Open for Business, Ready for Summer at Gay Head Cliffs

Tuesday, June 14, 2016 - 8:42am

Landmark Aquinnah Shop restaurant overlooking Atlantic Ocean

With the Gay Head Light having completed its historic move last year, and long-term planning underway for Aquinnah Circle, shop owners have a new vision for their town’s commercial and cultural district.

Large crowds at the Circle on Memorial Day weekend were a taste of things to come this summer. But springtime visitors are still keeping shop owners on their toes, and the Circle has acquired a new energy. The Orange Peel Cafe — an offshoot of the Orange Peel Bakery just down the road — has taken over Faith’s Seafood Shack at the entrance to the shops. And Cliff Hangers, a new take-out restaurant with organic soft-serve, has replaced Dreamcatcher. Both shops are fine-tuning their menus and gearing up for summer.

Cliffhangers is a new eatery operated by the Mannings. — Mark Lovewell

Members of the town and Wampanoag Tribe have worked to chart a long-term course for the Circle, including a public visioning process this winter. The entire Circle including the shops was named a state cultural district this year.

But many have complained about the condition of the shops in general, especially in light of the growing attention since last year.

Faith’s Seafood Shack had been vacant for more than two years when selectman and Orange Peel founder Juli Vanderhoop took over the lease from the tribe in February. The iconic Aquinnah Shop just up the hill went on the market around the same time.

At their regular meeting last week, the selectmen heard plans to beautify the area and regrade a hillside behind the shops for additional seating. The town is also raising funds to bury the power lines along the Circle. And word has it that a small area used for picnic tables will soon be home to yet another shop.

On Sunday afternoon, a single mockingbird was perched on the power lines just outside the Orange Peel Cafe, belting out a medley that seemed to echo the new variety at the shops. A police officer on a bike rode in circles below and whistled back. Up near the Aquinnah Shop, now open for the season, Joan Flahive performed folk songs on guitar.

The Orange Peel Cafe is the first restaurant at the Circle to offer fresh baked goods. But unlike its sister bakery down the road, the new menu will feature local fare, including lobster rolls and chowder, along with less familiar items like udon noodles and possibly dumplings.

Kitchen at the Aquinnah Shop, still manned by Vanderhoop family. — Mark Lovewell

“We’re looking to be a more healthy option,” chef Alex Jenkins said, taking a break at one of the old picnic tables behind the shop. She and Ms. Vanderhoop met years ago on the Island and had long dreamt of a culinary collaboration. “It worked out perfectly that she found this spot and I was ready to get back up into the Northeast,” said Ms. Jenkins, who recently moved to the Island from Kentucky but has made a name for herself as a chef in Boston.

She and her two coworkers — including her uncle Jeff from Kentucky — refer to the new shop as the Shark Tank, since its windows look out in all directions and the setup has them moving in circles all day. The equipment left over from Faith’s Seafood Shack was something of a surprise, Ms. Jenkins said, and has helped shaped the new menu.

“You don’t write a menu based on what you know, you write a menu based on what equipment you have,” she said. “They don’t teach you that in culinary school.” Favorites so far include the lobster rolls and Thai chicken salad.

Just up the path toward the lookout, Teresa Manning was busy in the tiny kitchen at Cliff Hangers, where the menu is also evolving. Mrs. Manning has worked in catering for years, but this is her first venture at the shops. The owners of the former Dreamcatcher had approached her husband, Aquinnah police sergeant Paul Manning, about selling the shop after 15 years, and the Mannings appreciated the need for more business at the Circle. “With that little push, it really put us moving ahead to say, let’s do it,” Mrs. Manning said.

As with the Orange Peel, Cliff Hangers will offer Island staples such as lobster rolls and chowder, along with a variety of healthier options (fish tacos and stuffed quahaugs top the menu). Both shops plan to offer dinner specials as a way to encourage families to spend more time at the cliffs.

Meanwhile, Wayward Wampum (formerly the Howwasswee Trading Post) is entering its first full summer at the cliffs, after staying open all winter. An expanded inventory includes locally-made art and jewelry, including fish-scale earrings (the real thing) by Dexter Nerney. A number of unusual mementos, including an enormous jaw bone from a sperm whale, serve as a reminder of the Island’s past.

Owner Jason Widdiss, who took over the shop from his father, Donald Widdiss, plans to resume selling hot dogs and snacks around July 4. But for now, he was glad to have made it through the winter, and welcomed the change of pace. “It goes from feast to famine overnight,” he said.

New shops bring fresh food, fresh bustle at the cliffs. — Mark Lovewell

All three of the new shops at the Circle share a mission to support both the seasonal and year round communities. Wayward Wampum did so by braving the winter, but the other shops will focus on the seasonal market.

“We’re very fortunate that everybody that’s working here has some connection to our family or community,” Mrs. Manning said of her seven employees. And Ms. Vanderhoop pointed out that many of her ingredients are locally sourced. “One of the things that I love about this new place is that I’m creating cottage industries behind it by hiring locals who are doing community shellfishing, or things like that,” she said.

A sense of community was palpable at the shops last weekend. Among those enjoying the late spring weather was Derrill Bazzy, chairman of the town community preservation committee, who was visiting shop owners with a stack of folders. New signs for the cultural district were on the way, he said, and the Island chamber of commerce was updating its website with information about the Circle. He added that planning will continue for the newly acquired Manning-Murray property, which will house a temporary multi-media exhibit on the Gay Head Light. (On Sunday, the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society screened a recent episode of NOVA that chronicles the lighthouse relocation. The screening included a panel discussion with several key players in the project.)

“So there’s all these little pieces going on, but at this point, I don’t think there is going to be anything big for this summer,” Mr. Bazzy said, although he added that the public visioning process may resume in the winter with a focus on specific ideas. “We want to make things happen, but if you move them too fast, they won’t be right,” Mr. Bazzy said.

Unlike the down-Island towns, Aquinnah lacks an official business association. But Mrs. Manning said all of the local shop owners at the Circle, along with many town officials, are onboard with the new plans.

“With the cultural district happening, with the NOVA special about the lighthouse, I think the town needs to up its game a little bit,” she said. She also noted the leadership of town officials and others who have a stake in the Circle. “Everybody is behind making it better and better,” she said.