Dennis Forbes has a gentle demeanor and soothing voice, but beneath the calm surface lies a hard core. After all, he is a Taurus, says his daughter, Desiree DiAntonio, who also shares his astrological sign. “We have a gentle heart but a stubborn manner.”
So, when he and his wife, Carolyn Forbes, decided to sell the nearly 24-year-old Cool Springs Fish Bar & Restaurant in Dover, not just any buyer would do. The self-taught chef wanted someone who could work in the kitchen and keep the staff, one of whom has been with him for 24 years and another for 20.
In July, they sold the restaurant to Joe Lopez, a chef with extensive seafood experience. “We don’t have plans to change anything,” Lopez says. “The staff is awesome.”
Dennis Forbes, meanwhile, is still a Kent County presence. He is staying on to show Lopez the ropes for a year, and he and DiAntonio own Restaurant 55, the gourmet burger and craft beer restaurant next door.
The changing of the guard is an ideal time to reflect on the family’s contributions to the dining scene in Dover—and Delaware. There’s a reason why the Forbeses received a 2022 Cornerstone Award from the Delaware Restaurant Association.
Dennis Forbes, who grew up in Magnolia, developed his principles early. He was raised by parents who grew and cooked their own produce. The bar was set so high that when his aunt cut a sandwich diagonally instead of straight across, he refused to eat it. He demanded quality and consistency.
At age 13, he started working at Village Pizza, owned by his neighbor, Alvin Jarrell. “He’s the one I always blame for getting me into the business,” Forbes quips. He later moved to the Coral Reef Restaurant, a Dover seafood eatery, where he met Carolyn, who’d planned to work through summer and then move to Maine with her fiancé. “She realized once she got to Maine that she liked the guy back in Delaware,” Forbes says. They’ve been married for 47 years.
In 1985, he and partners opened Plaza 9, but that soured when he was the only person handling the physical labor and long hours. After selling the restaurant in 1997, the chef vowed to avoid partnerships.
He maintains that the experience made him a better restaurateur, as did reading Wenzel’s Menu Maker, which boasts 2,000-plus scalable recipes. Armed with expertise and new principles, he opened Cool Springs in 1999. It was a hit from the start—but that’s not to say there weren’t tough times.
In 2003, Delaware legislators debated exempting casinos and taverns from the proposed smoking ban. Forbes, who knew his way around Legislative Hall, reached out to Carrie Leishman, the new president of the Delaware Restaurant Association (DRA). Both worked to ensure a level playing field.
A former DRA chairman and now board member, Forbes straightened his spine again during COVID-19. “We were lucky to live in a state where we had weekly communication with the governor, but it didn’t always go as planned,” he says. Indeed, at the Cornerstone Awards ceremony, Leishman recalled when the governor cut off a board member during the conference call. “Dennis stood up for that restaurateur, and it was a symbol of how we stood up for the entire industry,” she says.
Forbes admits that he can’t see gray. “This is my wife’s pet peeve,” he notes. “She says, ‘You see black or white.’ It’s the way I run my restaurants.”
Forbes met his match in DiAntonio, who was 8 years old when Plaza 9 opened. She followed the employees around, eager to learn, but her father insisted she go to college and avoid the hospitality industry. While at the University of Delaware, she waited tables and bartended at Cool Springs.
DiAntonio received a master’s in historic preservation and worked for the Lewes Historical Society but couldn’t shake the restaurant industry. The mother of three told her father as much—she’d held up her side of the bargain to try another profession. “Buy Cool Springs,” he suggested. She refused. “In my eyes, Cool Springs is my father and my mother,” she explains.
The two mulled over ideas for new restaurants over burgers when inspiration struck. Why not focus on just that—gourmet burgers and craft beers? In 2010, Restaurant 55 opened next door, and the two concepts complemented each other.
Before 2020, the Forbeses had decided to sell Cool Springs and enjoy their Rehoboth Beach home. But when the pandemic hit, Forbes went into battle mode. He vowed to pay salaried employees from his savings, although the accountant advised against it. He held firm. It just so happened that he would need those employees and more to produce 250-plus takeout dinners each night. Customers, he says, were supportive. Many bought gift cards—sometimes up to $1,000 or $5,000 at a time.
When the economy opened, it was time to revisit the sale. When DiAntonio refused a second time, the Forbeses considered Lopez, a chef they’d befriended during his 16-year tenure with Big Fish Restaurant Group. “I admired him because he’s such a hard worker,” Forbes says. “He gets in there and physically works.”
The Rutherford, New Jersey, native initially wasn’t ready for the grueling hours that come with restaurant ownership. Forbes, however, had found a way to run a profitable restaurant and still have a personal life, which Lopez admired. The trio came up with agreeable terms, which included Dennis Forbes staying on for a year.
Already, the employees have taken to Lopez, Forbes says. “He’s such a nice guy.” And nice guys can finish first. Just look at Forbes. As he’s learned, you can pay people well and still make money. You just need to “follow the rules and do everything right,” he says.