Lucille’s Lives on Despite Lucille’s Passing in January

Daughters, Community Keep the Warren Grove Institution Going
By RICK MELLERUP | Jul 13, 2016
Supplied Photo On Dec. 21, 2015 there was a dedication ceremony for the installation of a new $1,100 sign at Lucille’s Country Cooking in Warren Grove given to the diner by the Motorcycle Competition (MCI) and Meteor Motorcycle Clubs.

Don’t worry, Lucille’s Country Kitchen in Warren Grove isn’t going anywhere, despite the unexpected passing away of its longtime owner-operator, Lucille Bates-Wickward, at the age of 74 in January.

“We’re hoping to continue for another 41 years,” said her daughter Karen Flynn.

So many beloved area restaurants and taverns have disappeared over the past few decades.

Some succumbed to fire.

Places such as Bass River Township’s stately The New Gretna House, built between 1883 and 1885. In 1966 it could boast a full course Easter dinner – turkey, duck or ham – for $2.75! The New Gretna House closed for good in 1992, but there were constant rumors of a reopening until it was burned to the ground by a mischief night fire in October 2004.

Scores of Southern Ocean County residents will still tell you that Barnegat’s Clayton’s Log Cabin served the best prime rib they ever had. Clayton’s went up in flames in December 1999.

Morrison’s Seafood Restaurant opened in Beach Haven in 1946 and was a favorite not only for its clams, scallops and lobsters but for its waterfront location that allowed diners to enjoy sunsets over the bay from its windows. It was gutted by fire in September 2005. “Shame,” read a post on TripAdvisor, “it was like walking back into time! It was just like the 50s.”

Others were sold and updated.

Wida’s, a Ship Bottom landmark since the 1926, was replaced in 2006. “Old-timer turns hip,” read the headline/lead in to a 2007 philly.com review of its successor. “What was Wida’s is now Daddy O, an elegant boutique hotel and dining room. Owners sought to bring ‘a little more New York’ to the Shore.”

It is probably safe to say that Barnegat Light’s Rick’s American Café wasn’t renowned for its food. But Rick’s entertainment was legendary, featuring the likes of Bo Diddley, Edgar Winter, Clarence Clemons, Vanilla Ice and Flamin’ Harry. Over the winter Rick’s was sold and underwent a $1 million-plus renovation to become a sparkling seafood restaurant named Daymark.

Look, the American culinary and cultural palate has dramatically changed over the decades. Today it is difficult to imagine a restaurant scene that doesn’t include Thai, Asian fusion, sushi and Tex-Mex. But back in the 1960s and 1970s foreign food in the U.S. was limited to Chinese and Italian outside of large cities and even something as All-American as BBQ meant hot dogs and hamburgers in the north, not ribs and brisket. As for music, the days of places such as Wida’s featuring organists are long over and even classic rock has been, in large measure, supplanted by hip-hop, techno and pop.

Still, there’s something to be said for meat and potatoes and milkshakes and homemade pies – and for rock, too, although that’s the subject for another article. And it is nice to know that Norman Rockwell’s America hasn’t totally disappeared, that there are still places where neighbors gather over coffee and breakfast to discuss their plans for the day or the results of last night’s high school football game.

Lucille’s is definitely such a place.

Papers and Pies;

Omelet Paradise

Located on Route 539 in what passes for the downtown of the Warren Grove section of Barnegat Township, Lucille’s, which is open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. serving breakfast and lunch, is as old-fashioned as you can get. People rave about its simple but delicious food and rustic and friendly atmosphere.

“Very good down home cooking of the typical American breakfast and lunch cuisine, with real old fashioned milk shakes and home baked pies to die for,” wrote a Google reviewer four years ago. “Laid back and comfy atmosphere. Lucille, all of the staff and the regular locals treat you like you’re one of the neighbors. No pretense here, you won’t have to push any parsley sprigs off your plate. Just plain good ‘folks’ cooking, portions and bang for your buck.”

Another citizen reviewer, prone to using exclamation points, chimed in three years ago. “Just left Lucille’s! Been driving by this place all my life and now I just feel like I’ve been missing out this whole time! I have a pork roll and cheese omelette (sic) cooked fluffy and light with lots of gooey cheese and pork roll! I also had a cup of the best split pea I’ve ever had. My boyfriend had eggs over easy cooked perfect with huge fluffy pancakes and beautiful crispy bacon! But the best thing about Lucille’s is Lucille! She and her family and friends make this place something we are going back to, and often!”

The reviews haven’t changed since Lucille’s passing, with Flynn and her sister Diane Brown and the restaurant’s staff earning similar kudos.

“Wife and I stop often on the way to AC,” wrote a Facebook reviewer in March. “We miss Lucille very much. RIP dear lady. The atmosphere is very friendly with a mix of travelers and regular locals. Lucille’s is mostly family run and the girls are friendly and efficient. ALL the employees are friendly and efficient and we look forward to seeing them when we stop.”

“Nothing like going to a comfortable forget-about-the-fancy-stuff restaurant,” wrote a reviewer on TripAdviser in April. “Lucille’s is all about the food, conversation and friends new and old. You can read the Sunday paper as it is passed around. Friendly!”

“Thank you Lucille, you created a homey pleasant comfortable atmosphere of good food for all …” wrote a TripAdviser reviewer in May. “Thank you Karen and family for keeping up the Mom’s traditions. Just had our breakfast this morning and felt right at home. Bought some delicious pies and another t-shirt.”

A Late-Life Romantic

And Law-Changer

Much of the conversation still revolves around Lucille as summertime patrons learn about her passing. A woman stepped up to offer Flynn her condolences as this reporter was interviewing her.

“My mom was so wonderful,” said Flynn, “really a fun person. She did so many things for so many people, even things we didn’t know until people came in and said ‘she did this or she did that.’”

Lucille didn’t have an easy life. First of all, she ran her restaurant for 41 years while raising a family of four children (the boy in the bunch was Jeff Bates, who now lives in Pennsylvania). Tack on the fact that she was widowed in 1980 when her husband James L. Bates died. And she lost a daughter, Cathy Bates-Lomauro, at the age of 40 in 2009.

Her daughter’s death in a head-on collision on Route 72 in Barnegat sparked Lucille to enter the political arena. Two EMTs had taken cell phone pictures of the dying woman and posted them online. Lucille launched a petition drive at her restaurant and contacted the representatives of New Jersey’s 9th Legislative District, seeking a law that would outlaw the taking of such pictures or videos by first responders excepting such images taken for the purpose of investigative or training purposes. The legislation became law in August 2012, imposing penalties of up to 18 months in jail and fines of up to $10,000.

But Lucille never lost her love of life.

“When she died,” said Flynn, “she (Lucille) was just two or three weeks away from going to Texas to get with her boyfriend Ken.”

Ken Reviele, explained Flynn, had been a Coast Guardsman who was stationed in Barnegat Light decades ago when her mother was still a young and unmarried woman. The two fell in love, but Reviele went back to Texas. Both went on to marry other people, have families and lose spouses due to death or divorce. A few years ago Lucille decided to track Reviele down and sparks once again flew.

“Fifty-four years later,” Flynn said while smiling. “There’s a picture of them over there.”

Bikers Gave,

Will Give, Back

If Lucille was a giver she also was a receiver.

In 2014 her restaurant’s road sign, which had been destroyed by Superstorm Sandy, hadn’t been replaced.

“With no room in the budget to cover non-essential costs, the diner sat sign-less for the last two years,” a motorcycle enduro club called MCI posted on its website. “That was until two local motorcycle enduro clubs offered to cover the cost of a replacement. The clubs, MCI and Meteor, have a long standing connection to both the Warren Grove area and Lucille’s, with hosting organized off-road motorcycle events in nearby Bass River State Forest and using the restaurant to cater those events for over 40 years.

“In noticing that the restaurant sign had yet to be replaced, Meteor President Michael Barr and MCI President Dave Nash approached Lucille Bates-Wickward, owner of Lucille’s Country Cooking and asked if they could help by providing the funding for a new sign. Lucille agreed …”

“When we heard that Lucille could use some help with securing the replacement sign, we jumped at the opportunity,” said Nash. “Aside from Lucille providing catering service for MCI events, she’s been a great friend to us all for over forty years.”

“Meteor Motorcycle Club has been hosting enduros in the area since 1934 and Lucille’s is an integral component of our events, said Barr. “Our riders love the food and family friendly environment that Lucille’s provides. Meteor Enduro Club was more than pleased to provide aid for a new sign; it’s the least we could do.”

“The MCI and Meteor club motorcycle events bring in much needed income critical to making the holidays special for our employees,” said Lucille at that time. “That they would go above and beyond to donate this sign really means a lot to me. I know the new sign means a lot to the community as well.”

Upon hearing of Lucille’s death, MCI is back. The club has announced that the proceeds from this year’s Stumpjumper Hare Scramble event will be donated to the Lucille Michel (her maiden name) Bates Memorial Scholarship Fund.

“Giving back to the communities local to where we hold our motorcycle events is at the soul of our organization,” said new MCI President Scott Wells. “Lucille was a vibrant part of the Stafford Township and Warren Grove communities, an advocate for the enduro events in the state of New Jersey, and most importantly, a friend to MCI. With her passing this past year, we couldn’t think of a better way to honor her memory than to give back in her name.”

A ceremony commemorating Lucille and the donation will be held over breakfast at Lucille’s this Sunday, July 17 at 9 a.m. and is open to the public, with all interested parties urged to attend.

“The scholarship started in my mother’s name,” said Flynn, “is given to students from Southern Regional High School in Stafford Township entering trade schools, nursing (Lucille was a nursing school grad) or culinary arts schools, as she requested in her wishes. This year, the fund provided four $250 scholarships. MCI’s donation will allow us to help another young man or woman move forward in cementing a successful future.”

Lucille was a Southern Regional graduate who loved supporting the school’s athletic teams. Indeed, her cowbell and pompoms hang behind the restaurant’s counter.

Flynn admitted to The SandPaper that keeping Lucille’s open was a labor of love.

“We both have other jobs,” she said of herself and her sister.

But with the community’s support, Lucille’s, featured last year on CNN’s “Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown,” won’t just be of the past or the present but of the future. Who knows if the restaurant will still be around in another 41 years, but let’s hope so, because Southern Ocean County institutions are becoming few and far between.

rickmellerup@thesandpaper.net

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