At Tonic Bar and Grille, Trendy Vibes and Tasty Fare

A longtime Wilmington restaurant reinvents itself by creating a hip vibe and tossing a few steaks on the menu.

Deep Blue Bar and Grill in Wilmington, a longtime seafood hotspot, has been reimagined as a classy dining room that now offers sizzling steaks hot off the grill. The re-created space, rechristened Tonic Bar and Grille, is a sophisticated new jewel in the city’s restaurant scene.

The expansive windows overlooking West 11th Street and the eye-catching concrete bar, made in New York many moons ago, remain. But walls have been shifted, TVs have been added to the bar area (14 total) and the kitchen, once open, is mostly covered up.

Browns, taupe and charcoal hues add a sleek feel. But bare wood tables gleaming with silver placemats, booths covered in Marimekko-like patterned fabrics and hanging tuxedo lights exude a hip friendliness. “We were looking to create a new experience, buzz and vibe for people coming in,” says owner Dan Butler. “We wanted people to feel like they could pop in.”

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Lorrie Nicholas pours a cocktail.

And while slabs of meat are part of the makeover, loyal fans of the old place need not despair. There are still plenty of stellar seafood options on the updated menu.

We started our meal with a jumbo shrimp cocktail, a standard that benefits from its simplicity. Four plump, pink crustaceans as big as a man’s thumb fanned around small containers of cocktail sauce and horseradish. The tuna tartare was also impressive. Nuggets of ruby fish, avocado and cucumber were tossed in an orange-ginger vinaigrette and draped with a dreamy, creamy wasabi crème fraîche.

The arugula and red quinoa salad gave us pause, though. The peppery greens, awash in a toasted almond vinaigrette and studded with chunks of tangy herbed goat cheese and roasted cherry tomatoes, were delicious. But there were only tiny nibs of the grilled asparagus promised on the menu and a barely there sprinkling of quinoa.

The restaurant’s meat selection is modest: four steaks and a Berkshire pork chop. The 12-ounce New York strip was as juicy and delectable as it should have been, sitting like an island in a pillow of whipped Yukon potatoes and pool of demi-glace. For hearty appetites, there’s a 16-ounce, bone-in cowboy steak for a pricey $42. 

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Executive chef Patrick Bradley 

On our visit, there were no side dishes or steak sauces available. Butler says that is being remedied. A new menu will include extras like creamed spinach, asparagus, a baked potato and Béarnaise sauce.

The American burger

Burgers are offered at the bar and during lunch. But the kitchen was kind enough to prepare one for the 13-year-old at our table during dinner. Even this growing boy couldn’t polish off the weighty meat patty with tomato-pickle relish, onions, parsley mayo and ketchup, all with a pile of fries on the side—not that he didn’t try. Besides the American burger and other meat choices, a black bean-red quinoa burger is available for the vegetarian crowd.

The chef, Pat Bradley, who has been with Butler for five years, showed he can still deliver great crab cakes. Two broiled patties full of lump perched proudly on a plate with herbed tomato couscous, French green beans and a splash of rémoulade sauce.

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Desserts are worth the caloric splurge. After all, how often do you see sticky toffee pudding, a traditional English offering, on a menu? The two moist mini-cakes, enriched with dates, were sweetened with a generous drizzle of warm caramel and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Another dessert, the flourless chocolate torte, was a captivating wedge dotted with drops of melted chocolate and adorned with strawberries. A candied almond bark cookie was a great accompaniment.

Butler, who also owns Piccolina Toscana in Trolley Square and Brandywine Prime in Chadds Ford, chose the name Tonic for a couple of reasons. “It has a double meaning. It sounds very hip and bar-like,” he says. “It’s also good for what ails you.”

Butler’s current curative is shining brightly. 

111. W. 11th St., Wilmington, 777-2040,  |  PRICES: Appetizers $8–$15; entrees $24–42.  |  RECOMMENDED DISHES: Tuna tartare, American burger, 12-ounce New York strip steak.

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