*Editor’s note: a previous version of this article listed Evero Spezia as a newly opened restaurant. It has since been closed.
Look around our plugged-in, app-addled world and it’s easy to see we’re all hopelessly hooked on the easy buzz of instant gratification. It’s as close as our cellphones and our supersized TVs; it tempts us from inside our fridges, perpetually stuffed with ice-cream dreams. Still, someplace in our otherwise sensible selves, the thrill of unpredictable, risky experiences fascinates us. We plot our vacations to the minute, then declare afterward that the best moments were unplanned. We lean toward the snuggly comfort of reliable dining destinations but still crave the frisson of unexpected tastes, the discovery of unfamiliar affections.
And so, we search for the loves we never knew we held, seeking signs of hope along the strip-malled highways. “Now Open,” neon lights tease—tiny words holding endless promise to a food fiend. Could this place be the smart, deliciously decadent French gem Wilmington yearns for? Have we stumbled into some passionate and unexpected ethnic love affair? Has that dear but not-so-near diner finally opened closer to home?
Luckily for the ever-hopeful Delaware foodie, 2018 brought a bit of all of that—and more.
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In Wilmington and at the beach—predictably, but always enticingly—new notions of cozy cosmopolitanism slipped onto the scene, from full-on French to prime-time beef. Across the state, restaurateurs and imbibers alike remained smitten by the liquid allure of house-crafted beer, wine and spirits. And slowly, cautiously, a few healthier-looking characters dared show their wholesome faces to a calorie-craving citizenry.
Cautious but enthralled, we explored, finding moments of revelation and episodes of disappointment. By this time next year, no doubt, some of these upstarts will be gone. Others will ride out the wild restaurant roller coaster—rattling through chef changeovers, climbing past rickety initial concepts—until they finally settle in and discover new reasons for us to adore them.
A few might already be enshrined as new favorites by this time next year, affirming what we always hoped was true: The future is a place where hope patiently abides.
(FROM LEFT): The ricotta gnocchi at Bardea in Wilmington; The Stitch House Nachos at Stitch House Brewery in Wilmington.//Photos by Joe del Tufo and Jim Coarse, Moonloop Photography
This city has a way of living vivaciously one moment, coming off stodgy and stale the next. Waves of culinary energy rise and roll ahead with giddy zeal, then mysteriously peter out. This year, sparks of fresh energy brightened the Wilmington scene, giving diners hope of newfound momentum, mitigated (as always) by the unsteady fortunes that seem the lot of so many city ventures.
Partly, this is due to their peculiar position atop the fine dining food chain. Like their brethren at the beach, city restaurants enjoy the opportunity—and face the obligation—to bring a sense of real style to the table, to stand confidently on a stage where creative explorations can define success. At the new Bardea Food & Drink on Market Street, Chef Antimo DiMeo and Scott Stein bravely (and smartly) tweak and nudge the Italian repertoire that Delawareans worship, twisting classics just so, and encouraging table-wide sharing. There seems plenty of room for praise in a poached lobster risotto with a sweet-sour beet agrodolce and burrata ($18); a truffle-and-Taleggio pizza with wild mushrooms ($15); or dayboat scallops draped in smoked hollandaise ($24).
Short rib panini at Stitch House Brewery.// Photo by
Extravagant moments like those are also at the core of fine French cuisine, and serve as reminders of how this town always sustained a haute cuisine presence (if only at the Hotel du Pont). Now, the folks at Margaux (closed) on Market Street seem to have sensed our yearning. The decadent, sumptuous personalities of full-on French cookery hold astonishing power to reinvigorate and re-inspire—whether it’s a beef tartare with saucy egg yolks ($18); a locally sourced coq au vin studded with pork-fat love ($30); or even a delicate piece of Dover sole, besotted with brown butter, then kissed with lemon ($32). A creperie and French-style sandwich shop next door is anticipated.
Until then, other less-fussy diversions have hit the scene. Farmer & the Cow on Market works to charm us by tweaking everyday bar-and-grill menus with a bit of comfort-inducing Southern sass: The “flight” of bacon embraces three styles of porky passion ($14); the Morning Glory burger entices breakfast lovers with its happy pileup of scrapple, bacon and egg ($12-$14).
And over on Union Street, at Lhasa Bistro, they realize that comforting ideals also endure in the many tastes of Asia: Try the dead-on delectable Vietnamese Shaking Beef, a dish that could forever change your concept of the phrase “a steak and salad” ($15). Grilled lemongrass chicken ($11) and Pan-Asian BBQ ribs ($11) seem likely to suit our contradictory cravings for an upscale-but-affordable world.
Toward the center of the city, the search for new energy turned to an old inspiration: Stitch House Brewery sees itself as a place for relaxation and even a touch of revelry, something downtown has always needed more of. And in the coming months, an upscale-leaning food hall called DE.CO is set to open as a forum for “creative chefs to launch new and exciting restaurant ideas,” ultimately adding another eight eateries, an atrium bar and untold promise to the DuPont Building—proving once again that Wilmington has always been able to make the old seem new again.
(FROM LEFT): The Farmhouse Charcuterie Board at Harvest Tide Steakhouse in Lewes; Harvest Tide in Lewes offers a diverse menu of beef and seafood.//photos by Joe del Tufo and Jim Coarse, Moonloop Photography
In the shoulder-to-shoulder beach towns that serve as Delaware’s power center of culinary innovation, even new places sometimes seem to carry forward threads of old ideals, trends as immutable as the tides: A certain unkempt, laid-back insouciance is obligatory in even the most elevated establishments. The reshuffling of pizza joints, brewpubs and Mexican restaurants is practically preordained.
That means discovering a new place is often as easy as visiting that old place you loved—and finding it rebranded and reinvented. The canal-side Wharf restaurant in Lewes has morphed into The Wheelhouse and offers a suits-all-tastes menu. Dewey Beach Club flipped into MezCali Taquería y Mezcal Bar, and Beachside in Rehoboth is now El Jefe Gordo, substituting one familiar theme with another. Papa Grande’s on Second Street in Reho awoke one day to find itself transformed into Azzurro Italian Oven, completing the location’s years-long global trek from France (Chez La Mer), to Italy (Porcini House), to Mexico (Cabo, Papa Grande), and now back to Italy.
(Clockwise from Top Left): The Chicken Tinga Toastada at MezCali Taqueria Y Mezcal Bar in Dewey Beach; Carpaccio at Houston-White Co. in Rehoboth Beach; The octopus at Cuvée Ray Wine Bar & Restaurant in Rehoboth Beach; Seared scallops with smoked bacon jam at The Wheelhouse Restaurant and Bar in Lewes.//Mezcali photo by Blonde Cravings LLC. All other Photos by Joe del Tufo and Jim Coarse, Moonloop Photography.
That’s partly why the biggest buzz tends to surround startups that are truly novel, completely extravagant, or thoroughly engaging—an attribute that seems to have inspired the comprehensive teardown and makeover of Dogfish Head, stalwart of the beach brew scene since 1995. The Rehoboth Avenue location has been transformed into a beer-worshipping megaplex, with broad windows and spacious sightlines pulling together the views: There’s now an outdoor courtyard, an open kitchen with wood-burning pizza oven, and a “dog-friendly” patio connecting it all to Dogfish’s next-door restaurant, Chesapeake & Maine.
Out on the dreaded highway, similarly expansive beer-centric festivities are underway at Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant’s first beach spot. Down the coast, plans were underway late last year for expanding Smyrna’s Brick Works Brewing and Eats to Long Neck.
Amid this ongoing flood of beer, Harvest Tide in Lewes and Houston-White Co. in Rehoboth are working to prove that beefy excesses and seafood reveries endure. Harvest Tide’s menu is the most diverse, showing a well-studied sense for ingredients and pedigree: lobster tails from New Zealand ($14), clams from Hood Canal in Washington State ($12), and halibut from the North Pacific ($29). Over at Houston-White, Big Beef sensibilities clearly dominate, with prime, dry-aged and Wagyu selections vying for our attention and our available credit.
The choices are even more maddening over at Cuvée Ray Wine Bar & Restaurant in Rehoboth (formerly Pig + Fish), where 170 wines are available by the glass, and where cheese and charcuterie plates supplement the refined-but-limited menu of Chef Joe Churchman (formerly of Bramble & Brine).
Sensing that the celebration of fine wine’s allure would translate oh-so-well to Delaware’s beaches, Vineyard Wine Bar in Havre de Grace, Maryland, has blessed Rehoboth Beach with a bistro-style outpost, where an extensive wine list serves as inspiring foundation for the lively menu of tapas plates, artisanal cheese and fresh salads.
The More Cowbell-brisket, pulled pork, smoked chicken salad, cabbage slaw and Sweet and Sticky Rancher Beans on a bun at Limestone BBQ & Bourbon in Pike Creek.//photo by Joe del Tufo and Jim Coarse, Moonloop Photography
Outside the cities and far from the beach, New Castle County has been enjoying a suburban dining renaissance of sorts, nudged along by a growing number of ethnic startups, the still-bubbling booze trend, and our seemingly chronic inability to resist high-calorie indulgence.
Jumbo Wood-Fired Chicken Wings at easySpeak Spirits in
But who cares about a few stinkin’ calories when there’s some sweet barbecue and booze to be had? That easy rationalization probably helped inspire Stone Balloon/Delebrity chef Robbie Jester when he helped conceive Limestone BBQ and Bourbon, which supplements its juicy piles of pulled pork and red-rimmed brisket with more than 100 bottles of bourbons, scotches, ryes and American whiskeys, along with countless cocktail concoctions.
Over at the new Mac Mart in Newark, the concoctions lean even farther into carb-and-calorie nirvana, thanks to the 20 epic mashups on its menu. Meanwhile, the somewhat mystical rise of Peruvian chicken joints rolls on—the Viva Chicken chain out of North Carolina has opened its first northeast location in Newark’s Center Pointe Plaza shopping center.
More ethnic food equals more adventure, giving diners stuck in the chain-dominated hinterlands of North Wilmington the chance (if they dare) to giggle over Vietnamese bubble tea and bành mí sandwiches at the Bubble Shack on Concord Pike.
The typically sluggish Kent County dining market was roused from chain-restaurant complacence by the opening of Pearl Oyster Grill, giving idle gamers at Dover Downs Hotel & Casino the sweet solace of fresh oysters, Maine lobster tail, king crab legs, and of course crab cakes. Nearby, the old Cowboy Up restaurant/dance club has been rechristened as The Boulevard Live Entertainment Restaurant and tried to shift focus closer to dining with its pubby, Italian-leaning menu.
Lively “gourmet bar bites” help lift easySpeak Spirits in Milford beyond pub-grubby predictability, and a wood-fired pizza oven provides welcome accompaniment to house-crafted spirits, boosting this town’s growing status as a steady destination for contemporary relaxed dining.
There are times in life when new passions can be inspired by our oldest loves. It’s the feeling we get when some presumably embalmed band from our misspent youth decides to tour again, or when your old high school crush says she’d like to get together for coffee—we somehow feel revived and reconnected to joys that had grown distant and seemingly out of reach.
That’s the way things can be with a beloved restaurant that’s too far away. Just when we’ve concluded the situation is lost, a location opens closer to home, or near the office, and suddenly, all is right with the world for a while.
That surely must be the feeling among the many fans of Metro Diner, the perpetually packed and steadily capable gem near Christiana Hospital that has happily put on its stretchy-pants and spread to Middletown and Concord Pike in North Wilmington. Devotees of Newark’s classy, Italian-accented Taverna—probably the city’s best destination—will no doubt rejoice when one opens in Talleyville next year. And soon, the lines of perspiring vacationers waiting for a table at Agave in Lewes will be cooling their heels at a new Rehoboth location (a winter opening was expected).
(FROM LEFT): Braised beef tips at Metro Diner in Wilmington; Metro Diner’s pulled pork mac stack.//photos submitted by metro diner
But already it’s been a great time for Delaware’s geographically challenged diners: Touch of Italy, which has enthralled beachgoers at several locations for years, has established a northern outpost on Concord Pike. Café Azafrán, which vacated Lewes for Rehoboth after winning droves of fans, has unveiled a breakfast-and-lunch cafe in downtown Lewes called Olive & Oats, and, as mentioned above, Iron Hill has finally gone big at the beach after a 22-year wait. Upstate, the seemingly unstoppable delights of rotisserie-style Peruvian chicken have at last found a more refined and cozy expression at the alluring Pachamama on Newark’s Main Street.
More expansions loom: Lewes waterfront standby Gilligan’s was scheduled to open late 2018 in Milton, and Chaps Pit Beef, that holy Baltimorean altar to the charcoal-roasting meat gods, was in the works for outside of Rehoboth. And there’s even more action ahead for Middletown: Crooked Hammock in Lewes will head north to open a location there, and Two Stones Pub is making Middletown the next strategic outpost in its quest for global domination.
The Apollo—spinach with brown rice, chickpeas, tomatoes, red onions, cucumber, pita chips, feta cheese, lemon za’atar dressing and grilled chicken at Roots Natural Kitchen in Newark.//photo by Photo by Joe del Tufo and Jim Coarse, Moonloop Photography
Considering all the extra calories being slathered around the state by these multiplying restaurants, it’s probably prudent that some healthier options bounced peppily onto the scene in 2018. At the forefront of this uncharacteristically nutritious restaurant influx were the “fruit bowl/fish bowl” shops, concepts that easily overcome any eyebrow raising once you’ve tasted one.
Playa Bowls on Newark’s Main Street seems most representative of the vitamin-stuffed breed: Mix-and-match assortments of pureed superfruits (açaí, pitaya) layered with granola, honey and other earthy-crunchy contrasts. Nearby in Newark, Viva Bowls and PoBu offer similar takes on calorically uncorrupted treats, and over in Pike Creek, fitter foodies can now check out the Raw Essential Juice Bar.
Meanwhile, more low-fat fun is afoot: The Poké Bros. chain has been touting its Hawaiian raw fish rice bowls at a growing number of locations across New Castle County, including Newark (naturally), Mill Creek, Fairfax and Middletown (PoBu in Newark also offers poké). For those who may find a bowl of raw tuna chunks gastronomically suspect, the mini-trend toward more nutritionally dense salads proves a better fit: Lunchtime crowds at Roots Natural Kitchen and the create-your-own stir fries at Honeygrow in Newark are testament to the demand.