If it’s true that structures have spirits, then a brick building in downtown Newark is breathing a sigh of relief. Located at 102 Main St., the original First Bank of Newark was built in the 1850s and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.
The three-story landmark has an impressive pedigree, but in the 21st century, visitors were doing shots, not opening savings accounts. Catherine Rooney’s opened a location here in 2010, followed by Finn McCool’s Irish Gastropub in 2018. The latter abruptly closed in 2019 with a handwritten sign that read “Rest in Pitchers” in the window.
However, Delaware newcomers Anthony and Jeremiah Brooks saw the potential, and they opened Hamilton’s on Main this past spring.
Once again, the old building presents a dignified face to the street. Sophisticated striped parasols shade Parisian-style tables on the tiered veranda. Inside, there’s nary a whiff of PBR in the contemporary bar area. Over in the main dining room, the pretty wallpaper, gold chandeliers and sky-blue King Louis–backed chairs would look at home in an upscale Savannah eatery.
As for the cuisine, every dish is thoughtfully plated with touches that make them Instagram-worthy. For example, consider tiny purple orchids, a scattering of microgreens atop pale yellow petals and a thinly sliced red pepper, deseeded and propped sidewise to frame a rosebud of swirled squash.
The transformation from a watering hole to a fine-dining destination was a monumental endeavor and, in many respects, it is just what Newark needed.
Finding the First State
Chef Jeremiah Brooks began his hospitality career in front-of-the-house management. Still, he gravitated toward the kitchen, where he trained under Culinary Institute of America graduates and James Beard Award–winning chefs in the Washington, D.C., area.
He met Anthony online, and the two shared similar interests. Anthony grew up in New Hampshire, where his family owned a restaurant. He later worked for Rare Hospitality International, which owned LongHorn Steakhouse and Capital Grille restaurants, before Darden Restaurants purchased it for $1.4 billion in 2007.
Tired of the grueling restaurant hours, Jeremiah took a four-year respite from the kitchen to market tradeshow materials and displays—and his territory included Delaware. However, he realized that sales was not his “calling.”
It was back to the kitchen for the chef. But this time, he and his husband would own the business to ensure they spent time together. They toured sites in Baltimore and the D.C. area, but to no avail.
Then, during a family trip to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, Anthony noticed a turnkey restaurant in an 1840 Greek Revival stone building. “A week later, we had a lease,” he says. Hamilton’s Tavern 1840, named for their Bernese mountain dog, opened in 2019.
A year later, Hamilton’s moved to larger digs in Harpers Ferry, but the new location soon presented two problems. First, it was near a church, which affected the partners’ ability to secure a liquor license. They realized that the lack of wine and beer sales would limit their income. Second, it was 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic severely affected restaurant revenue.
Meanwhile, the couple visited a friend in Newark and liked the area. It was good timing: The Harpers Ferry lease was up, and the Main Street building was available; however, the old bank needed a lot of love, including removing the beer-soaked flooring.
When Hamilton’s on Main was finally ready to open, an inspection uncovered an inadequate HVAC system that had languished when the building stood vacant. The installation of new equipment delayed the debut, which finally took place in April.
If you haven’t been to Newark lately, you’re in for a surprise. There are new apartment buildings, offices and hotels, many of which tower above the once sleepy Main Street. The most recent structures share a similar façade and style, making the distinctive Hamilton’s on Main that much more appealing.
The patio, for instance, has a European flair, thanks to wrought-iron railings, woven bistro chairs and plenty of leafy ferns. There are 45 seats here and 130 inside, which features a bar with a back dining room on one side and a more formal dining room on the other. Upstairs is a banquet room that can handle the overflow.
“We’re not a college bar,” Anthony says, stating the obvious once you’re seen the décor. “Five-dollar pitchers will never happen in this establishment. We want to be a place for the locals—Kennett Square and New Castle County in general.”
The menu underscores the men’s mission. Jeremiah views American cuisine as a melting pot of many cultures, and his dishes display that sensibility. For instance, America’s picnic staple, deviled eggs, gets a kick from Caribbean seasoning and sriracha. Meatballs made with Angus beef and Italian sausage loll under a blanket of zesty marinara that will leave a tingly heat on your palate. Shrimp bathe in soy, honey and bourbon alongside Korean spice-marinated veggies. And the crispy cauliflower is brined in citrus and tarragon and served with saffron-lemon yogurt and spinach-leek purée.
Most dishes are for sharing, a tapas (small plate) approach that may annoy traditional eaters or those who don’t like others touching their food. Some of these guests may gravitate toward the chophouse options.
But many modern diners appreciate sampling a wide variety of flavors for the same price as the usual appetizer, entrée and dessert. It’s certainly worked for Bardea Food & Drink and Bardea Steak.
There is a drawback for larger parties, however. When four or more spoons dig into one dish, it ruins the kitchen’s lovely plating. After our party passed and shared our choices, our plates looked like we’d been to a fancy wedding buffet. Mine sported part of a Boston wedge, a deviled egg, some mushroom mille-feuille and a slice of house-baked olive loaf.
To avoid muddling flavors, consider trying only one or two dishes at a time. There are just too many wonderful tastes and textures to appreciate. Or, sit at the attractive bar, sip a cocktail and order a bite or two.
Anthony says the owners want guests to feel welcome, and, no doubt, sharing is part of nurturing that approachable sentiment. So is the dress code; nice jeans are acceptable. And while some items might sound exotic, Hamilton’s is not reinventing the wheel, he maintains. “We’re just two people who are passionate about others, hospitality, good food and great times.”