Getting Intimate with the Restaurant Scene in 2014

When it comes to new kids on the block, smaller is better.

Every year brings a wave of restaurant openings and closings, but changes of the past 12 months have a different tenor. With new styles of food comes a new attitude or, at the least, an attitude that’s never been expressed so clearly. “We want to be a part of the community for a long, long time.” The words belong to chef Bryan Sikora, owner of the much-anticipated La Fia Bakery + Bistro + Market on Market Street in Wilmington, but some version of them has been spoken by all the new owners this year. The trend, with a few exceptions: smaller, cozier, approachable and homey, with an intent to be not just a business, but a vital, longtime part of a community. And by homey, we mean just that. Jacques and Kellie Macq, owners of Mona Lisa Euro Bistro in Wilmington, live with their toddler daughter upstairs from the restaurant. Meghan and Joe Church spent months renovating their new home—their first—on Rehoboth Avenue into Bramble & Brine, the hottest thing to happen in Rehoboth Beach in a couple of years. As for chef Donny Merrill, owner of the wildly popular Skipjack in Newark, “People are thanking me for being here. It’s been wonderful.” Driving the attitude is the realization of a dream or long-term plan to open one’s own place, accompanied by the desire to put down roots. Sikora, a native of Western Pennsylvania, kicked around the country through his 20s and early 30s before opening the acclaimed Django in Philadelphia, then Talula’s Table in Kennett, a place so popular, its one large table was booked a year out. In Wilmington, he saw a place to call home: a town with a supportive community that would respond enthusiastically to his culinary approach: sophisticated food that seems simple, all made in house, meaning the bread served with your white bean-squash ravioli and duck ragout was baked that morning. A charming space with large storefront windows, a tin ceiling and warm wooden floors adds to the comfortable feeling. “The experience doesn’t have to be a one-time thing,” Sikora says. “I want people to know this is a nice, warm, welcoming place you can enjoy often. I want people to feel at home here.” One of the big surprises on the dining scene has been Pochi Chilean Cuisine and Wine Bar in Wilmington, where chef Patricia Millan and husband Braulio Roja have won a loyal following for the food of their native land. Millan, whose recipes come direct from her mother and grandmother, had family in the business at home. When she followed her brother, a psychologist, to Philly a few years ago, she discovered Wilmington. In it, “I saw an opportunity in the people,” she says. “I believed my food would change a little bit what people think.” 

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