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Sunday, April 14, 2024


Look Out Doo-wop, Honky Tonk’s on Its Way

Wildwood’s Boardwalk Mall will soon have a new tenant. The Honky Tonk, a country-themed bar and restaurant, shown in an artist’s rendering, will open on the ground floor before Memorial Day weekend, owner Sean Dougherty said.

By Shay Roddy

New Wildwood Boardwalk Mall Bar Looks to Capitalize on Country Music Craze

Summer is coming fast! In the weeks leading up to Memorial Day weekend, the Herald will cover some of the many prominent development projects underway on the Five Mile Island. It’s been an extraordinarily busy offseason, and many new businesses are coming to the Wildwoods.

The Herald is continuing to follow the story of the beleaguered Mahalo Resort in Wildwood Crest and will cover another major hotel project underway on the Crest’s beachfront. We’ll write about a new marina, condo and bar development proposed for the Wildwood bayfront, and about the planned expansion of one of the city’s most popular bars. And there are plans for a new tiki bar that will be familiar to those who drink in Sea Isle. A famous Philly cheesesteak shop is set to make its Jersey Shore debut on the island, a welcome addition for those who know a thing or two about where to get a good one in the city. All this is just part of our list for this series.

We begin the Wildwoods development series with a look at a new plan for one of the city’s best-known attractions – the Boardwalk Mall – which has new ownership that is in the process of overhauling the space, part of their plan to cater to the country music craze.

WILDWOOD – Beyoncé is not the only one jumping onboard the country music bandwagon in 2024. The 32-time Grammy winner and local businessman Sean Dougherty can now say they have at least one thing in common: Both are embracing a genre that had been outside of their wheelhouses.

With her rise to the top of Billboard’s country music charts with the song “Texas Hold ‘Em,” released immediately following a Verizon Super Bowl commercial, the Queen B delivered on her bet she would break the internet, becoming the first Black female artist ever to have a No. 1 hit country song on the music industry standard record chart.

With the achievement, the pop, hip-hop and R&B icon proved not only her versatility as a singer and songwriter, but also brought about what CBS News described as a “cultural shift” for the genre.

In a resort town where Chubby Checker introduced “The Twist” and Bill Haley & His Comets used to “Rock Around the Clock,” country music wasn’t traditionally something Wildwood was known for.

But recently there has been a shift in the city, which has warmed up to the genre, further demonstrating its increasingly broad appeal each June since the Barefoot Country Music Fest first took over the Wildwood beach in 2021. Marketed by the city as the Northeast’s largest country music festival, each year it’s featured the top entertainers Beyoncé just supplanted.

Dougherty plans to make country music a Wildwood mainstay when he opens the Honky Tonk, a new bar being designed by Russ Simmons and built on the ground floor of the Boardwalk Mall. Dougherty said they’re set to break the seal prior to Memorial Day weekend. It will be the first bar of its kind in the county.

Tyler Dougherty, left, is helping his father, Sean, right, prepare to open the Honky Tonk in Wildwood’s Boardwalk Mall. Adam Parker, center, is in charge of selecting arcade games that they will incorporate into the new country bar, an homage to the space’s history as an arcade. Photo Credit: Shay Roddy

“As a business owner, you see a need, you fill a need,” Dougherty told the Herald during an interview at the boardwalk property, which he and his partners acquired this offseason.

Dougherty said he didn’t listen to country music for most of his life, but after being exposed to the Barefoot festival, and on a trip two years ago to Nashville – the self-proclaimed Country Music Capital of the World – he fell in love with it.

“That’s all I listen to now,” he said. “It’s family music. The crowd that we get for Barefoot, in the entire town, is just phenomenal.”

Dougherty is not a rookie in the restaurant and bar industry. His group operates five other establishments in Cape May County, including the Capt’n Jack’s that is already a part of the Boardwalk Mall, a space he used to lease before the recent purchase, and another Capt’n Jack’s farther up the boardwalk, across from Sam’s Pizza Palace. He will also be the landlord for a new Domino’s Pizza location on the boardwalk, in the former Stewart’s Root Beer Restaurant space, which was most recently Papi’s Tacos.

In Stone Harbor, Dougherty has the Harbor Burger Bar, attached to 96th Street’s movie theater, and the nearby Agave, a tapas and tequila bar that opened during the summer of 2022. More recently, he opened the restaurants and bars that are part of the new Cape Square Entertainment Complex, established last summer in Rio Grande.

A transformation to Wildwood’s Boardwalk Mall is underway. The ground floor will become the Honky Tonk, a country-themed bar and restaurant. Photo Credit: Shay Roddy

He said that at the Honky Tonk, patrons can expect a family-friendly atmosphere, with live music, weekly line dancing and a Tex-Mex-themed menu.

The Music City has clearly been a source of inspiration for the new country bar in Wildwood, and Nashville earned its moniker for a reason. Live music is omnipresent at the bars and venues that line historic Lower Broad.

An artist’s rendering of the stage area at the Honky Tonk, a new bar set to open before Memorial Day on the ground floor of Wildwood’s Boardwalk Mall.

Expect some of the same in Wildwood. Dougherty said artists he has already booked include Brian McConnell, Payton Taylor, Joe Bachman and other country up-and-comers.

A transformation of the ground floor, which used to house the Boardwalk Mall’s arcade, is currently underway. The new bar space will honor its predecessor with games incorporated throughout.

The new country-themed bar under construction in Wildwood’s Boardwalk Mall Monday, Feb. 19. Photo Credit: Shay Roddy

Adam Parker, a 20-year employee of Dougherty’s, is in charge of that aspect of the new business. He told the Herald the Honky Tonk will include an axe-throwing video game, car and motorcycle racing games, air hockey, basketball and other arcade-style attractions.

The availability of food and alcohol won’t be the only difference, though. While it is on the ground floor, one level below the boardwalk entrance, the space that will house the new bar used to feel like a basement.

“It’s almost been like a dungeon down here. Nobody wanted to come down into the first floor,” Dougherty said.

An artist’s rendering of the bar planned for the Honky Tonk.

He pointed to work being done to cut into the cement walls where two large roll-up windows are being installed.

“It’s going to bring a lot of light and a lot of life,” he said.

Another unique aspect will be a painting attraction incorporated into the bar. Splash House, a business that has already proven its concept at a Virginia Beach location, lets patrons of all ages unleash their inner Jackson Pollock.

“They put up some canvases and they throw paint against the wall, kind of to the beat of the music,” Dougherty explained. “It’s a fun type of party atmosphere.”

The boardwalk level of the Boardwalk Mall will look familiar. It will still house a variety of merchants, most of whom are returning from last year. The spaces that became available have all been rented, Dougherty said.

A deck that opened last summer at Capt’n Jack’s, a bar occupying the third level of Wildwood’s Boardwalk Mall. Photo Credit: Shay Roddy

Upstairs is still Capt’n Jack’s, another of Dougherty’s establishments. The deck overhanging the boardwalk, which opened during the season last year, will again offer fresh air and ocean views for Capt’n Jack’s patrons. When the Barefoot festival comes to town, the country theme will travel up the steps from the Honky Tonk to the mall’s third level, where the deck will look right out on the stage.

Dougherty has assistance from his 21-year-old son, Tyler, who told the Herald he helps keep the books for the family business. He is joined in the venture by his brother and business partner, E.J. Dougherty, and minority partners Ross Denham and Patrick Rosenello.

Despite the new bar’s present bare-bones condition, Dougherty said he is more worried that the boardwalk out front won’t be finished than he is that the Honky Tonk won’t be ready for the holiday weekend and unofficial start of summer beginning Friday, May 24.

The reconstruction of the Wildwood Boardwalk is still in progress in front of the Boardwalk Mall. Photo Credit: Shay Roddy

Contact the author, Shay Roddy, at or 609-886-8600, ext. 142.


Shay Roddy is a Delaware County, Pennsylvania native who has always spent as much of his summers as he could at the Jersey Shore. He went to Friends’ Central and is a graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.

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