Crab dip served with freshly baked pretzels./Photo by Deny Howeth
I knew the risk.
Walking into a beach-area restaurant without a reservation at primetime on a holiday, we’d either be directed toward the bar to wait out a long line of equally shortsighted diners, or we’d be turned away. The party relaxing in Adirondack chairs on the front lawn hardly seemed a good sign.
Facing the prospect of seeking a convenient meal at some mediocre and overpriced alternative, I crossed fingers.
When I informed the hostess of my poor planning, she raised one finger, smiled and said, “Give me just a moment. We’re booked, but I think I can work this out.” Within three minutes, we were seated.
That accommodating nature says almost all you need to know about The Café on 26. The staff takes good service seriously, and they want, with all their heart, to welcome you into the circle.
Clams Casino./Photo by Deny Howeth
After nine years, that circle is a devoted bunch, and it is obvious. As we walked up the entrance ramp, a passing diner said, “Boy, are you going to enjoy that.” As we waited for our table, another couple on their way out remarked, “You are in for a real treat.” Our hostess addressed another customer by name as she wished him a good night. “We’ll be back soon,” he replied. “You know we will.” And at a table adjacent to ours, one gentleman told his companions, “I don’t eat anywhere else anymore.” All of this in the first five minutes of our visit.
There is a good reason for the enthusiasm, which is the only other thing you need to know about The Café on 26. The food is as straightforward as it comes and as excellent as we were led to believe. Chef Jason Bostaph’s aim is to feed you well, so you won’t find any trending ingredients, pretentious preps or fancy French words on the menu (unless you count escargot). You will find a bill of fare you would have enjoyed at the country club 40 years ago: French onion and cream of crab soups, steamed mussels or clams, spinach and Caesar salads, grilled pork chops. Pan searing in butter with a squeeze of lemon is sufficient for fresh halibut filets or large Day Boat scallops. Grilled aged filets and rib-eyes could stand alone, though you can add such traditional toppings as caramelized onions, sautéed mushrooms or bleu cheese. Some things never go out of style, like the renovated wood-frame foursquare that houses the restaurant. Classic.
It was in this sort of retro spirit that we chose our starters. The clams Casino were tasty, smoky with bacon, but baked to crisping. It was the only disappointment all evening, and a small one that was easily forgotten upon tasting the crab dip. The dish was packed with large lumps of true blue crab that swam in a sea of tangy cream cheese and Monterey Jack topped with golden melted provolone. For dipping, the dish is served with four freshly baked pretzels, perfectly crisp on the outside, and pillow-soft and steaming inside.
I was sorely tempted by the crabcake, which makes the unerring Rehoboth Foodie’s top five list. Next best? Other things crabby. My wife nearly swooned over her stuffed flounder. Sufficiently baking the crab imperial inside without reducing the delicate fish to flakes is one of restaurant cooking’s great balancing acts. The kitchen team has mastered it. The flounder was fresh and generously portioned. The imperial was full of lumps, bright with a touch of bell pepper and mustard. The browned imperial sauce on top made richness that much richer. We’ll forgive ourselves for such decadence when it’s worth it—and it was very worth it.
I tried the chef’s signature potato-crusted salmon topped with lumps of blue crab in a dill cream. The potato was golden crispy, bursting with Romano and Parmesan, the Faroe Islands salmon fresh as could be and as generously portioned as the stuffed flounder. Again, the kitchen does not skimp on the crab, which is served in a surprisingly light cream.
Potato-crusted salmon topped with lumps of blue crab in a dill cream sauce served with a grilled Mediterranean salad./Photo by Deny Howeth
Of note is the attention the restaurant gives to its side dishes. Most entrées come with your choice of two or a grilled Mediterranean salad. The salad—romaine mixed with caramelized onions, Kalamata olives, sprinkles of feta, an artichoke heart and a perfectly grilled sweet cipollini onion dressed in delightfully retro green goddess dressing—is a revelation.
A food as mundane as mashed potatoes reaches new heights of richness at the café. And the medley of thinly crinkle-sliced zucchini and summer squash was so lightly sautéed, it retained all its texture and summer flavor.
Stuffed to the gills from packing up half of our entrées and continuously filling ourselves with crab dip, we had hardly earned dessert. But who can pass up Key lime pie? It was yet another classic we were all too happy to enjoy.
You will find much excellent food at the beach. You will find excellent service. But rarely will you find the kind of warmth served at The Café on 26. It’s a bit of a throwback to a time when business in sleepy beach towns was still seasonal, still spotty—a time long before Ocean View was even considered a beach town—and hungry owners bent over backwards to win regulars. The Café on 26 crew has clearly won theirs, and they’re still working hard to please. One gets the sense it’s still a very personal mission, and that makes dining there special.
The Café on 26
84 Atlantic Ave., Ocean View 19970 •539-2233
Prices: Soups, appetizers and salads: $6–$18; entrées: $28–$47; desserts: $8–$12
Must-try: Creamy crab dip, grilled Mediterranean salad, stuffed flounder