AT A POPULAR FINE DINING ESTABLISHMENT AT THE FOOT OF THE MATHIS BRIDGE, THIS GREGARIOUS MIXOLOGIST LIVES EACH MOMENT LIKE HAPPY HOUR

BY GILDA ROGERS PHOTOS BY TOM ZAPCIC

Every Thursday at Aqua Blu Kitchen and Cocktails in Toms River is Burger Night. Between the $10 burgers packed high with fixings and mixologist Kaine Jeryc’s legion of loyal customers, it feels more like a holiday weekend, the crowding swelling before 5 p.m.

Among them is Peter, a frequent guest who sings Jeryc’s praises, noting, “He’s nice to everybody.” Another customer chimed in, “It’s like Comedy Central in here.” The diverse group around the restaurant’s large bar all seemed to have an allegiance to Jeryc, who laughed, “I have to manage the fun bunch” the reason he loves his job.

Happy hour here sparkles from 2 to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, with Jeryc at the helm. His affinity for comedians Shane Gillis and Tim Dillon trickles down to his customers through his own comedic air.

“I like people and making them feel comfortable,” said Jeryc, who has been working at Aqua Blu for four years. Originally from Ringwood, the 38-year-old has spent more than half of his life in the restaurant and bar industry.

“My father’s friend bought a bar (in Ringwood), where I got my first job at 16 years old as a barback,” said Jeryc, who was still wearing braces at the time. “I wanted to get into bartending. At 16, I learned to make martinis and cosmos, along with other cocktails.” He was earning upwards of $100 a night while his high school friends were making minimum wage working at the local grocery store. By the time he turned 18, Jeryc was serving customers from behind the bar.

When not entertaining his customers, Jeryc is a family man. His wife Melissa and daughter Charli are his pride and joy. The couple purchased their first home in Beachwood this past August, from one of Jeryc’s Aqua Blu customers.

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“I would’ve never met him if I weren’t working here,” the aable bartender said. “I am working on the basement and though it’s a bunch of headaches, it does make me feel a certain accomplishment. I’m so blessed.”

Jeryc has worked in corporate restaurants and swanky hotspots. He professed that for as long as Aqua Blu remains open, he’ll be there. He credits the “family-oriented” owners with creating an environment where stais valued, adding, “They take care of their employees. We’re not staff, we’re family.”

There’s an infectious ambiance at Aqua Blu that explains the many returning patrons, but credit also goes to the food. A fan favorite starter is the braised beef short rib sliders, topped with red cabbage slaw, which Jeryc called a tasty beginning to the dining experience. Then select from a variety of decadent entrées like the 14-oz Berkshire pork chop or a hyper-fresh red snapper with basil crust, along with homemade pastas and artisanal pizzas. Sunday brunch is a featured attraction, as is live entertainment most nights of the week.

Back at the bar, a fan favorite cocktail is the espresso martini, highly recommended by another repeat customer. The drink is balanced and smooth with no overpowering flavors. The mix of Stoli vanilla flavored vodka, Baileys Irish Cream, coffee liqueur, and a shot of espresso boasts the panache of an adult milkshake, topped with three strategically placed espresso beans.

We also recommend the white cosmopolitan, made with Tito’s vodka, fresh squeezed lime, St-Germain elder flower liqueur, and white cranberry juice. Cosmos can often lean too sweet or run of the mill. Jeryc’s cosmo, rather, was fresh, bright, and ice-cold delicious.

Aqua Blu Kitchen & Cocktails
3410 Route 37 South, Toms River / aquablurestaurant.com