*This story and photos were originally published prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. For the most up-to-date protocols and regulations for dining in Delaware, please visit coronavirus.delaware.gov.*
“My Name is Shirley. Please Follow Me.”
Shirley—a 4-foot-tall robot with a white, lightbulb-shaped head, a mauve bellhop uniform and a polite, subdued smile—beckons from the hostess stand inside Robot Captain Crabs (1130 Capitol Trail, Newark, 273-3878, robotcaptaincrabs.com).
She’s one of five robots that scoot around the restaurant, guided by panels built into the floor, showing guests to their tables and running food orders from the kitchen.
Is it technology run amok? Will the robot singularity detonate thanks to casual family dining? Not too likely, says general manager John Soysal.
“To be honest, these robots cannot function without humans,” he demurs. “There are mixed feelings with some people. They think the robots are taking the jobs away. They really are not. They’re just there to enhance the fun. It really is nothing but a gimmick. But maybe they’re the future; 10, 15 years from now, that might change. Maybe so, I don’t know. Technology changes every day.”
Gimmick or not, Shirley and the robots are essentially iPhones on wheels. And in these futuristic times, using our devices to find food, order food (and take pictures of our food, share our food, hashtag our food and rate our food) is the new normal.
Apps like Grubhub, DoorDash and Uber Eats mean you’re always just a few clicks or swipes away from a Capriotti’s Bobbie, a cheeseburger from the Charcoal Pit, or even a high-end meal from somewhere like Tonic Seafood & Steak (111 W. 11th St., Wilmington, 777-2040, tonicbargrille.com) or Sullivan’s Steakhouse (5525 Concord Pike, Wilmington, 479-7970).
At the dawn of a new decade, Delaware seems to be entering a new, digitally enhanced age of dining and drinking. And it’s not all robots and iPhone apps. In our tech-fueled lives, we’re increasingly looking for a dining experience that’s fast, casual, mobile, multifaceted and, of course, Instagrammable. As the millennial generation takes over as the country’s largest age group, overtaking the baby boomer generation with its 75 million people, according to the Brookings Institution, restaurants and bars are adapting to draw them in.
Spots like Faire Market & Café (temporarily closed, facebook.com/fairemarketcafe) are taking the touchscreen ordering model you might see at Wawa or Honeygrow and applying it to the high-end soup-and-sandwich combo of your workday dream. Ordering a smoked turkey Reuben and butternut squash bisque splashed with basil oil is quick. It’s hip. It’s insanely customizable. And it requires hardly any human interaction whatsoever. Which might be exactly what the up-and-coming generations want.
“It’s almost like our generation is leaning away from sitting in one spot for two hours and eating,” says Catrina Jefferson of Middletown. “We want to get up, walk around, socialize, play Cornhole, watch TV, go to the food truck. An unstructured experience, almost.”
Jefferson, a market manager for CSC and a Leadership Delaware fellow—goes out to eat three or four times a week with her husband, Bill. They prefer unfussy places like Volunteer Brewing Co. (120 W. Main St., Middletown, 464-0822, volunteerbrewing.com), where they can relax, sip a craft IPA, listen to live music, hit up the Ole Tapas food truck parked around back, and move at their own pace.
It’s a model seen at other popular microbrew operations like Wilmington Brew Works (3129 Miller Road, Wilmington, 722-4828, wilmingtonbrewworks.com) or Blue Earl Brewing Company (210 Artisan Drive, Smyrna, 653-2337, blueearlbrewing.com).
“Everybody seems to be adopting more active lifestyles,” says Carrie Leishman, the firebrand leader of the Delaware Restaurant Association. “When I had a baby, I wasn’t putting him in a stroller or taking him to some tap room. But today, the new generation is taking their kids to beer gardens, to breweries. At our local brewery, there are kids playing board games, the parents are drinking; it’s cool. Young families are going out as families, so they’re looking for things they could do to entertain everybody.
“Or maybe we’re all so ADD—our heads are stuck on our phones all the time—that when we pick our faces up, it takes something like that to keep our attention.”
Dru Tevis is #killingit on Instagram.
The corporate pastry chef for SoDel Concepts treats his 1,500-plus followers to eye-popping daily shots of baked Alaska en flambé, apple crostata and ice cream sundaes speckled with Fruity Pebbles. Spliced in are his vacation photos with his husband, his muscly workout routines and #angles aplenty of his perfectly coiffed Vaudevillian handlebar mustache. His followers eat it up.
“I think it’s definitely weird, because I’m just doing my thing,” he says. “Around
Rehoboth, it has started to be interesting and flattering and very humbling when I’ll meet random people who are like, ‘Oh, we follow you on Instagram.’”
And how could you not? As Tevis hops between SoDel’s 13 restaurants, he spotlights gourmet doughnuts at Crust & Craft, or pineapple-banana upside-down cake at Northeast Seafood Kitchen. It’s a win for SoDel, and savvy chefs like Tevis (a former communications major) can grow and cultivate their personal brand on Instagram. In many cases, it can lead to a larger following, invitations to events and more opportunities. “It’s strange sometimes to step back when [an opportunity] happens, and I realize it is because of Instagram. It’s not just because of word of mouth around here. It’s because of Instagram.”
With more than a billion monthly users, Instagram—and social media generally—seems inextricably woven into our every dining experience. A 2017 study by marketing consultants Maru/Matchbox found that 69 percent of millennials take a photo or video of their food before eating it.
“The phone eats first for everyone anymore,” says Bridgette Pappert, a 24-year-old server at Trolley Square Oyster House who Instagrams her dining adventures with friend and fellow server Courtney Messina, 25. “The expectations have been raised,” Pappert says. “If customers get a dish that doesn’t look like it’s supposed to, that can light like wildfire. One person sees the photo, and suddenly all their friends have that reaction too.”
“You have to make sure things are going out the way they’re presented,” Messina says. “I will yell at my expeditor if the whipped cream is melted.”
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Social media fundamentally changes the way restaurants approach everything—the décor to the lighting, the flatware to the desserts. It’s put food runners and kitchens on alert to make sure their plates are presented beautifully and smudge-free—lest they wind up on the business end of an angry tweet (just look at the havoc one gnarly cheese sandwich wreaked on the Fyre Festival).
On the other hand, it’s a free and easy way to show off some beautiful food. Would Bardea Food & Drink (620 N. Market St., Wilmington, 426-2069, bardeawilmington.com) have climbed so quickly from upstart newbie to critical darling without chef Antimo DiMeo’s stunning presentations lighting up our timelines?
and gargantuan burger creations, topped with everything from scrapple to bourbon pears to broccoli rabe. And it’s rent-free gallery space for the artistry of Heirloom (212 Savannah Road, Lewes, 313-4065). Owner Meghan Lee and chef Matt Kern present stunning tableaux of local ingredients transformed into edible works of art. Their 9,000-plus followers devour it.
“People eat with their eyes,” says Bob Yesbek, who blogs and hosts a radio show as the Rehoboth Foodie. “Restaurants used to rely on seating people by front windows to showcase their food; now they can do it on Facebook and Instagram. People want to sit at home and be tempted. What better way?”
It also means great ideas travel fast. “With social media, it’s easier to break down people’s walls, because it’s just an influx of information to everybody’s face nonstop,” says Dan Sheridan of Stitch House Brewery (829 N. Market St., Wilmington, 250-4280, stitchhousebrewery.com). “Concepts from bigger cities will catch on quicker in smaller cities. So, for a smaller city, that opens the door for us. You just can’t get that effect from little postcard mailers. That’s just where it is now. And it’s super important.”
The city of Wilmington depends on positive viral buzz as countless development projects continue to reshape its downtown core.
With major employers going on hiring binges, city leaders and entrepreneurs are leaning into the new energy with marketing efforts like the “It’s Time” campaign, along with artistic selfie stations spread throughout the city. It’s an ongoing reinvention to cast Wilmington as a walkable, exciting metropolitan center with plenty of options that appeal to its growing army of young professionals and families.
Like Philly and Baltimore, Wilmington is embracing its historic assets and infrastructure—and transforming them into creative gems.
Hip new spots like Torbert Street Social (temporarily closed, torbertsocial.com) ooze with eye candy. The clubby cocktail lounge—retrofitted into a 19th-century livery—treats patrons to tableside-smoked rosemary sprigs, magical color-changing libations and other wizardry, along with high-end bar snacks like twice-cooked duck wings and beef tenderloin sliders. But owner Eric Sugrue also wanted to create something he thought the neighborhood sorely lacked: a cool outdoor space. As a result, Torbert’s gated patio—with its cozy fire pit and low-key artist stage—furnishes Torbert Street with its own little Philly-style beer garden.
A few blocks away on the edge of the Wilmington Creative District (and near the new, 200-unit Residences at Mid-Town Park), Makers Alley (804 N. Orange St., Wilmington, 482-1299, makersalleyde.com) built a similarly cozy concept into an old carpenter’s mill building, trading ostentatious cocktails for old-school but highbrow beers and burgers. A vintage 1960s Airstream camper/food truck acts as the kitchen. Wood joists from the 1800s-era building are repurposed as countertops.
“I don’t want to call us a beer garden, because we’re more of a restaurant with a Silver Bullet Airstream to cook out of,” says Rich Snyder, director of food and beverage for the Buccini/Pollin Group.
“But we wanted to bring something here that’s going to bring people outside.”
Makers Alley, becoming the first restaurant solely owned and operated by the BPG Group, feels like hanging out in a neighbor’s fenced-in backyard. There’s a vertical garden, hanging Edison-style lights and a few lazy hammocks. More important, it’s as kid-friendly as it is dog-friendly.
“There’s a gap of diners that you tend to miss unless it’s a special occasion: those people in the child-rearing years who’re just like, ‘No way am I taking my kids to a restaurant.’ Because it’s a headache,” Snyder says. “At least if you have kids like mine. That’s a great thing about a beer garden: It’s a place where my kids run around, try to do their best to break the hammock and will play tag throughout all this stuff. We invite everybody to kind of come and relax and tune out and not even worry about your kids and just hope they stay inside the gates.”
The elevated bar food—think shepherd’s pie eggrolls and brisket-spiked burgers—comes mostly in a handheld format, perfect for busy parents or eager Instagrammers.
“You close your eyes and you can be in, you know, Northern Liberties or you can be in Williamsburg,” Snyder says. “I hate to use that word hipster, but it’s appealing to young, smart urbanites that are making a good living and also decided to stay in [Wilmington] rather than go to Philadelphia.”
Food trucks, vintage or otherwise, aren’t the only outlets bringing cuisine to the people.
Pop-up concepts, high-end fast food, festivals, farmers markets and CSAs mean we never have to go far or wait long for some edible excitement.
As long as the food tastes good, Delaware’s new generation of restaurants can take on nearly any shape or form. The El Diablo burrito empire (multiple locations, eldiabloburritos.com) rewired our brains on the notion of fast food, giving us cafeteria style without the cafeteria food. Instead, it’s braised beef short rib and citrus-marinated pork.
And the fast-casual format is rapidly catching on. Places like Limestone BBQ and Bourbon (2062 Limestone Road, Wilmington, 274-2058, limestonebbqandbourbon.com) utilize a similar approach, attracting long, fast-moving lines to their smoky Texas-style brisket, St. Louis ribs and fall-off-the-bone chicken. Wilmington’s DE.CO food hall (111 W. 10th St., Wilmington, 300-4955, decowilmington.com) offers downtowners a diverse and hip roster of quick-serve mini-restaurants that offer nearly every square you’ll find on Hipster Dining Bingo, from poke bowls to pho to La Colombe draft lattes. Downstate is no stranger to gourmet to go, as popular spots like Touch of Italy (multiple locations) and Big Chill Surf Cantina/Taco Reho (19406 Coastal Highway, Rehoboth Beach, 727-5568, bigchillsurfcantina.com) can attest.
In cases like Wilmington Green Box (212-0172, wilmingtongreenbox.org), the goodness pedals its way right to you. The 501(c)(3) nonprofit program employs more than a dozen teens from the local community, “and gives them entrepreneurial jobs, while supplying different neighborhoods with the right access to cold-pressed juices, healthy goods and fresh produce items,” says co-founder Jason Aviles.
Aviles and crew started three years ago with a mobile pushcart built out of an old icebox they found in a Victorian home near the west end of the city. The kids themselves learned to make cold-press juices from quality fruits and vegetables, and then sold them throughout the city with their business on wheels. Beyond just offering a delicious product, Aviles and his young team were providing their neighborhoods with healthy food alternatives.
“It’s crazy that we are in downtown Wilmington and there still isn’t a grocery store,” Aviles says. “When we first came into this market, there were several grown adults that didn’t know carrots could make juice. That was really an eye-opening experience. I was bringing my juicer into barber shops, showing people that carrots can make delicious juice. And that just shows you that most people are just used to buying their stuff out of a can or a bottle.”
Green Box eventually upgraded the pushcart to a tri-bike—and established some colorful, seasonal roots with a kiosk nestled into a lot on South Market Street. With its inspiring wall-length murals, feel-good story, vibrant greenery and soaring orange tapestries, it’s one of the area’s best spots to take a selfie.
Aviles, along with partners Angela Wagner and John Naughton, planted more permanent roots when they opened Green Box Kitchen (400 N. Market St., Wilmington, 274-2195, greenboxkitchen.com) on lower Market Street. The team works to share the virtues of healthy, colorful and thoroughly modern dining with the community. Thanks to viral hits like the Impossible Burger, their job is getting a little easier.
“This is the age of information,” Aviles says. “Where, naturally, because you’re exposed to more, you’re going to be curious about more. You’re going to want to try things that you never tried.”