28 Wilmington Ave., Rehoboth Beach 227-4199, espumarestaurant.com
Espuma chef-owner Jay Caputo has cooked at world-class restaurants in California, flitted around restaurants in Boston and Philly (like the über-trendy Tangerine), and returned home to Delaware to head Espuma. “It’s so different down here,” he says. “Everyone is laid back and easy. They still want to enjoy fine dining, but they want to do it in shorts and a T-shirt.” Caputo put his stamp on the restaurant gradually, allowing it to evolve rather than change in toto. The restaurant’s metropolitan design softly fades into Mediterranean color and dynamic lighting. “We just try to create little nooks and crannies,” he says. The menu is a California-meets-Mediterranean infusion with fresh, vibrant flavors. A favorite is the three-day pork. Served with bacon, fava beans, black-eyed peas, pearl onions and whole-grain mustard, it is extremely tender. “If you need to use a knife, we haven’t cooked it long enough,” Caputo says. On the ninth of every month, Espuma features a six-course food and wine pairing focused on a particular region in the world. Also, you can bring a bit of Espuma to your own kitchen—Caputo offers in-home cooking classes.
1247 New Churchmans Road, Newark 731-9188, potstickersasiangrill.com
Two words: Love Boat. And we’re not talkin’ Captain Merrill Stubing. Imagine a gorgeous, table-sized wooden boat imported from Japan and filled with an array of Asian delights—tobiko-sprinkled California rolls, shrimp tempura, seaweed salad, nigiri sushi, pan-seared vegetables, salmon and heart-shaped yellow-tail tuna (for added romance). Co-owners Li and Elizabeth Shih say the feast takes about 20 minutes to prepare, but an evening to enjoy. Potstickers serves Pan-Asian cuisine with a European spin. Geometric lights dangle from the ceiling, lending a modern twist to traditional Asian décor; water trickles down walls of exposed stone. For diners who are easing into Asian cuisine, the wasabi-crusted filet mignon—served with baby bok choy and plum wine demi-glace—provides the perfect buffer. The Shihs travel often to New York City to find top-quality Asian meals. “We wanted to create something here with that ambience,” Elizabeth Shih says. “Delaware is our home. We wanted to give back.”
Routes 1 and 100, Chadds Ford,
Pennsylvania, (610) 388-8088
Thanks to the grace of a friend named Joe, a leisurely bike ride through Chadds Ford and an impromptu stop at Wawa, Dan Butler—of Toscana and Deep Blue fame—became the main man at brand-new (as in not quite open at press time) Brandywine Prime, the new restaurant at the 300-year-old Chadds Ford Inn. “Serendipity had something to do with it,” Butler says. BPrime features a raw bar and large lounge. A unique blend of rustic country meets contemporary charm as modern lighting and furniture collide with original exposed-stone walls. The restaurant features everything from dry-aged beef, paella, curry-crusted halibut, and tuna tartar to family-friendly burgers and seafood. “We are going to have some very creative seafood presentations,” Butler says. Oenophiles rejoice: Prime offers 30 bottles under $30. “Half the fun of exploring wine is finding value,” Butler says. “Finding a $100 bottle of wine is easy. Finding fantastic wine for $25 is a challenge.”
238 Atlantic Ave., Bethany Beach
About two miles down Del. 26 from the famous totem pole is an elegant dining solution for those who’d like to trade sandy feet for quality steak. “You really feel like you’re dining in a high-quality hotel in a big city,” co-owner Jerry Richard says of the restaurant’s royal appeal. High, black ceilings set off Italian tile, sage and ginger hues, chandeliers and a double-sided fireplace. Chef Steve Hagan serves a full range of steak, from sirloin to Porterhouse to New York strip. Steakhouse 26 also offers a 14-ounce bone-in filet mignon served with a veal stock demi-glace. Richard suggests pairing the filet with Silver Oak ’02 Cabernet. Co-owners Theresa Richard and Brooks Long add a unique twist—more than $100,000 in art. How? Barbara Richard is a professional artist whose pastels decorate the walls, and Long owns the Nassau Gallery in Bethany.
23 Baltimore Ave., Rehoboth Beach
Eden Café certainly isn’t new to the list of fine dining establishments at the beach, but its owners are. Jeff McCracken, a local who long counted the café among his favorite restaurants, jumped at the chance to buy in last year. “Our philosophy was to evolve it more than completely reform it,” McCracken says. Apart from a few aesthetic nips and tucks, including quartering off the bar to create a more intimate vibe, the only major change comes in the form of new chef Jamie Wilson, who serves bold American food dusted with Mediterranean flair. Classic favorites like the mac’n’cheese pasta—prepared with goat cheese, parmesan reggiano, grilled chicken, spinach and roasted peppers—keep customers coming back, but as the seasons change, heavier fare is served. Eden is the place to be on Wednesday nights. A choice of three appetizers, three entrées and two desserts is available for a prix fixe of $30. The prix fixe also highlights wine from the 150-bottle list. Prices range from $22 to $350.
Café Bleu at the
Red and White Club
25 W. Loockerman St.
Someone let the chicken cassoulet out of the bag—Delaware’s best-kept secret is out. “We’re more like Delaware’s worst-kept secret now,” says Margaret Law, owner of Café Bleu, an eclectic, Paris-themed bistro in Dover. At Café Bleu, the most daunting challenge is deciding what (or who) to fall in love with—the deeply French-inspired menu or the charming tag team of Law and executive chef Susan Dempsey. If Dempsey isn’t treating you to her “can’t keep them in the kitchen” sage sausage and mushroom strudel with Port reduction, she’s treating you to her convivial faux French accent. “We’ve been deemed a ‘chick’ place, but that’s not fair,” Dempsey says. “Men eat my chicken cassoulet, too.” With cozy seating for 48, the setting sparkles with large windows, smart dressings and warm color. If it’s a grab-and-dash lunch you want, you’ve come to the wrong place. “It’s more of a leisurely cheese-course-and-wine-type place,” says Law.
30 W. Clinton St., Delaware City
It may be one of the few restaurants on the list where you can sport a T-shirt depicting a crab and the slogan “Good hard, good soft,” but that doesn’t mean Crabby Dick’s doesn’t take a stab at fine dining. “This restaurant is a lot different than our location in Rehoboth,” says co-owner John Buchheit. “We have a separate dining room called CherMary’s, named after my mother and my co-owner’s mother, where we have lots of family portraits on the wall, plush carpeting and a fireplace. It is reservations only, except for Sunday brunch.” CherMary’s offers an ever-changing prix fixe menu that differs from the pub menu, but one thing remains: “Our cream of crab soup is our signature dish,” Buchheit says. “It’s the best around. It’s a secret recipe. I was born and raised on the Chesapeake, and my momma would kill me if I gave it away.” The restaurant is housed in the almost 200-year-old Delaware City Hotel, and features a double-decker patio with a view of Pea Patch Island. “I feel like it’s straight out of Mayberry down here,” Buchheit says. “And we love every minute of it.”
Wahoo Raw Bar
and Crab Co.
19598 Coastal Hwy.
Rehoboth Beach 227-6700
There’s a new crab barn in town, and it’s anything but typical. “We wanted to create an atmosphere unique to the area, but that still served a traditional function,” says Anthony DiDomenicis, who owns the restaurant with wife Jenn. The crab house is fused with a sports vibe. The DiDomenicises added two sleek bars, multiple flat-screen TVs and sports memorabilia. DiDomenicis is a perfectionist when it comes to his crabs. “I had some concerns with how we were doing our crabs, so I hooked up with a guy in Ocean City (Maryland) who has been crabbing for years,” he says. “He invited me down, and I spent a couple weekends with him, really learning his technique.” Wahoo offers all-you-can-eat crabs all year. They get their crabs from the Chesapeake and North Carolina during the season and from Texas during the off-season. The restaurant is surrounded by corrugated metal fencing that supports blown-up, genuine, pre-1965 Rehoboth Beach postcards. One of Wahoo’s signature dishes is a Chinese-influenced crab wanton—jumbo wrappers stuffed with homemade crab imperial served with a sesame-ginger dipping sauce.
The Chef’s Table
222 Delaware St., New Castle
The Chef’s Table sparkles with little touches—the perfectly placed beaded candleholder, the cooking books that line an exposed-brick shelf and the jumbo guest book mounted on the wall inscribed with memories. Charming is a gross understatement. “The original building was constructed in 1685,” says chef and owner Robert Lhulier. Now it houses Lhulier’s “warmed up, approachable” brand of dining, complete with perfectly portioned meals. “If you serve too much, it comes back to the kitchen,” he says. The menu is full of quail, duck, mushroom, squash and apples—clean, fresh and vibrant seasonal ingredients. Though Lhulier knows when he needs to be in the kitchen cooking, he makes time to greet his customers. “We do a lot in-house. We do our own pickling, we brine our own meat, we bake bread and make pasta,” he says. “The place is the perfect size. Any larger, and the details fall through the cracks.” The restaurant perfectly complements little New Castle and its stone streets, antiqued signs and gorgeous views of the Delaware. However, Lhulier thinks you could place it right in the middle of Manhattan. “The core principals of a successful restaurant don’t change,” he says. “The only thing that changes is the competition.”
121 Campbell Place, Bethany Beach
If you go to Patsy Rankin’s Key West-inspired restaurant and find her knee deep in the garden, it’s because she’s busy picking the herbs that will accompany your dinner that night. “That’s how fresh we serve our plates,” she says. Rankin shares ownership with daughter Robin, the new chef de cuisine. Patsy’s is a study in contrasts. Fine linen table cloths, romantic lighting and a sophisticated menu mingle playfully with wall-clinging geckos and myriad PEZ dispensers. “We hear ‘It’s so cute’ a lot,” says Robin. The whimsy spills over to the wine menu. Choose from Red Heads of Blondes—“We like quirky wines, like Big Ass Shiraz, but they have to taste good also,” Patsy says. The menu boasts a lobster medley, foie gras, organic chicken, crab cakes with “just a hint” of Japanese bread crumbs and the Rankins’ crowing glory: the Key West red snapper, flown in straight from the source and served with a soy-ginger-garlic sauce. If you’re itching for Patsy’s kitchen in March, you’re out of luck. The Rankin family will be “researching” in Key West.
404 Rehoboth Ave., Rehoboth Beach
After you take just one step into Partners Bistro, owner Bill Burckhardt will cheerfully treat you like family, whether you’re a first-timer or a seasoned Partners pro. “We want people to come here and know they are accepted,” Burckhardt says. Partners caters to the GLBT community and its “straight but not narrow” neighbors, Burckhardt says. The only piano bar in Rehoboth, Partners serves classic American comfort food while the nightly entertainer bangs out contemporary hits on the ivories. “We have specials every night of the week,” Burckhardt says. (Try the fried chicken or prime rib.) Burckhardt sees the same faces four or five times a week. “People call us the Cheers of Rehoboth for a reason,” he says. Because word gets around, Partners may be the only joint in town with a line at 8 p.m. in the middle of winter. “My partner and I were driving in Florida, and the guy in front of us had a Partners bumper sticker,” he says.