At nearly 7:30 on a Tuesday night in June, the new Jimmy’s Grille on Del. 1 in Rehoboth Beach is remarkably quiet. That’s because the eagerly anticipated restaurant isn’t open to the public. The diners who are tucking into chicken potpies and collards are the “friends and family” who’ve been invited to give the staff a dry run. Among the guests is Rehoboth Beach-area resident Bob Yesbek, who is sitting at a high-top table with a camera, an appetite—and lots of opinions.
For Yesbek, these events are commonplace. Better known as the Rehoboth Foodie, he is the culinary king of most media in Sussex County. His blog, RehobothFoodie.com, offers restaurant news and reviews. He also runs a smartphone app, Rehoboth in My Pocket. His knowledge of the dining scene landed him a weekly column on restaurants and food in the Cape Gazette and the seasonal Beach Paper. He also hosts a weekly radio talk show, “Sip & Bite With the Rehoboth Foodie,” on Delaware 105.9 FM, and he is co-owner and a guide of the Eating Rehoboth walking food tours.
Yesbek takes his mission seriously. At Jimmy’s, he orders a container of cinnamon buns and the Eastern Shore platter, which is piled high with ribs, fried fish, a fried crab cake and fried chicken. “A carnivore’s happy place for less than $25. (Lovin’ the cucumber salad side, btw.),” he later wrote on his blog. For dessert? Pecan-sour cream pie. “All tasty and obviously freshly baked,” he wrote.
Like a masked culinary crusader, Yesbek once guarded his true identity. In his photograph for RehobothFoodie.com, his face is obscured by a heavily garnished double cheeseburger that takes two hands. Once he started writing columns, guiding the Eating Rehoboth tours and publicizing the radio show, people put two and two together. The fact that he wears a pair of black-framed spectacles in all his photos also gives it away. And, hey, it’s a small town. There’s no such thing as anonymity.
Since he started his business in 2009, the Foodie has gained a fan base. “I’ve been following Bob’s blog-website-radio show for years,” says Karen Stauffer, communications director for the Delaware Restaurant Association. “There aren’t many people I could name who are more passionate about the industry. He’s more than a food critic. He knows that successful restaurants mean more tourism dollars and a thriving local economy.”
Scott Thomas, executive director of Southern Delaware Tourism, would agree. “Bob excels in directing the spotlight on Delaware’s Culinary Coast,” Thomas says. “From his media efforts to his popular food tours, he demonstrates what makes the area such a rising culinary destination.” In 2014, Eating Rehoboth received the Southern Delaware Tourism Award.
Yesbek, however, didn’t plan on becoming the beach’s go-to foodie when he retired to Rehoboth in 2002. In fact, most of his career was spent behind the keyboard of a Hammond B-3 or a mixing board, not a computer.
Yesbek and his younger sister grew up in the Washington, D.C., area. His father, William Robert “Doc” Yesbek, was a dentist. His mother, Clota Mae, was from Texas, and her fried chicken and chili were legendary. His father was of Lebanese descent. “I love Middle Eastern food,” Yesbek says. “I make some dishes pretty well.”
As a child, food did not fascinate Yesbek as much as a vinyl record. “One of my first memories is peering very closely at a 78 RPM record, trying to figure out how they got that music in there,” he says. Music became a large part of his life. While studying pre-med at the University of Maryland, he played keyboard in a rock band. In the mid-1960s, his band, The Hi-Notes, had regular gigs in Ocean City, Md. He also toured the fraternity party circuit.
In the early 1970s, he opened Omega Studios in Kensington, Md., which quickly expanded from three tracks to 24. Its success made him question his desire to be a doctor. “I left med school about halfway through because the recording studio was doing so well,” he says. “It had to be one or the other, and I didn’t want to relieve 35 people of their jobs.” He was also making more money with the studio than he would during his internship and residency.
Omega Studios expanded to include a professional recording school. Yesbek also purchased other studios, and he consolidated their operations and equipment at Omega, whose client list included Barry Manilow, Prince, Marvin Hamlisch, Elton John and Bernadette Peters. Omega did a lot of radio-TV production work, which fueled Yesbek’s fascination with radio. He purchased stations in Florida but did not move there. “I kept Eastern Airlines in business for about six years,” he says. The recording studio, which had moved to a larger facility in Rockville, Md., grew so busy that he sold the stations.
In 1992, Yesbek sold Omega. His experience with restaurants was limited to dining and performing in them. While waiting to go on stage, he often bugged the kitchen staff with his questions. But that didn’t stop him from opening Fleetwood’s, located in Alexandria, Va., with Mick Fleetwood, the drummer for Fleetwood Mac. Fleetwood valued Yesbek’s knowledge of sound-video systems. “We spent over a half a million dollars on that system,” he says. “I’ll never forget our grand opening, when Fleetwood Mac climbed onto the stage and started with ‘Don’t Stop.’ The place was packed—almost 400 people. I still get chills.” Yesbek also took a turn at owning a full-service restaurant in Bethesda, Md.
But in 2002, it was time to relax in Rehoboth, where he’d been vacationing since he was a child. It was the advent of social media, and a friend kept bugging him to start a blog about local restaurants. It wasn’t a stretch. Yesbek had done some food writing for D.C. publications. The friend put up the first web page, and Yesbek got down to eating.
During summer, RehobothFoodie.com now gets up to 7,500 hits a day—10,000 if his email newsletter, which has links to the site, breaks restaurant news. “When I broke the news that Touch of Italy was opening in Milford, I got 14,000 hits on that first day,” he says. Up to 60 percent of the hits are from outside Delaware. More than 30,000 people have his travel app.
His show on Delaware 105.9 FM is also gaining ground. The show was already in existence when Yesbek took it over. “Bob brings to the show his very unique set of relationships with not only restaurant owners but also chefs in the area and people who are in the hospitality business, including local brewers,” says Mark Schollenberger, the station’s general manager. “He’s given us a diversity of guests, and that leads to a diversity of advertisers.”
Keeping up on what’s new and what’s closed is a daily commitment. There are people to interview, articles to write and dishes to photograph. In addition to posting “Breaking Chews” and reviews, he updates old articles to reflect changes in management or improvements. As a result, he eats out five to six nights a week. “It’s only work when I have to eat at a place I don’t like very much or that I know I won’t like.”
Yesbek first looks to see if the restaurant is clean. Are the bathrooms well stocked and tidy? Is the lighting effective? He also keeps an eye out for strong, visible management. There must be teamwork between the front of the house and the kitchen, and staff must display a positive attitude. Then, of course, there’s the food—both the presentation and the flavor.
Most of his reviews are favorable. “It’s a resort town. If a restaurant is bad, chances are they will go out of business all on their own,” he says. “If a restaurant is consistently delivering on what it promises to deliver, whether it be Popeye’s, Blue Moon, Jimmy’s Grille or The Back Porch Café, they generally get good ratings from me.” Of course, he can nitpick. The sticky buns at Jimmy’s were served cold, and he can’t abide truffle oil on anything. “But if the effort is there, I look for the good.”
Because he’s so well-known now, he often sends friends to a restaurant to get their opinions before he walks in unannounced. “I used to sneak into places in a Yankees cap with big sunglasses,” he says. “I don’t do that anymore. I looked like a cross between Jackie O and ‘Ice Road Truckers.’”
His many endeavors keep him busy, but Yesbek also volunteers at Meals on Wheels Lewes-Rehoboth. He is the managing trustee of the Touch of Italy/RehobothFoodie.com Foundation, which provides culinary school tuition assistance to Delaware high school students who successfully graduate from a local culinary program, such as ProStart.
The Foodie has no intention of losing his appetite for his businesses. “I’m here and I’m enjoying myself. Why stop?” he says. “I completely failed at retirement.”