By Pam George and Meg Ryan
To say Delaware restaurants faced challenges during the pandemic is an understatement, but these innovative chefs didn’t let it stifle their creativity or drive.
Here are 7 new restaurants to check out across the state.
2510 W. Fifth St., Wilmington • 543-2233
On one sunny Saturday afternoon in summer, Parisian-style tables stood on marble tiles and colorful flowerpots capped the stone walls under a louvered pergola at Park Café’s patio. Suddenly, from among the lunch crowd gathered there, a woman let out a moan.
“So good!” she crooned to her friends. Her continued exclamations of pleasure finally prompted another couple to ask what she was eating. It was the fried cod sandwich, served with cheddar and remoulade on a sub roll. “I don’t usually like fish sandwiches,” the woman confessed. “But this is crispy and wonderful.”
The couple initially had order envy. That disappeared at the sight of their East Coast seafood chowder, shrimp salad pita and Santa Fe sandwich—a generous stack of fresh turkey, cheddar, and avocado, with buttermilk ranch, on ciabatta. Petals of potato chips practically melted on the tongue.
Since opening last January, Park Café has made many favorable impressions. That’s not surprising, considering the partners are Paul Bouchard and Chris Blackwell, owners of Jamestown Hospitality Group.
Their portfolio includes Tonic Seafood & Steak in downtown Wilmington and the adjoining Juniper by Tonic, an event space. In addition, Jamestown Catering Co. is run out of the café property, and Tonic Bar & Grille serves food at Braeloch Brewing in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.
Visitors to Park Café are greeted by cases of prepared foods, baked items and beverages, including Braeloch beer. Breakfast and Sunday brunch are popular, and there’s a DIY coffee station near the exposed stone wall. After ordering, customers take a seat and servers deliver the food.
Tonic chef Patrick Bradley initially had innovative plans for the café menu, like harissa hummus and wheatberry-beet salad. However, customers gravitated toward more familiar, comforting fare, and fans of Movable Feast—which previously occupied the location—wanted tuna fish salad on the menu.
“Our original intention was 180 degrees from where we are now,” Bouchard says. “It’s amazing how opening during the pandemic skewed so many of our ideas. As we move into fall, I think you will start to see the original ideas and creative flair that Park was originally designed for.”
Not that anyone is complaining now, especially if they can tuck into a rave-worthy fried cod sandwich.
Building aside, Park Café is a replicable concept— but don’t count on additional locations just yet.
“I’ll never say never,” Bouchard says. “But I really enjoy creating on a fresh canvas.”
42 W. 11th St., Wilmington • 594-3154
When Le Cavalier opened in September 2020, the restaurant faced multiple challenges. Delaware was in the thick of the pandemic, and the newcomer had big shoes to fill: It is in the former Green Room in the Hotel du Pont, once the beloved bastion of fine dining.
But Le Cav chef-partner Tyler Akin was up to the task. The Tower Hill School graduate has infused the space with a fresh feeling while honoring the Green Room’s 107-year-old roots.
The Wilmington restaurant is “an approachable French brasserie that is casual enough for everyday dining and elegant enough for special occasions,” maintains Akin, who has partnered with PM Hotel Group and The Buccini-Pollin Group, who purchased the hotel in 2017.
Creating that combination was no easy feat. The team worked with historical consultants and the Hagley Museum to “modernize the restaurant while respecting the room’s bones and the countless memories made in it,” Akin says.
Gold chandeliers, weighing 2,500 pounds each, still hang from the coffered two-story ceiling. Carved oak paneling continues to bring richness and warmth.
Workers pulled back the carpet to reveal a hand-laid terrazzo floor—Akin’s favorite feature—along with the new marble and wood bar. Modern art, uncovered tables and undraped windows contribute to the more relaxed ambiance.
The menu offers the expected, such as French onion soup and steak frites. But the “neo-brasserie” also mines the French countryside and former colonies for inspiration. Diners will spot ingredients and spices from North Africa.
Le Cavalier’s menu, created by chef-partner Tyler Akin, is meant to be “casual enough for everyday dining and elegant enough for special occasions.” Patrons will find French classics with a twist, along with innovative dishes that take inspiration from the country’s former colonies.
By September, when more workers are likely back in the office, the restaurant will serve lunch.
134 W. Market St., Lewes • 200-9522
Gary and Lorraine Papp have been mainstays in Delaware’s dining scene since 1994, with hit eateries including the Buttery and Palette. In 2020, the Papps took on a new venture—opening Harbour Waterfront Dining at Canal Square in Lewes. Little did they know soon after taking over the property, it would be different from their previous ventures.
After delays in business licenses, equipment and renovations, the restaurant opened its doors in late August 2020. Since then, Harbour has built up a solid customer base, thanks to its focus on fresh seafood and innovative flavors.
Gary aims to support other small businesses through his use of local produce and other ingredients.
“The menu I wanted to start off with was going to be on the simpler side, fresh, and have some interesting twists on it and also have some popular items that I’ve done over the years that I knew that people were looking for,” he explains.
Gary says the daily specials menu is earning raves, as he’s able to try unique renditions of dishes like sea scallops encrusted in furikake served with fiddleheads, sugar snap peas and red quinoa. A limelike green ramp oil brightens up the dish.
The fisherman’s stew with fresh fish, shrimp, clams, mussels and jumbo lump crab in an Old Bay-spiced plum tomato broth is also a top seller. And Gary’s rendition of a cheese board but with fresh fish, the seacuterie board, has also received positive response.
The atmosphere has earned praise with its light, beachy color palette, bayside views and various dining options from patio to open-air bar to traditional dining room. After it all, the Papps were happy to see the sun set on 2020.
“We’re just looking forward. We‘re not looking back,” Lorraine says.
28 Wilmington Ave., Rehoboth Beach • 542-3748
There is no shortage of pizza places in Rehoboth Beach, and if you want to start a heated discussion, claim that one is better than another. However, one newcomer defies comparison.
Dalmata is devoted to creative, handcrafted pizzas.
“We take something we know, twist it and make it a little bit better,” says owner Megan Kee, who opened the restaurant in late 2020. Smoked salmon pizza, for instance, has a cream cheese base with capers and preserved lemon, while the sausage and pepper pizza offers a syrup with Japanese fermented black garlic. (The syrup brings out the flavors of the two toppings, Kee maintains.)
Patrons might not recognize the restaurant from when Espuma and Vineyard Wine Bar & Bistro occupied it. Kee created openings between the dining room and bar for a more spacious ambiance.
On one wall are more than 100 Buon Ricordo plates. An Italian tradition, the plates capture the spirit of regional restaurants’ specialties. There are also movie posters in Italian, including one for One Hundred and One Dalmatians. (Dalmata is Italian for dalmatian, the breed Kee’s grandmother favored.)
The restaurant has also carved out a to-go area in front, which offers pasta dishes. Behind the bar, mixologist Jason Tanner pours gorgeous cocktails with lacelike foam and extravagant garnishes. The Negroni remains a best-seller.
Come fall, Kee plans to add a late night pizza by-the-slice menu. Once COVID-19 is firmly in the rearview mirror, she’ll provide entertainment. The Rehoboth native has plenty of ideas. She also owns La Fable and Houston-White Co. in Rehoboth, and she’s been in Lewes renovating the old Trader Mansion.
Kee’s newest concept, Bramble & Brine at The Buttery—named for her first restaurant and the iconic eatery that once resided here—should open around Labor Day.
19340 Lighthouse Plaza, Rehoboth Beach • 212-5319
When Derek Fink and Zach Diogo took possession of the old Ruby Tuesday on Route 1 in Rehoboth, they were determined to transform the space. “We put a lot of money into the exterior [and] into the interior,” Fink said. “We did not want the building to resemble a Ruby Tuesday.”
They needn’t have worried. Atlantic Social, which opened last summer, resembles an upscale modern beach home, complete with crisp striped awnings over expansive windows and coral and teal accent colors.
Inside, the clean lines continue with white booths, coral or white metal chairs and lighting fixtures wrapped in natural woven materials. The expansive U-shaped bar, which boasts a glossy alabaster top, is the focal point.
The menu, which salutes East Coast cuisine, strays into some ethnic waters. Consider Maryland crab queso dip, served with blue corn tortilla chips, ahi tuna nachos and sweet potato stuffed with pinto beans and topped with avocado-green goddess dressing, sour cream, cotija and pepitas.
Lobster rolls—served warm with butter or cold with mayo—rule. “The amount we’ve sold is eye-popping,” Fink adds. However, one of Fink’s favorite dishes is the Chesapeake seafood salad, a medley of crab, seared scallops, avocado, red onion, corn, microgreens and ruby red grapefruit.
Cocktail fans love the bar, which has a happy hour from 2 to 6 p.m. (Tip: Try the tomatoes on garlicky Texas toast with coarse salt.) “Even with COVID, we had a successful happy hour,” Fink says.
Fink and Diogo, who also own Blackwall Hitch in downtown Rehoboth, plan to host more events, including entertainment. Essentially, they will live up to the name.
“Atlantic Social has a fun, coastal vibe, and it’s very approachable,” Fink concludes.
1314 Washington St., Wilmington • 691-7447
At this American bistro tucked inside the Brandywine Hundred neighborhood, it’s a family affair.
Brothers Tony and Michael Bomba, along with friend and business partner John Ratliff, opened the eatery in April 2020 amid takeout-only dining restrictions. The restaurant serves up classic American fare with a twist, something Chef Michael began perfecting at a young age.
“He knew he was going to be a chef right from the get-go,” Tony says. “He loved cooking when he was a kid. I was teasing I used to make him make me omelets when I was 10 years old, and he was like 6.”
Michael’s 20-year experience in a variety of kitchens prepared him to create a menu at Dorcea that was more than your typical handhelds and salads. Plus, his experience serving up large spreads at Philadelphia Eagles football tailgates allowed him to marry innovative dishes with crowd-pleasing comfort foods.
“That’s where he came up with the chicken Alfredo. It was a tailgate dish,” Tony notes.
Dorcea came to be when the Bomba brothers and Ratliff realized they could each use their skills to create someothing new in Wilmington. Tony and Michael were working at Washington Street Ale House at the time, while Ratliff owns a strategic business consulting company. With Michael running the back of house, Tony at the front and Ratliff behind the scenes, the business model practically wrote itself.
The proprietors took over the space of now-shuttered Domaine Hudson and made it their own with an intimate atmosphere of warm colors, cozy seating and dark woods. The bar offers TV viewing for those looking to catch the big game.
Ratliff says many people told him restaurants were unlike his previous business ventures, but he says since opening Dorcea, he’s seen more similarities than differences.
“You have to understand how to deliver exceptional levels of volume,” he explains.
Since the easing of dining restrictions, Dorcea has continued to grow. Tony says guests will soon see an expanded menu with more entrées and salads. The restaurant’s bestsellers, Korean salmon, wings and the soup flight, are projected to continue to perform well.
As for opening during the height of the pandemic, Ratliff says he wouldn’t change a thing. Taking a challenge unlike any other and seeing it pay off in high reward was all worth it.
“[I am] so pleased with where we ended up,” he concludes.
CURRY AND COCKTAILS
422 E. Main St., Middletown • 524-4308
Curry and Cocktails brought Indian food to Middletown. Enjoy comfort food dishes from North India in a tranquil atmosphere. And don’t forget about the signature cocktail list with unique libations.
Sid Yanala took a leap of faith leaving the IT world to become a restaurateur.
What he didn’t know was it would be such an uphill battle. His new venture, Curry and Cocktails, opened in March 2020, right as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the United States.
Over the last 17 months, Yanala and his team have persevered, bringing Indian comfort food to Middletown. And with pandemic restrictions eased, Curry and Cocktails can become the eatery it was always supposed to be.
“It was pretty simple for us. Middletown is a booming town with no presence of any Indian restaurant that’s bringing something new [here],” Yanala explains.
Along with his business partner and their wives, Yanala aimed to create a tranquil atmosphere with neutral colors, dimmed lighting and soft music. The staff explains the menu and offers a variety of spice levels and protein options to appease all palates.
Yanala says there’s a misconception that Indian food is spicy by nature. He wants to educate patrons that the dishes are flavorful instead, using warm, rich spices ranging from sweet to hot.
Curry and Cocktails’ menu is centered on North Indian dishes, with their chef hailing from Punjab, India. The menu is expansive with a variety of entrées, including well-known tikka masala and makhani (butter) chicken. And try the palak (spinach gravy with Indian spices) or Aloo Gobi (cauliflower and potatoes cooked in onions and tomatoes). Each entrée is served with basmati rice and crispy, light naan, which comes in a variety of flavors, including garlic, a top seller.
Yanala says the tandoori entrées—various proteins prepared in the tandoor oven and served with basmati rice—is a section he’s particularly proud of. He suggests the lamb chops, marinated in spices, or the mixed grill, a flavorful assortment of a variety of proteins that includes tandoor chicken, chicken malai kabab, lamb boti kabab and shrimp tandoori.
The cocktail menu includes unexpected specialty libations. Enjoy the Curry Mangorita, made with mango, lime, curry powder and a sprinkle of red pepper for a fruity tequila cocktail with a kick.
Yanala hopes to see the restaurant’s reach grow with more people dining out and traveling across the state. But, for now, he’s proud of the foundation that’s been built.
“We have a loyal customer base right now,” he adds.