year include a new crab cake recipe that offers a more Maryland-style take on the seafood classic; a crab pot served New Orleans style with smoked crab legs, corn, potatoes and Andouille sausage; and a lobster pot with corn, potatoes and lobster broth. The signature recipe is the Tuna Timbale, a tower of fresh sushi-grade tuna, mango and Mandarin orange served over seaweed salad.
The Back Bay, a rustic, casual restaurant overlooking the inlet, opened in 2003 and is known for its free sunset toast and great food. New menu items this year include fresh mahi, as well as Eastern Shore Crab Nachos with thin-sliced potatoes, Old Bay cheese sauce and fresh crab meat. But Back Bay is best known for its Jamaican jerk wings, an 8-ounce ribeye steak sandwich on garlic bread, and cream of crab soup, the best in the city.