Justin Womack knows sports, and 1984 was a golden year, according to the former high school athlete. “Google it,” he says. It’s hard to argue with him. That year, the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers rivalry was epic, and the Chicago Bulls added Michael Jordan. The Detroit Tigers were on fire, and Martina Navratilova had a 54-match winning streak.
Womack, a member of William Penn High School’s championship basketball team in 2001, is impressed by these legendary athletes’ commitment to hard work and integrity. All of which is why the chef named his first restaurant Oath ’84.
Oh, and by the way, it’s also the year he was born.
Womack might be young, but he’s been preparing for restaurant ownership for over a decade. He’s worked for a successful corporate restaurant group and owned a food truck. He also has the right mindset. “I want to make people happy, and I want to make sure that they’re doing what makes them happy,” says the self-professed “people pleaser.”
So far, the chef is quietly succeeding at his job. “Oath ’84 offers creative dishes and even more imaginative presentations in a fun environment,” asserts diner Angela Suchanic.
“Oath ’84 offers creative dishes and even more imaginative presentations in a fun environment.”
Family and food
Womack grew up in New Castle in a Trinidadian household—his mother, stepfather and grandmother were born on the Caribbean island. The blended family included 13 children, and at one point, six girls and two boys were in the house at once.
“We did a lot of cooking,” he says. “Everybody worked, and at the end of the night, we came together at the dinner table. It was a lot of fun.” There weren’t a lot of leftovers, he adds.
Womack, who describes his childhood home as “blessed,” helped his stepfather and grandmother make curries, rotis and rice dishes. “Everything was homemade,” he says. “Meats took a night to marinate, and in the morning, my grandmother stretched out dough to bake fresh bread.”
Restaurants, particularly fast-food chains, were not part of his early childhood, which made him want to try McDonald’s—and he did. But his grandmother’s you-are-what-you-eat teaching stayed with him. Food is one of the best medicines in the world, he maintains.
By the time Womack attended William Penn High School, he’d already earned the nickname “the Meat Man” because he loaded his plate with protein at every opportunity. Fortunately, playing basketball kept the pounds off.
Learning the ropes
After graduating in 2002, Womack went to school for early childhood education, figuring he could also coach. However, he soon realized he’d rather be in a kitchen than a classroom. He graduated from Delaware Technical Community College with a culinary arts degree and joined Brio Italian Grille as a line cook.
“I’m proud to have worked with him at the beginning of his career and had a front-row seat to his growth and success,” says Collins, director of human resources for Brio Italian Grille. While Womack is a talented chef, he also boasts “incredible people skills,” Collins adds. “Whether training a new cook, teaching a server, mentoring a manager or speaking with guests, he always uplifts everyone around him.”
In 2011, Womack, who also worked for Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House chain, purchased a food truck for $4,000 and named it Under the Whistle, a reference to sports referees. Garbed in a black-and-white shirt, he parked at festivals, the Wilmington farmers market, and near Seventh and King streets.
Moving into the brick-and-mortar property at 405 N. King St. seemed serendipitous. After signing the lease, Womack donated his truck to another young chef. “He had the same dream that I did,” he explains.
The 53-seat King Street space has been home to Cocina Lolo, Bryan and Andrea Sikora’s Mexican-themed eatery, and, briefly, the brick-and-mortar version of Wildwich, a food truck. Womack opened the kitchen, redid the bar, and gave it a decorative remake that included photos of 1984 sports heroes and celebrities.
However, Oath ’84 is not a sports bar—far from it. Collins calls Womack a “visionary entrepreneur,” and the menu proves it. The jerk chicken egg rolls, one of the most popular dishes, wowed diners at the Sunday Supper fundraiser for the Friends of James Beard Benefits. The dish comes with a guava reduction. Lamb chops with a pistachio crumble and pomegranate molasses is another bestseller.
Womack clearly likes vibrant colors and spices. Cumin, tamarind and jalapeño are frequent ingredients. He also enjoys fusing ethnic flavors. For instance, the crab cake is dressed with a saffron-pimento sauce, and red beets are accompanied by tahini yogurt and pecan dust. But he’s also playful: Grilled shrimp get a kick from pickled apple butter, and deviled eggs are garnished with crab, corn and pimento cheese.
The restaurant opened in spring 2022 when the hospitality industry still felt COVID-19’s sting. “We built a clientele from word of mouth,” says Womack, who understands that consistency is critical, from the food and drink to the smiles on the staff’s faces.
Initially, Oath ’84 built a banquet business on weekends, and it’s still going strong. Womack would like to continue that approach as he opens a second Oath ’84 at 902 N. Market St. It, too, is a tricky space that has housed Margaux, Vinoteca/Orillas, National and The Exchange on Market. However, many of those restaurants’ issues didn’t spring from the location; timing, product and concept were factors.
Womack’s goal is to get out of the kitchen and mingle more with guests, and with his culinary training, the plan seems within reach. “I really love what food does—it brings people together,” he says. “So I enjoy the celebration side.”
In short, he says, “I just want to be part of the party.”