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Sun, Sand & Cheese Steaks

In Bethany Beach, a Summer Institution

By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 20, 2002; Page C01

BETHANY BEACH, Del. -- Beachgoers from all over the East Coast have tracked sand across the carpeting by midafternoon. It's a late-lunch surge of sunned-out vacationers -- young girls in bikinis, all-American families with hyper kids, dawdling teen boys wearing surfer T's and backward caps. Lines snake from the sub and pizza registers almost out the door. In a seasonal ritual as unwavering as summer love and pounding Atlantic waves, customers come and go all day long at this standing-room-only beach sub shop.

Two doors down from D.B.'s Fries, next door to the Candy Kitchen, Surf's Up is a veritable Bethany institution. Regulars consider its cheese steaks as essential a beach tradition as morning newspapers at Rhodes 5 & 10 (31 years in business), cheap novels at Atlantic Books (10 years) and buckets of caramel popcorn from Fisher's (hereabouts sixty-some years).

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Closing in on the final crunch weeks of its 20th anniversary season, the little sub and pizza shop a block off the boardwalk has outlasted all of this resort town's other restaurants. It has done so simply by staying the same -- in a place where businesses vanish in the off-season, at a time when nothing's supposed to ever be the same again. But nothing changes much at Surf's Up.

The menu's the same as when Ronald Reagan was president and "E.T." was the box office blockbuster. The ebb and flow of music and crowd cacophony is the same as when the Beach Boys headlined the Fourth of July on the Mall. Some of the characters here are even the same.

"Number 243! 244!" As they have for two decades, teenage sub makers -- more than a dozen at peak hours -- quickly stuff hoagie rolls, wrap them in brown paper and holler order numbers. Pizza cooks on the other side of the room yell first names and toppings: "John large cheese pepperoni!" The nonstop chop-chop of the steak cook hammering at 20 pounds of sirloin tips keeps beat to Grateful Dead or reggae tunes.

Signs are everywhere. "Voted Best Pizza on the Beach by Delaware Beach Guide," beside the pizza register. At the side door and out front: "Best Cheese Steak -- Washingtonian Magazine." On the counter front: "Please Don't Reach Over the Counter."

In the calmer dining area upstairs, owners Mickey and June Bailey, taking a rare break from the routine they began the summer of '82, say they still put in seven days and 60 hours a week. "The day we opened it up we started working and we haven't stopped since," says Mickey, 60, wearing a blue Surf's Up T-shirt.

June, also 60, named the place. "Probably it came from being at the beach," she says, stating the all-too-obvious -- probably a habit from training hundreds of teenagers as young as 14 working their first jobs. "I just thought of it one day -- "

"And it stuck," says Mickey.

Both grew up just south of Philadelphia. Twenty years ago, Mickey was a union pipe fitter there. During summers, June helped her mother, who had moved here and opened a sub shop a few miles inland. They figured since Mickey's pipe-fitting job was as seasonal as the hoagie business, they might as well pack up their six children (then ages toddler to 12) each summer and run their own beach-season sub shop on Bethany's main drag, then head back to Philly in the fall (today they live here year-round). Ever since the opening, Surf's Up's artery-clogging cheese steaks have found a place in the hearts of its customers.

"Have you ever had a great sub? You might have, but not the best," 11-year-old Jack O'Connor wrote in a school essay a year ago after vacationing in Bethany from Shaker Heights, Ohio. "Unless of course you went to Surf's Up Subs. . . . Its subs are by far the greatest in the U.S.A."

Jack's father, Clint O'Connor, who sent the Baileys the essay and was back in Bethany Beach last week with the family, vouches for his son's loyalty to the roast beef, provolone, pickles and mayo subs there: "We eat at Surf's Up very often. In fact, much too often."

Says June of Jack's essay: "I'm going to frame it and hang it on the wall somewhere." Howard and Aimee Kane sit at a laminate-top table with sons Robbie, 10, and Sam, 8, waiting for their order. The Clarksville, Md., family has vacationed at Bethany for seven years, and Surf's Up is one of their rites of summer.

"Tonight we decided to have a picnic on the beach," says Howard, who ordered a cheese steak with lettuce, tomato, onions and "gobs" of mayo. "I lived in Philly a couple years so I know what a cheese steak is, and there is no better."

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