Delaware’s two dining clubs may have a reputation for stuffiness, but, having kept up with the times magnificently, that rep is undeserved. Peek inside the new University & Whist Club and the kind-of-new Wilmington Club. Wine, anyone?
One is redolent of old names, old money and tradition. The other exudes a Gen-X vibe, even a little Gen-Y. One requires men to wear a tie at lunch. The other requires a collared shirt and prohibits jeans—except in summer, when even shorts and sandals are allowed. One is listed in the Wilmington phone book. The other has a sophisticated, interactive Website, a bi-monthly, four-color newsletter, and an elaborate membership packet.
Despite these and other differences, The Wilmington Club and The University & Whist Club, both born in the 19th century, have one thing in common: They have survived as Delaware’s only dining clubs by offering the very best cuisine—and by adjusting to the economic and cultural pressures of the 21st century.
The 155-year-old Wilmington Club is housed anonymously, since moving from French Street in 1900, in a three-story brownstone at 1103 N. Market St., the former home of former member John Merrick. It is the third-oldest dining club in the country, behind The Philadelphia Club (1834) and the Union Club of New York (1836). Its image about town—to those who are even aware of it—is of middle-aged men lounging in deep leather chairs, enjoying brandy and cigars after a sumptuous meal. Indeed, it began, like its predecessors, as a men’s club,
The image may be somewhat accurate, but the club’s two-volume history suggests that the venerable building has seen its share of frat-boy behavior. For instance, there is this rule, adopted in 1876: “The Club House shall be opened every day for the reception of members at 7 o’clock in the morning and shall be closed at half-past 2 o’clock in the morning, but this rule shall not require the departure of those who at such time may be within the Club House.”
Since the club now closes at 6:30 p.m., that rule no longer applies. Likewise, today’s members are not given to setting off firecrackers under the tables during the annual October dinner, a practice that, according to volume 2 of the club history, ended in the 1970s. And games of pool that elicited “some Anglo-Saxon phrases” are no longer played.
On the other hand, it is no longer the club portrayed in 1973 by Ralph Nader in support of his contention that the DuPont Co. controlled Delaware. Nader claimed that “the wealthy and most powerful residents of Delaware sit around one large round table each day for lunch in an old brownstone house.” It is true, of course, that a long list of du Ponts have been members. Beginning in 1855, there have been 67 members with that surname, as well as numerous descendants from the female side of the family. Whatever their surname, all supposedly have passed what the club history calls “the ultimate test of being considered to provide engaging companionship at the big table, without regard to race, creed, color or sex.”
Cultural changes, including more restrained drinking habits, the migration of corporate offices to the suburbs, and an economic downturn, have conspired to alter the makeup of the membership. While deals are still sometimes brokered there and riotous laughter may at times emanate from its hallowed halls, it is no longer an old boys’ club. Minorities have been members at least since the mid-1980s, and women have been accepted since 1992. (Ellen Kullman, DuPont chair and CEO, is a member.)
The Wilmington Club also has tried recently to attract a younger crowd, which is one of the similarities it bears to its cross-town cousin, the University & Whist, at 805 N. Broom St. Despite its name, the club has not hosted a whist game in years, having evolved into a sort of contemporary country club—without the golf course.
The club traces its origins to 1891, when a group of Wilmington businessmen and professionals with an interest in whist and bridge decided to open a private club, the Wilmington Whist Club, on Gilpin Avenue. The rules were simple: no drinking, no gambling, no women.
The club soon moved clubhouses, joined the American Whist League and bought its own tables. By 1909 membership had grown to 175 men. In 1929 the Wilmington Whist Club bought its last clubhouse, at 1309 Delaware Ave. Two bowling lanes added to its allure.
Meanwhile, a group of male college graduates decided to form a club for social and business purposes. Formed in 1924 with 250 members, it was called the University Club of Wilmington.
More than 10 years later, the club moved to its current address. During World War II, club revenues and membership declined, but the club survived, and by the 1950s it became a center for young singles in Wilmington. In April 1958 the two clubs merged, and the site of the University Club became headquarters for the new University and Whist Club of Wilmington. Women were allowed as guests, but they were not accepted as members until 1988.
The clubhouse dates to 1766, when Bancroft Woodcock, a prominent Quaker silversmith, constructed a small house on the property. Subsequent additions and renovations have produced an imposing three-story, mostly stone structure with a tower on the Ninth Street side, a carriage house and a wall surrounding the grounds, which include colorful flower beds and oak, wild cherry and dogwood trees.
The club’s extensive art collection includes many valuable pieces and paintings and etchings of the building itself. Its several rooms—lounge, bar, casual and formal dining rooms, grille, ballroom, and meeting rooms—each have their own distinctive look.
The dining room is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, children are welcome, and happy hour entertainment, networking breakfasts and special dinners are regular events. The club also hosts weddings and business meetings.
Anyone 25 or older can apply to join U&W, and there are a wide variety of membership categories. Individual dues are typically $2,380 a year, but those under 35 who join currently pay $250 for the first year and $500 thereafter. The Wilmington Club, on the other hand, accepts only those proposed by a member, with seconds by two members and supporting letters from six others, except that non-resident and direct descendants of a member need only three supporting letters. In 2005 dues were $2,400 a year, with a minimum charge for food or drink of $350 each six months. According to a board member, dues have changed little since, but mum is the word.
The main attraction of both clubs, of course, is fine dining, with all that implies: service, ambience, camaraderie and, especially, good food.
Dr. Stuart Septimus, a Wilmington pediatric cardiologist, has been a member of U&W for about 10 years. “To me, the food is better than the Green Room, the Brandywine Room, the finest restaurants in town,” he says. His favorites are the osso bucco and short ribs. His wife, Karen Galanaugh, enjoys the Chilean sea bass. Like many members, their favorite appetizer is the bang-bang shrimp, which are lightly breaded and fried with a spicy Thai-like sauce. “The bang-bang shrimp will never be off our menu,” says general manager Jason Smith.
Septimus and Galanaugh also take advantage of a major benefit of membership: wine at cost plus 10 percent. U&W holds regular wine dinners, tastings, shows and sales, and some members stock their entire wine cellars with bottles purchased at the club.
The full schedule of country club-like events includes happy hour entertainment (anywhere from 5:30 to 9 p.m.) three or four times a week. Recent performers have included singer Bryan Clark, jazz guitarist Nick Bucci, soft-rock group Wheat Stone Bridge and Sean Reilly, a Frank Sinatra impersonator with a local following. The busy calendar also includes fashion shows, tours of area attractions, and crab feasts and lobster dinners on the front lawn.
Smith joined U&W two years ago after 12 years at the Wilmington Country Club, where he was a manager in the dining rooms. “Entertainment drives people here, and hopefully they stay for dinner,” he says. “It’s a good buzz to have.”
While U&W focuses on happy hour and dinner, weekday lunch is the major attraction at The Wilmington Club. According to the club history, noon brings anywhere from 25 to 75 members and guests, usually from downtown Wilmington or nearby offices. Members can reserve a table or join others at the main table. Menu favorites include crab bisque, breast of chicken with Smithfield ham, clear oyster broth and crème brûlée. Friday fixtures are clam chowder, California cold soup, popovers and roast beef. Sometimes there are pike or lobster quenelles, veal Holstein or Pojarski, and sweetbreads. The service has a reputation for excellence, and the wait staff knows members by name.
Special occasions bring out the true haute cuisine, according to the club history, which describes Christmas lunches of bouillabaisse, smoked eel and terrapin stew. The annual black-tie meeting in April begins with consommé Bellevue, followed by planed shad and roe piped with mashed potatoes. October’s anniversary dinner, another black-tie affair, features caviar and an oyster and clam bar.
Like U&W, The Wilmington Club does a healthy catering business, which many members use for holidays, birthdays and weddings. Since women were admitted in 1992, Club Nights, which formerly featured speakers on such diverse subjects as the Himalayan Mountains and UD football, now feature trips to the Philadelphia Flower Show, Delaware Park or a Blue Rocks game.
Rudy Hutz, a Wilmington attorney who has been a member since 2000, says he and his wife have taken club-sponsored bus trips—followed by dinner at the club—to Gettysburg, the Philadelphia Art Museum and the Flower Show. Because his office is in the Nemours Building, Hutz finds the club convenient for client lunches.
Until last year, Mark Mayr had been manager since 1969, when he came from the Elbow Beach Club in Bermuda to succeed William “Willie” Peemoeller, who had held the post for the previous 32 years. Peemoeller’s photograph hangs in the first floor hallway near smaller photos of club presidents. Bill Cupples has been head chef for 20 years.
That kind of longevity among dining clubs is “a testament to the membership and governance of the club,” says manager Adam Pletcher. He took over in August as only the third manger in 75 years. “I feel very fortunate to be here,” Pletcher says. His charge: “To protect the long-standing traditions of the club.”
Both clubs have more than 400 members, and both are trying to attract younger ones. U&W is more aggressive in its efforts. In addition to offering the younger set dramatically reduced dues, the club is installing a pub-style bar downstairs, complete with tap beer and cheesesteaks and a general sports theme, including a pool table and antique shuffleboard.
U&W recently went through a transition in the kitchen as it hired executive chef Robert Lhulier from Union City Grille. As Smith points out, head chef is one of the most important positions at the club.
“In the end,” he says, “it’s what we’ve got to fall back on. Our members are here because this is a fine-dining club.”
The same goes, of course, for The Wilmington Club. Fine cigars, snifters of brandy, and rubbing elbows with a du Pont are heady enticements, but it’s the smoked eel and terrapin stew that keeps them coming back.