A Welcome Return

The long-awaited rebirth of the venerable Columbus Inn has finally happened, leading a scene full of changes in the restaurant world. Here’s a taste.

The Columbus Inn may have been modernized, but its familiar Old World vibe remains. Photograph by Jared CastaldiPerhaps it was a wedding rehearsal. Or maybe it was an anniversary dinner, or a Sunday brunch, or an office gathering that got a little too rambunctious. No matter the circumstance, lots of Delawareans have memories tied to the Columbus Inn, the legendary Pennsylvania Avenue tavern that shut its doors in 2007 to make room for condominiums.

The condos never came. Instead, Louis Capano & Associates purchased the historic building last fall and began an extensive modernization to return the inn to its glory. “At the beginning, I think we wanted to do more of a nip-and-tuck and put some fresh lipstick on the face of this old girl,” says general manager Rich Snyder. “But it wound up taking an entire facelift inside. It just kind of snowballed.”

The owners were careful not to diminish the Old World feel and the many memories associated with the original Columbus Inn (2216 Pennsylvania Ave., Wilmington, 571-1492). With help from designer Ron Fenstermacher, the inn is once again steeped in dark woods and deep, rich leather chairs, though the color palette is brighter and more modern. A few structural changes include installing a 1,000-bottle wine room in place of an old coatroom.

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Young and promising chef Chris D’Ambro takes over the kitchen. The 25-year-old has quite the resume, having studied under revered Philadelphia chef Marc Vetri and working as a sous chef at excellent Sovana Bistro in Kennett Square before taking center stage at Philly’s upscale Italian bistro, Bocca.

He’s tasked with creating upscale, seasonal American menus that harken to the inn’s surf-and-turf days. His version includes dishes like olive oil-poached salmon with black olive, almond and raisin couscous alongside a rustic dry-aged strip steak with white beans and leeks.

Some things just never change: the inn still offers free valet service, and its famous horseshoe-shaped bar remains untouched.

While Columbus Inn was busy working its rebirth magic, a few other Wilmington restaurants made their debuts. Le Shio Asian Fusion Cuisine (2303 Concord Pike, Wilmington, 888-0145) is the industrial-chic addition to suddenly global Concord Pike, where executive chef Hon Fung’s expansive menu has earned a warm reception. Le Shio means “in salt” in Japanese, but the restaurant’s eye-catching cuisine spans the globe, from Malaysian roti canai to Japanese sushi and sashimi to Chinese wok dishes.

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Le Shio Asian Fusion Cuisine in Wilmington is already well known for its eye-catching dishes.Le Shio Asian Fusion Cuisine in Wilmington is already well known for its eye-catching dishes. Photograph by Jared CastaldiFrom restaurateurs Eric and Norman Sugrue, masters of casual, family-friendly hotspots like Big Fish Grill and Summer House, came FireStone Roasting House (110 S. West St., Wilmington, 658-6626). The restaurant opened in the spring in the Wilmington Riverfront spot formerly occupied by C.W. Harborside. FireStone looks to augment the favorable nightspot location—Harborside was famous for a large patio bar that overlooked the river—with an open kitchen and tasty pizzas prepared in a brick oven.

A vibrant nightlife scene is another goal, with live entertainment from bands, DJs and dancing, plus happy hours featuring a five-dollar menu and signature drinks such as the citrus-infused Firewater cocktail. Out of the brick oven, hot and bubbly, are craft pizzas, like one topped with chicken chunks, mushrooms and truffle oil. Other menu highlights include roasted prime rib, Hawaiian ribeye marinated in soy sauce and ginger, and juicy housemade burgers.

Indeed, craft pizza places have taken the town by storm. Earlier this year, Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza, a Florida-based boutique chain partially owned by NFL great Dan Marino, opened in Market Square Shopping Center in North Wilmington. Anthony’s (5611 Concord Pike, Wilmington, 477-1488) is home to crispy, ever-so-slightly upscale pies such as sliced tomato and fresh mozzarella pizza, meatball and ricotta pizza, and arugula pizza, plus a few other coal-fired menu options like rosemary-sprinkled chicken wings and focaccia sandwiches.

From-scratch pizzas made with Belgian yeast are part of the menu at Chelsea Tavern (821 N. Market St., Wilmington, 482-3333). The new tavern—a joint venture of restaurateurs Joe Van Horn and Scott Morrison with chef Sean McNeice—took over the spot once occupied by Restaurant 821. With a chef who’s obsessed with doing everything from scratch using fresh, local and seasonal products (think cured meats from local Maiale Salumeria, goat cheese from Lancaster and dough for pierogi made by hand), and great attention to craft beers and wines, Chelsea looks to nail the upscale-casual tavern concept.

Pizza wasn’t the only blue-collar food receiving a call-up to the culinary major leagues. El Diablo Burritos (Delaware Avenue, 13A Trolley Square Shopping Center, Wilmington, 691-5532) is a venture of business partners Roger Andrews and Dean Vilone. The pair come from high-end dining backgrounds, and their build-your-own burrito joint inside a former dry-cleaner’s space does plump burritos filled with ingredients such as braised short-rib, citrus-marinated pork, lime-grilled steak and Kennett Square mushrooms. On nice afternoons in the summertime, lines of customers regularly spilled out onto the sidewalk. Outdoor tables became available in May.

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A market that’s hungry for good, upscale burritos could mean good news for Santa Fe Wilmington (2006 Pennsylvania Ave., Wilmington, 425-5200), whose take on the short-rib burrito appears on the lunch menu with cilantro-lime rice and cumin-flavored black beans. The beautifully appointed Santa Fe has a hip bar for happy hour and a menu that features upscale twists on Latin cuisine. Try the skirt steak molcajete served sizzling in a stone bowl with guajillo pepper sauce.

From restaurateur Dave Magrogan (Kildare’s Pub, Doc Magrogan’s Oyster House) and partner Dana Farrell comes Harvest Seasonal Grill and Wine Bar (573 Wilmington-West Chester Pike, Suite D33, Glen Mills, Pa., 610-358-1005), which opened this spring in Glen Eagle Square. Harvest stresses seasonal, locally grown cuisine, with many entrées landing under 500 calories. Chef Brian Duffy’s menu includes steak and mushroom flatbread, free-range rotisserie chicken with barbecued zucchini and squash, and more.

Mixing it up along Rehoboth’s vibrant Baltimore Avenue is Mixx (26 Baltimore Ave., Rehoboth Beach, 226-8700), owned by Ginger Breneman and Pete Borsari. Inside the spot formerly filled by Dish!, Mixx does new-American cuisine such as horseradish-braised “deviled” short ribs and macadamia nut-crusted rockfish. Entrées can be ordered in full portions or as small-plate tapas. Chef Dave Sauers previously plied his trade at Fusion in Rehoboth Beach and Ponos Hawaiian Fine Dining in Dewey. Mixx draws big crowds on Wednesday nights for $8 burgers and half-priced martinis.

Timothy’s, a Wilmington neighborhood pub known for its comfy, local vibe, sprouted a location at the beach. Timothy’s at the Beach (19598 Coastal Hwy., Rehoboth Beach, 227-3435) adds ample seafood to Timothy’s pub-grub menu, plus an array of craft brews, including locally made Dogfish Head, Evolution and 16 Mile.

Eden, meanwhile, is already a beach-area legend. Known for its romantic atmosphere and artful presentations, it’s about as refined as Rehoboth gets. But it isn’t always the least expensive dining option. That’s one reason why Eden owners opened Jam Bistro (20 Baltimore Ave., Rehoboth Beach, 226-5266), a more casual, less expensive alternative. The bistro is decorated with local artwork and features a 985-bottle wine rack, an outdoor patio and TV-filled bar. Former Eden sous chef Gary Johnson runs the kitchen, which produces casual yet delicious fare like mussels with Belgian ale, smoked bacon and mustard cream. The bar cranks out housemade cocktails such as the Beach Grass, flavored with lemongrass and homemade sour mix.

A bit west of the beaches, the former Steakhouse 26 underwent a conceptual overhaul. Owner Jerry Richard brought on chef Nino Mancari of Rehoboth’s Salt Air as a consultant and turned Steakhouse 26 into Twenty-Six, a coastal American pub and raw bar. Richard revamped the look of the restaurant from steakhouse to fish house, tearing up some carpet and lightening some of the darker interior elements.

Twenty-Six (238 Atlantic Ave., Millville, 539-0626) subscribes to Mancari’s philosophy of using fresh, sustainable ingredients. He penned a new menu along with chef Brian Carson (a Salt Air alum who takes over as head chef) that’s inspired by coasts up and down the Atlantic and a bit of Louisiana. New menu highlights include oysters from the newly installed 25-foot raw bar and seafood fare like fennel-crusted tuna with jicama slaw and tomato jam.

Even when the number remains the same, change is inevitable.

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