5812 Kennett Pike, Wilmington
Small plates/snacks $5-$12, sandwiches $10.95-$16.95, large plates $18.95-$27.95
Foie gras, Buckley’s Burger, mahi-mahi, Thai noodle soup
As restaurant cult followings go, the horde of regulars who hang their hats at Buckley’s Tavern in Centreville have to be counted among the most dedicated.
How else to explain the pajama-clad congregation that assembled on a cold Sunday in January for the last in what had become a regularly occurring, almost-religious experience? Buckley’s legendary half-priced brunch (provided you showed up in your jammies, of course) was just one of many lovingly held traditions that went on pause for nearly 11 months while the chateau country landmark experienced a change in operators, as well as a much-needed refurbishing.
And for a while there, things were looking mighty anxious for the bar’s many followers. After a targeted August start date came and passed, Buckley’s devotees were forced to the sidelines to wait out a rain-soaked visit from Superstorm Sandy, which pushed the opening back a few days more.
Finally, one day before Halloween, owners Bob Applegate and Bob Bolling rang in the Buckley’s is Back era with new partners Vance Kershner, Coley du Pont, and coaxed-out-of-retirement Tom Hannum, who takes over executive chef duties. The group posed together to hang the original pineapple-emblazoned sign, and passed out black-and-white “BIB” bumper stickers for all the pick-up trucks and Rolls-Royces that famously share the parking lot.
Then, the onslaught. In its opening weeks, Buckley’s welcomed back its fans en masse, with a crush of well-to-do customers piling into the revamped copper-top bar, and waiting 90 minutes in the refurbished entrance for a table.
Luckily, for regulars and neophytes alike, Buckley’s Tavern is better than it’s ever been.
A supposedly unspeakable amount of money went into remodeling the building, which dates back to the early 19th century, including updates in the kitchen, electrical systems and infrastructure. And to perform such an overhaul without impeding on the warmth and the sense of home that Buckley’s has cultivated over the past century is an extraordinary trick.
The U-shaped bar anchors the front room, along with stately high-top tables and shimmering wood floors. The family friendly Centreville Room resembles a farmstead patio, replete with brick floors, green wooden slat walls, flannel window treatments, and slowly churning belt-driven ceiling fans. In the central dining room, burgundy walls, black banquette booths and woodsy chandeliers create an aura of an exclusive hinterland retreat.
But what makes New Buckley’s really sparkle is the food. Chef Hannum spent 16 years running the kitchen at the Hotel du Pont’s Green Room, a place that’s intrinsically defined by its impeccably high standards. Hannum’s experience, matched with his cosmically attuned French technique, lead to succulent, perfectly cooked proteins, hard-fought, protracted flavors, and a propensity for wonderful sauces.
It’s an M.O. perfectly suited to an upscale taphouse like Buckley’s, where Hannum can easily slide ripples of tempered elegance into approachable country dining. Longtime Buckley’s operator Dave Weir always spoke of the restaurant’s diverseness—the barons of chateau country rubbing elbows with the blue-collar crowd on any given night
It’s a notion not lost on Hannum, who seamlessly weaved high-brow swagger into Buckley’s more traditional pub grub. Consider the minty schmear of gremolata that topped meltingly tender lamb shank. The herb mixture underscored the slow-cooked lamb’s inherent pungency and sliced through the meat’s fat-laced heaviness. Or the pork and veal “white” meatloaf that filled two pieces of toast with tender, pliable bites, and a smoky slather of spice-smacked barbecue sauce.
With high-caliber ingredients to match the swanky new interior, even the workmanlike Buckley’s Burger sparkled like a showpiece. Sturdy English cheddar and crispy applewood-smoked bacon seemed like mere sidekicks to the juicy hunk of ground sirloin that dripped its robust beefy manna onto buttery country bread.
And yes, Thai noodle soup, the longtime Buckley’s fave, is back to warming up chilled winter bones, only in Hannum’s hands, it was recast in a curry-laced broth swarming with spice and tender chunks of white chicken while tender soba noodles sopped it all in.
There were occasions where Hannum and his team cut loose from the pub-grub grid and unleashed works of modern, comfort-dining spectacle, and the results were usually dazzling. Foie gras and waffles might sound like a rejected pajama brunch idea, but the pairing of luscious Hudson Valley foie gras—its outer membrane frizzled to a salty crisp—and a sweet potato waffle segment proved impeccable. The liver’s melty center oozed out from within itself and unfurled like lava, mixing with a brandy-spiked maple syrup and smashed pistachio crumbles to compose a rich, salty addictive elixir that coated every crunchy waffle nook.
Meanwhile toothsome white beans, braised and bubbled in a rich, salty pork belly demiglace, underpinned a hulking mahi mahi filet, delicately seasoned and perfectly cooked. The sauce, deeply developed (and pure French) busted with rosemary and thyme while a crispy slaw of green apple and radicchio provided contrasts in texture and temperature.
The formula didn’t always work. Atop a crispy flatbread appetizer, chunks of duck confit clashed amid the clatter of acerbic mole negro, a cumin-and-pepper-laced sauce. It also arrived sans avocado, cilantro and lime, as the menu advertised, and the dish missed out on the balance those ingredients would have provided.
But any meager misstep was forgiven by dessert, when pumpkin-flavored whoopie pies, apple tarts and almond-studded layer cakes arrived fluffy, rich and piled high with layers of whipped mousses, creams and ganaches.
Even among the chaotic crush of the reopen, the Buckley’s staff kept its collective cool, and service ran in a timely and efficient manner. It was doubly impressive considering how often a staffer was stopped, mid-stride, by the familiar face of a returning Buckley’s regular. Warm smiles were had. Hugs were shared.
Invariably, the reunions followed a similar pattern: “It looks great in here!” “Even the bathrooms!” “I can still wear my pajamas on Sunday, right?”