Photo by Joe Del Tufo
Snuff Mill Restaurant, Butchery & Wine Bar is staking its claim as Delaware’s hottest new eatery while delivering a robust dining experience.
Chef Robert Lhulier needs no introduction. His résumé, his influences, his life story, all the bumps, bruises and burns built up from three decades in professional kitchens—he’s leaving it all on the plate at Snuff Mill Restaurant, Butchery & Wine Bar.
The fine art degree he pursued at the University of Delaware? See it in the colors of a roasted brace of quail over toasted faro with wild black trumpet mushrooms, pancetta Brussels sprouts and fond de poulet rôti. Then take a moment to ponder the chef’s life-changing stage at Charlie Trotter’s eponymous Chicago restaurant, retold in the Moulard duck breast with foraged fall mushrooms, Tokyo turnips, heirloom carrots and a pomegranate-fig gastrique.
Remember the ricotta gnocchi, the signature dish of Lhulier’s Chef’s Table at the David Finney Inn, a gone-too-soon restaurant that denizens of Old New Castle still speak of in wistful tones? At Snuff Mill, that gnocchi reappears, now with roasted squash, braised greens, black truffle and brown butter.
And that bread—sourdough with the crackling crust still craved by hundreds who dined at Lhulier’s pop-ups—his full-time, under-the-radar, if-you-know-you-know gig for the past four years? It’s here too, with roasted garlic for the spreading.
Snuff Mill is a steakhouse, yes, and an ambitious one at that. But it’s also a collaboration—a partnership between a chef, a wine merchant and an experienced restaurateur, working together for the first time but creating something singular in vision and in execution. From the day it opened, Snuff Mill staked its claim as Delaware’s hottest new restaurant. A month’s worth of prime reservations disappear within hours every month when the reservation book opens.
As Lhulier sips an espresso before dinner service, he reflects on advice learned in Trotter’s kitchen that continues to guide him: “Chef said the only person you should compete with is yourself, because you’re only as good as you are, and if you can keep raising the bar on yourself, you’ll keep going further and further. And, by the time you look back to see who’s behind you…there won’t be anybody there.”
The Full Experience
As a newcomer to the local dining scene, Bill Irvin requires some introduction. A sommelier at age 21, he spent years at Remy Cointreau before moving into the restaurant business, working at Ruth’s Chris and Phillips Seafood while developing his own concepts (including a falafel stand called Falafelicious) before arriving in Delaware in 2019 for his next adventure.
Irvin previously met Lhulier through a mutual friend, Paul Cullen, at one of Lhulier’s pop-up dinners, but fine dining wasn’t yet the plan.
Irvin envisioned a small restaurant with a robust catering business, where large cuts of meat would be roasted over giant outdoor firepits in the Argentinian tradition. When a space opened in Independence Mall, Irvin jumped at it and celebrated by stopping into a nearby wine shop, Swigg, to buy a bottle of Champagne.
A day later, his restaurant-to-be had a new partner in Swigg owner David Govatos, and he had reason to revisit Chef Lhulier. A partnership was formed: Irvin in the front of house, Lhulier in the kitchen, David Govatos working on a wine program and Joanne Govatos doing the books. The restaurant followed six months later.
“I thought maybe if we did 20 people a night, we’d be OK,” Irvin says. “We just need to make enough money to survive and build a concept out of it.”
And then the reservation book opened. “I mean, we had people calling all the time, we had people lining up out the door in five [minutes]. I’ve had a lot of restaurants in my life. I’ve never seen anything like this.…It’s scary. And it’s pretty spectacular.”
For Lhulier, it’s an echo of the time he worked in the kitchen with Bryan Sikora at Talula’s Table.
“Remember that? They were booked out a year in advance,” Lhulier says. “And Brian used to say these people wait an entire year to come here for dinner—you can’t drop the ball. You cannot disappoint. We’re only booking out a month in advance, but people have high expectations.”
Snuff Mill now serves locally sourced long-bone rib-eyes, dry-aged New York strips and steak frites to more than 100 patrons a night in a cozy space that seats 28, with a few more squeezed in at the bar (and, on warmer days, outdoors).
And the party doesn’t stop. A Stanley Tucci–themed pop-up dinner sold out in four minutes. Late-night “Burgers and Beats” parties keep things going on the occasional Friday night, with Lhulier in the DJ booth.
In a savvy marketing play, Bill supplies guests Sharpies to write post-meal messages on postcards that fill the restaurant’s Facebook page: “Wow, wow, wow, what a meal!” “Your bao buns bring all the boys to the yard.” “34 years ago, I watched Hulk Hogan slam Andre the Giant at Wrestle Mania 3. That’s similar to how I felt tasting your 6-oz. filet.”
The Perfect Glass
David Govatos wants to introduce you to a new wine. His Swigg once occupied the space where Snuff Mill is now, before moving to a larger location on the opposite side of Independence Mall.
An advocate of farm-to-glass wines from small, family-owned producers, Govatos sought to create a European-forward wine list that could stand up to the steaks.
“Robert makes the music, I just, like, sprinkle in some lyrics,” Govatos says. “I want the beverage program to be eclectic. Exploratory. I mean, we have Slovenian cabernet on the list.”
On a menu that contains some eye-popping numbers—that long-bone rib-eye for two will set you back $125—the wine list is approachable from a number of angles, with a couple dozen bottles in the $40 to $60 range.
But ask him why Snuff Mill has caught on so quickly, and he’s clear on what the attraction is.
“Honestly, I think Robert’s just that good,” Govatos says. “We get so much feedback on the soup. When’s the last time you went to a major steakhouse and said, ‘My God, the soup was incredible?’”
After four years of intimate cooking for small groups, Lhulier is relishing his return to the fast-paced dining scene, with a new appreciation for the bounty of local farms and purveyors.
“That’s how I’m cooking here,” he says. “I’m giving people the best ingredients I can get my hands on. We’ve set the bar high, and that’s probably my biggest challenge—to keep it that high. …I don’t want to just go back and do what I’ve done. I want to raise the bar.”
With less than a year behind them, the partners are already talking of expansion. They have future plans for enlarging the current restaurant space, opening a second restaurant, or maybe a small bakery.
But for now, Lhulier focuses on the ingredients in front of him.
“Every single day, we’ve got to have some upgrades,” he says. “Doesn’t matter what it is. It could be equipment, the way that we plate something, the way that we execute. Prep, storage, cleaning. One upgrade, every day. That’s the only way we’re going to not just meet people’s expectations, but the secret of course, is to exceed them.”