Rail Haus Adds a Spark to Dover’s Food and Drink Scene

The German–inspired beer garden revitalizes a downtown Dover warehouse.

Growing up in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, Donny Legans never dreamed he would own a Delaware restaurant. And until recently, he’d never even worked in hospitality. While attending Compton High School, his job was studying and playing basketball. The work paid off when Legans earned a U.S. Air Force Academy scholarship.

While stationed at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, he met his wife-to-be Kim, an Air Force pilot. You might think that the couple’s military experience inspired Rail Haus, their new Dover beer garden. After all, there is a U.S. Air Force base in Germany. But that’s not the case.

The couple once lived across from Frankford Hall, veteran restaurateur Stephen Starr’s German–inspired hot spot in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood.

- Advertisement -
Donny and Kim Legans loved the beer garden near their Philadelphia home. So when they relocated to Delaware, they decided to bring a similar concept to Dover’s downtown area.
Donny and Kim Legans loved the beer garden near their Philadelphia home. So when they relocated to Delaware, they decided to bring a similar concept to Dover’s downtown area.

“It wasn’t a place just for young people grabbing a beer,” Donny Legans notes. “It was families with little kids. It was a ladies’ [or] guys’ night out. There were grandparents hanging out. It checked all those boxes, and I didn’t know why, but it felt good going in.”

After moving to Dover, the Leganses felt the city needed a similar concept. “The No. 1 thing we kept hearing was that Dover had potential,” says Legans, who moved his family to the state capital so Kim could be closer to the Dover Air Force Base, where she is stationed. “I wanted to do something that Delaware hadn’t seen on this scale from a small business owner.”

Dover has embraced the establishment from a dining and economic perspective. “Kudos to owners [the] Leganses for their vision and hard work to bring this unique and compelling concept to a reality,” says Pete Bradley, president of Kent County Tourism Corporation and former vice president of operations and general manager of casino operations for Dover Downs Hotel & Casino.

Dover’s newest indoor-outdoor beer garden focuses on German beer styles but offers a variety of brews from Delaware breweries. Bratwurst, meanwhile, is a top-selling menu item.
Dover’s newest indoor-outdoor beer garden focuses on German beer styles but offers a variety of brews from Delaware breweries. Bratwurst, meanwhile, is a top-selling menu item.

However, turning the former Southern States Cooperative building at 92 N. West St. into a beer garden was far from easy.

Following fate

So, how did a Southern Californian land in Kent County?

- Partner Content -

Legans graduated as a second lieutenant and began the requisite service as a recruiter, focusing on diversity. Then, he entered Air Force maintenance training in Texas, which led to a position at McGuire Air Force Base.

After leaving the Air Force, Legans lived in New York for a year and modeled. “It was fun, but I needed to get some money, so I joined a telecom company—a huge seller of test-and-measurement equipment for all the big service providers,” he says. He handled Verizon and traveled the country to ensure the equipment was in good order and train technicians. Wherever he went during those 13 years, he was drawn to restaurants that brought people together.

Kim was racking up the mileage commuting to Dover, so the couple decided to purchase a second home with a yard in Dover. When COVID-19 hit, they spent most of their time in Delaware—and they liked the low cost of living, the child care and the accessible parking. “We decided to put all our eggs in Delaware,” Legans says.

As new full-time residents, the Leganses were surprised that downtown Dover didn’t have a buzz-worthy restaurant scene, given the city was home to the Air Force base, Delaware State University and Bayhealth. They decided to do something about it.

Beer and brat

Although an eyesore, a vacant building just one block from the city limits would make an ideal beer garden space, Legans says. The spacious site had been a gas station, tire outlet and a location for Southern States, which sells agricultural products, which meant the EPA and DNREC had to sign off on it.

- Advertisement -

The couple made an offer in July 2020, and the deal closed that November. Then, they hustled to request a land use change from the city, which held a hearing in January 2021. Happily, the architect and civil engineer, Newark–based Becker Morgan Group, had already done the legwork. Although the request was approved, it took another year to present the beer garden plan to the city and county to ensure it met the code and secure construction permits.

In the meantime, material prices soared after the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“The math on the back of my napkin didn’t work,” Legans acknowledges. Fortunately, he secured a $50,000 state EDGE grant and $300,000 in Critical Improvement Program funds, a Downtown Dover Partnership initiative. (Legans is now on the DDP board.) Rail Haus will also receive future reimbursement from the Downtown Development District program.

“Kudos to owners Donny and Kim Legans for their vision and hard work to bring this unique and compelling concept to a reality.”
—Pete Bradley, president of Kent County Tourism Corporation.

The Leganses have had help in other respects. A minority partner is a 20-year hospitality veteran with beer garden experience.

At nearly 20,000 square feet, Rail Haus can accommodate 500 patrons indoors and out.
At nearly 20,000 square feet, Rail Haus can accommodate 500 patrons indoors and out.

Rail Haus can seat 500 guests inside and out. The nearly 20,000-square-foot outdoor area has picnic benches and a bar that opens to the patio. A former boxcar is another outdoor bar area, and there’s al fresco seating next to a children’s sandbox so parents can watch their kids. In addition, there is 2,500 square feet of indoor seating.

Although not required, Rail Haus has a kitchen serving a bevy of German cuisine, from pretzel bite starters to 10-ounce Bavarian pretzels to eight types of wurst from Haas Family Butcher Shop. Admittedly, some guests can’t pronounce weisswurst, let alone picture it. (The white links are made with veal and pork.) “Once they taste it, they know it’s a sausage,” Legans says. Despite the unfamiliar names, wursts are the bestsellers. For the less adventurous, there are burgers, salads and even falafels.

The beer menu features local breweries, such as First State Brewing Company and Mispillion River Brewing. About half the offerings are German–inspired brews. Certain selections, such as a grapefruit hefeweizen, aren’t available at other Delaware establishments.

Air Force base personnel have been frequent customers. “It’s been great to see,” Legans says. “They come downtown and hang out, and that was kind of the goal.”

To be sure, Rail Haus has racked up regulars. That should increase this month if Legans adds a colossal TV screen for March Madness games. The high-tech device offers a clear picture even in direct sunlight, he says. Legans is also planning to offer live music.

There’s little doubt that Rail Haus is a big project in size and scope. But Legans and Dover officials hope it will deliver a significant economic push toward increased downtown revitalization. “We are optimistic the success of Rail Haus will spur additional development in the downtown Dover area with the continuing goal of making downtown Dover a great place to live, work and visit,” says Bradley of Kent County Tourism.

Few would argue that the Leganses deserve a toast for their interest and effort in their adopted hometown. So, grab a beer and a brat, raise a glass and shout, “Prost!” Cheers to Rail Haus.

Related: John Kim Faye Dishes on the Realities of Rock Star Life

Our Best of Delaware Elimination Ballot is open through February 22!

Holiday flash sale ... subscribe and save 50%

Limited time offer. New subscribers only.