OCEAN CITY — Venerable Ninth Street landmark The Chatterbox will be open for this summer, according to the new owner of the business and the building.
Chatterbox fans — both among residents and regular visitors — were dismayed when the former owners put the business up for sale. That dismay seemed to turn to panic when crews arrived and began painting the outside of the building, covering the intense shade most just refer to as Pepto Bismol pink with yellow.
“That was the primer,” said Regina Anthony in a recent interview. She described the reaction to the change as “very cute,” and added that it’s gratifying that the town is so invested and interested in the business.
“I think if there was complete apathy, that would be troubling,” she said.
She and her husband Jim, who works in commercial real estate in Raleigh, North Carolina, purchased the business and the building this year. Crews have been hard at work renovating the building, which she said will definitely open by Memorial Day.
There will be some changes to the look of the corner of Ninth Street and Central Avenue, however. Anthony plans to use a different, less intense shade of pink.
“It’s going to be the original color. It was more of a shrimp color,” she said. Crews have been removing decades worth of pink, layer by layer. Along the way, she said, they’ve uncovered beautiful mosaic tiles. “When you’re restoring a building of this age, you want to get as close as you can to the original look and feel.”
The building dates from 1929, reportedly designed by Vivian Smith, the same architect who designed The Flanders, The Music Pier and City Hall. The Chatterbox opened in 1937 and is said to have moved to its current location in 1940.
Anthony plans to respect that history, she said, in the restoration and in the operation of the business. That includes restoring the original color for the Spanish Mission Revival-style building and doing extensive renovations to the electrical and plumbing systems.
“We know the building is in great stewardship,” she said.
She said she was working in collaboration with Giampaolo “John” Duva, who has extensive experience in food service and will run the restaurant. The plan is to keep the core concept — American diner comfort food — but update the menu for today’s eating habits. That means more fresh ingredients and everything made in-house, she said. She plans to make ice cream on the premises.
The dining area has been gutted. Anthony said they’ve invested in new banquettes and a new tile floor. The crews have preserved a mural by the late Ocean City artist Ed Wismer, a depiction of how the diner may have looked in 1940.
“I wouldn’t dare touch that,” she said.
Anthony said she’s lived in Cherry Hill for some time and often came to Ocean City with her children, Sebastian and Julian. The children are now attending college in the south.
“I wanted to keep our ties to New Jersey,” Anthony said. “I have so many memories of the children growing up on the beaches there. When opportunity came up to purchase the property we couldn’t pass it up.”
Although in business for decades, The Chatterbox has only had a few owners in its history. According to published reports, Jean Campbell opened the restaurant originally and ran it until 1968. Another owner held it briefly before selling to the Repici family in 1970. Bob and Maria Boyer bought the business from Marie Repici in 2014.
Anthony said in a recent interview that they toured the building in February and closed on the sale this spring, “So this is a brand new acquisition for us.
“We didn’t want anything to happen to the building,” she said. “The restaurant’s been open since 1937. We didn’t want to see it lapse.”
She declined to disclose the purchase price for the building, or the estimated cost of the extensive renovations. As of November of last year, the building was listed with an asking price of $995,000. There are also residential units upstairs. She said she has not decided what she’ll do with those units once the current leases run out.
“We may do improvements to the three apartments, making it a really lovely overnight stay or for the week. I believe I want to rent those out to the public starting next year,” she said. “We’re going to feel it out and see what’s in the best interest of the building.”
She does not expect to rent them as residential units or even for the season, suggesting nightly stays or weekly rentals would probably be a better fit.
Anthony said she’s been researching the history of the building and plans to highlight that history with photos of old Ocean City displayed. She mentioned a story — repeated from several sources — that Grace Kelly worked briefly at the diner as a teenager, before she became a Hollywood star and long before she married Prince Rainier to become Princess Grace of Monaco.
Anthony said she’s enjoyed learning about the building from those who remember its history and from the discoveries at the site, describing herself as a fan of architecture.
“It’s been thrilling, as you peel back the decades to see what it really looked like. It’s really gratifying,” she said. “This ensures that the building will be in good standing for many decades to come.”