One day last year, friends Sean Corea and Tom Little were kicking around the idea of opening a restaurant—and it wasn’t the first time. The industry veterans had been brainstorming ever since they met while working for La Vida Hospitality. The conversation turned to the Walsh Building on Second Street in downtown Lewes, better known as the original home of the Rose & Crown and Jerry’s Seafood.
The site was an ideal business location, they agreed. “Two weeks later, the restaurant space became available,” Corea says. “With no small amount of good luck, the opportunity found us. We feel very fortunate in that sense.”
The concept was equally serendipitous. “As we walked through the Walsh Building and saw its exposed brick walls, tin ceilings, exposed beams, oak floors and oversized bar with antique brass beer taps, we just knew it had to be an oyster house,” Corea recalls.
Lewes Oyster House is one of several newer eateries turning Delaware’s first city into a dining destination. The new restaurant is near Bramble & Brine at The Buttery, Raas, Heirloom and Harbour, which overlooks the canal.
And like these establishments, the new eatery sports the small-town vibe that characterizes the area. Credit owner-operators with local ties and a devotion to the area’s history.
Little’s connection runs deep. His grandparents owned the farm on Kings Highway that Big Oyster Brewery now occupies. When his father retired from the U.S. Navy, the family moved to the area so his mother could be near his grandmother.
Little grew up working in restaurants and quickly entered management. While handling marketing for Crooked Hammock Brewery, part of La Vida Hospitality, he met Corea.
A Dover native, Corea started as a dishwasher at Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats in Rehoboth Beach. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and worked at Restaurant Daniel in New York and Bibou in Philadelphia. In 2014, he became a sous chef at Nage, also owned by La Vida Hospitality. Corea was the executive chef during the restaurant’s transition from fine dining to the cocktail-oriented Fork & Flask. He also worked at Nalu.
For their new business, the friends teamed up with Delaware native and attorney Tim Bartley, who has worked for the Charlie Palmer Collective. They had covered all the bases: the kitchen, the front of the house and the back office.
Many young restaurateurs would have stopped there. But although Little had a marketing background, he asked branding expert and friend Dylan Garner to come on board. She worked with interior designer Cat Stramer of SlateBlue Design. (Lewes-based Element Design Group is the architect of record.)
The Walsh Building—named for former Lewes Mayor William Walsh—was built in the 1930s and has been a firehouse, community center, insurance office and general store.
The brick building with the signature half-moon pediment is part of the Lewes Historic District. Consequently, the restaurant partners had to work with the Historic Preservation Architectural Review Commission.
“As a group, we all felt strongly about maintaining the historic nature of both the front and back of the Walsh Building,” Little says. “Everyone from the architects to our lighting designer played an important role in ensuring we did just that.”
Inside, certain familiar features remain, such as stained-glass windows, the tin ceiling, an exposed brick wall and stained wood. “I tried to incorporate the new with the old, so it looked like it had always been that way,” Stramer explains.
The new includes items the guests can’t see, such as the plumbing, roof and revamped kitchen. But they will notice the oyster bar in front of the nearly floor-to-ceiling windows. Pedestrians on Second Street can see oyster shuckers at work, while customers bellying up to the oyster bar can watch the pedestrians. “As soon as you open the door, you’re hit by so much activity, whether it’s the oyster bar or the beautiful wine cellar that Cat created,” Garner says.
That’s a switch from the past when customers often bypassed the front dining room to climb the stairs to the second-level bar. The new owners have leveraged the staggered levels, and the bar remains upstairs with a second dining area, giving guests options.
Little, a self-professed “beer nerd,” has traveled to Belgium and Germany, and Lewes Oyster House showcases lagers, a Czech side-pull faucet and 10 taps.
It’s not all about beer, however, as the wine bar section illustrates. And Fork & Flask customers will recognize Sean Norris, a mixologist and student of cocktail lore.
“Our cocktail program features a variety of old school and new school libations using some traditional and modern techniques,” Corea maintains. “From the ice to the garnish, each cocktail is crafted to showcase the spirits how they were intended.”
For the menu, Corea drew inspiration from the beach. While Lewes lacks a boardwalk, visitors can find elevated boardwalk fare at the oyster house. For example, consider fries, charbroiled burgers, a lobster corn dog and rotisserie chicken—items that “evoke summer memories,” Corea says.
While the selections might seem far removed from Nage’s glory days, Corea is unconcerned. “We aim to make everyone feel welcome and to deliver good service, good food and good beverages at a solid value,” he says.
And there’s no better place to succeed than an oyster tavern, the partners agree. After all, Eastern Seaboard residents have been slurping and sipping in such establishments since the Colonial era, Little notes.
At the Lewes Oyster House, “groups of people will share oysters, tell stories and make memories,” he says. “It’s a place for Lewes residents and tourists alike.”
Related: 10 Coastal Delaware Eateries Serving Food in Historic Buildings