OCEAN CITY – Last month marked the return of one of the resort’s favorite restaurants, The Hobbit, and with it came a mix of good friends, new faces and an overwhelming response to all of the amenities of the new restaurant.
The Dispatch sat down this week with owner Tom Heiderman and managing partner Chris Ciletti to discuss the new Hobbit, touching on everything from 30 years of business to the upcoming summer season.
The Hobbit opened its doors Wednesday, April 23, just over two years after closing to tear down and revamp the restaurant.
“Everything went great, we did about 150 dinners. There were a lot of old friends and familiar faces seen,” said Ciletti of opening night. “Everyone has been stunned and surprised at the look and feel of the new restaurant. The reactions have all been really nice.”
The panoramic view of the bay has been the most striking aspect to customers as they first walk through the door, agreed Ciletti and Heiderman, noting that it was exactly the reaction they had planned for. With windows lining an entire side of the restaurant from floor to ceiling, its impossible not to be drawn immediately to the view.
“I think the view stunned a lot of people. I think a lot of people didn’t know what to expect and then you walk in and see this panoramic view,” said Ciletti.
To top it off, every seat in the house gets a taste of the view, with expansive mirrors featured to compliment the view.
Capitalizing on the view of the bay was a priority for Heiderman, but many doubted that the new restaurant would be able to boast the same view as the former Hobbit, which stood higher off the ground, above the wetlands. As a longtime resident on 80th Street, Heiderman knew that the view from ground level would be just as beautiful.
“The view is actually better, you get more of a view of the wetlands and the bay,” he said.
The view may start out as the focal point of the new space, but the interior of the restaurant soon trumps what lies outside. As the sun sets and night falls, the interior transforms, setting the mood for a romantic dinner for two or a comfortable gathering of friends.
The interior design boasts a new look for Ocean City, one that Heiderman and Ciletti agree is more sophisticated and cosmopolitan. The underlying Hobbit ambience and theme remains, but with a new twist, taking the restaurant to a different level than where it began over 30 years ago.
The original Hobbit opened in May 1977, just up the street from the current location. The original restaurant stood where the 81st Street Fat Daddy’s now stands, but was operated out of an old beach house.
“The restaurant was a house. There were white-laced table cloths and an ambience of what we called, ‘casual elegance’,” explained Ciletti, who joined The Hobbit family in its third summer of operation.
In 1983, Heiderman made the move to the bay, purchasing the land and embarking on the construction journey of what would become the second Hobbit. The second Hobbit grew over the years, expanding to seat nearly 300.
“Tommy was the general contractor, he put all the crews together and it really is amazing the job that he did,” said Ciletti.
The idea for a new restaurant, accompanied by condominium units, sparked the project that stands today. Heiderman explained the original intent was to add units above the restaurant, starting with a plan for 128 units. That number was reduced to 88 units, with Heiderman’s desire to build higher, rather than encompass the entire space, lot line to lot line.
“We wanted to build higher to provide more open space,” said Heiderman. “I think we’ve accomplished that, we’ve got a lot of open space. All in all, I think that the project is going to be one of the nicer projects in town,” said Heiderman.
The new Hobbit stands at the end of 81st Street, in the ground floor of the Rivendell. Designing around an existing structure proved to be a unique experience for Heiderman, who once again took an active role in the construction process.
The new space, which is significantly smaller than the former, also meant less seating, an element Heiderman and Ciletti fully embraced. The new space holds seating for 90 in the dining area, with an additional 38 around the bar, providing a more personal air to the restaurant.
“It’s been a nice adjustment. The original location had 90 seats with a similar bar area so it’s really come full circle,” said Ciletti.
“In a smaller space, we can get more creative and spend more time on each dish,” added Heiderman.
With the new space came an essentially blank canvas for Heiderman to work with, resulting in a cosmopolitan restaurant that brings the city-restaurant ambience of D.C. or New York to the bayside of Ocean City. Everything from the lighting to the music to the contrast of the rich-cream and the chocolate brown colors give a new feel to The Hobbit.
“I think it’s a different look for Ocean City, more cosmopolitan,” said Heiderman.
“It’s comfortable yet sophisticated. We didn’t want a stark feel in here, it really is comfortable,” said Ciletti.
The interior design is not the only area that endured change; there is also an adjusted menu selection. The café, happy hour and children’s menus from the old Hobbit will not be seen in the new restaurant; however, light fare items are still available.
“Right now people can come in and get a lot of the favorite items from over the years or there are [six to eight] new items that they can come in and try,” said Ciletti.
Several familiar faces will be seen amongst the Hobbit staff, with the return of 14 employees. After two and a half years, many of the employees have become established at other places, but many opted to return.
“We’re going from a staff of 74 to 24, so over half of the staff has worked here before,” said Heiderman.
The staff has been just as thrilled with the restaurant as the customers.
“They were all amazed at what the place looks like. They’re happy with the changes we’ve made to the menu and I think they’re all pleasantly surprised with how smoothly it’s gone,” said Ciletti.