Photos by Leslie Barbaro
A Delaware couple pours their passion for craft cocktails and Asian teas into Mercury Café and Teahouse in Old New Castle.
If you want to meet the residents of Old New Castle, belly up to the bar at Mercury Café and Teahouse on Delaware Street. Since opening in December 2021, the small establishment has become a go-to place for locals.
On a sunny Friday afternoon, Terry Buchanan, owner of area newspaper The Weekly, is enjoying a coffee and a meze plate with whipped feta, stuffed grape leaves and warm pita.
Her companion is tucking into a Swiss-and-cheddar grilled cheese on Le Bus sourdough bread and a Mercurita, a blanco tequila cocktail with passion fruit, habanero-infused simple syrup, fresh lime juice and orange liqueur.
Buchanan seemingly knows everyone who slips through the door for a latte, a craft beer, a vegetarian meal or specially blended tea. (Mahjong players in the front room are on their second pot of blueberry.) In short, there is a lot going on in the narrow, circa-1693 building.
The hybrid concept in the Colonial-era town is the brainchild of mixologist Dwayne Foster and his husband, Aaron Vederman, a tea enthusiast, who have lived in Delaware since early 2020. Their path to the First State is paved with serendipity.
The Sum of the Parts
Foster was born in Boston when his father, a professional hockey player, was a Bruin. But the son of Canadians primarily grew up in the Detroit suburbs, where he was more interested in hospitality than hockey.
Foster was 15 when he started working in a restaurant, and after teaching high school science for six months, he returned to the industry. “This is what I want to do for the rest of my working life,” he says of mixing craft cocktails and serving people.
He met Vederman, a Jersey boy, in Michigan, where the neuropsychologist completed his internship and postdoctoral work. That was in 2007. Four years later, they moved to Portland, Oregon, where Vederman went into private practice, and Foster worked in the city’s happening hospitality scene. Foster longed to open his own bar—a place where everybody knows your name—but Portland’s real estate prices were prohibitive.
Vederman’s sister and her husband had moved to Delaware, and his parents had retired to Lewes. Then, on a family visit, Vederman went to Old New Castle. “I said, ‘Oh, I could totally live here,’” he recalls.
When he returned to Delaware with Foster, they took a trip to the historic district, and after lunch at Jessop’s Tavern, they knocked on a real estate agent’s door to see what was available. The William Penn Guest House, which had a small café, “ticked all the boxes,” Vederman says. They could live above the restaurant.
Then came the pandemic, which backed up the appraisal and purchasing process. The couple found their future home and business in the fall of 2019, and the sale was final on May 1, 2020.
Tea and Comfort
The main floor of the Mercury Café has four rooms that open into each other like a shotgun house, and they all needed work. Without business loans or deep pockets, the men handled much of the renovations. For instance, Vederman built the tea bar.
The psychologist fell in love with tea while attending graduate school in New York. Coffee was too hard on the student’s stomach, and tea did the trick. He discovered oolong in a Chinatown shop, and it remains a favorite. He began reading books on tea but maintains he’s no expert.
His customers might disagree. Mercury’s front tearoom looks like an 18th-century apothecary shop, complete with glass Ball jars of herbs, small Asian teapots (Yixing) and blue-and-white cups.
“I really wanted to create something unique that reflected me as a person, so I have a botanical herbal thing,” Vederman explains. “There’s a lot of Chinese tea— you won’t find doilies.” Or scones and cucumber sandwiches, for that matter. In other words, don’t expect high tea.
So far, the most popular blend is Dutch House, made with clove, cinnamon ginger and other spices. Savvy Delawareans know that the name salutes the late-17th-century house maintained by the New Castle Historical Society.
The bar area is the heart of the café, and it’s Foster’s baby. It is where customers order and pay for purchases. Much of the food is prepared here, and Foster can make espresso drinks on one side and cocktails on the other. The employees dance around each other to get things done.
Because they have a full liquor license, the offerings are extensive for such a small space. However, cocktails show respect for the classics: The Paper Plane, Old Fashioned and classic daiquiri. Happy hour is Wednesday through Saturday, from 4 to 6 p.m. Get there early if you want a seat.
The café seats about 45 inside and another 24 on the brick patio. Many patrons come for the food—whether they are vegetarian, vegan or omnivore—and conversation.
According to Foster, Tera Hayward, a vegetarian, has been instrumental in crafting the menu. They tested items to ensure the staff could make them efficiently in the small space when the place is packed. Robin Brubaker rounds out the culinary trio.
In spring, the menu included salads, bowls and sandwiches, including a pulled “pork” sandwich made with oats, the Impossible Burger, a caprese panini and a “pastrami” melt made with products from Love Again Local in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
The all-in-one concept distinguishes Mercury Café and Teahouse from the local competition, which is increasing. Historic New Castle has also witnessed the opening of Booth House Tavern in the David Finney Inn. The newcomers join Zollie’s Jazz Cucina, Jessop’s and Nora Lees French Quarter in the historic district.
“We’ve seen the town kind of grow, and it will keep growing,” Foster says. “It’s something special. We love this place—it’s an incredible place to live. We’ve really been embraced.”
And on that Friday afternoon, with people coming and going for a beer, coffee or burger, you can definitely feel the love.