Diversifying Dining

This season, the restaurant scene goes cosmo, offering more cuisines from around the world, but remembering local favorites, too.

Heidi Hitchins presents Saketumi’s popular sushi-sashimi combo.  Photograph by Thom ThompsonDon’t tell Matt Haley that the economy is in a free fall. The entrepreneur seems busier than ever. Haley—co-owner of SoDel Concepts, which owns five beach restaurants—is quickly building the portfolio of Highwater Management, the design, management and consulting business that last year helped launch the successful Que Pasa (124 Dickinson St., Dewey Beach, 226-1820), a Mexican-themed restaurant in Ruddertowne.

This year Highwater Management, which Haley founded with Scott Kamerera and Bryony Zeigler, is not only handling food and beverage at Sports at the Beach, but it’s also helped transform the landmark restaurant Fusion into Salt Air.

Haley and crew are a few of the area veterans who are finding opportunities during the recession. Despite the dismal headlines, several new restaurants have opened at the beach during the past year, which, coupled with relocations, expansions and chef changes, should make hungry visitors happy this summer.

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Consider The Lighthouse Cove (124 Dickinson St., Dewey Beach, 226-1680) at Ruddertowne, which Highwater Management helped open in spring. The renovated space is a marriage of the old Lighthouse and Crabbers Cove. Essentially, it holds three concepts. The upper level hosts a new family-oriented crab room. Downstairs offers more upscale dining. (Think lobster and New York strip steaks.) And the main lighthouse features a casual, pub-like atmosphere. Ian Mangin, who has worked at Haley’s Fish On in Lewes, heads the kitchen.

Highwater Management also helped Jonathan Spivak, former owner of Sedona in Bethany, turn Spivak’s Fusion into Salt Air (50 Wilmington Ave., Rehoboth Beach, 227-2444). The fresh, just-off-the-line concept is the brainchild of Spivak and well-known area chef Nino Mancari, formerly of Solstice Grill in Berlin, Maryland. Mancari worked for Spivak as a teen.

The two make a winning combination. “John was one of the first restaurateurs to take a risk and turn out really good, fun, interesting food,” Haley says. “Nino is one of the best chefs to create a menu with items under $22. I’m as excited about this project as I’ve been excited about anything.”

Dishes are steeped in local flavor. Take rockfish stuffed with crab imperial, corn slicked with Old Bay butter, and London broil served with sliced fresh tomatoes and potato salad. But as the restaurant’s name implies, the menu also showcases items accented with salt. Witness sea salt and juniper-cured salmon. Air-cured delicacies are also on the menu.

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As for Haley’s restaurants—which include Lupo di Mare in Rehoboth, Bluefish Seafood Grill in Bethany, NorthEast Seafood Kitchen in Ocean View and Catch 54 Fish House in Fenwick Island—the big news is that brunch is now served at Lupo di Mare (247 Rehoboth Ave., Rehoboth Beach, 226-2240).

Meanwhile, Sedona (26 Pennsylvania Ave., Bethany Beach, 539-1200) is now owned by Marion Parrot, who was the manager for 15 years before buying the restaurant from Spivak. With the aid of executive chef Tobias Adams, who previously worked at The Parkway, Parrot has added a tapas menu and Sunday brunch.

The Roadhouse Steak Joint (4572 Del. 1, Lewes, 645-8273) also has new ownership. In October 2008, Bryan Derrickson, who helps run The State Room and Heritage Inn, purchased the restaurant, which is in the Midway Shopping Center.

Derrickson comes from a family of prolific entrepreneurs. Brother Regan last year opened Ponos Hawaiian Fine Dining (1306 Coastal Hwy., Dewey Beach, 227-3119) and Nalu Hawaiian Surf Bar & Grille (1308 Coastal Hwy., Dewey Beach, 227-1449), and Delfinis Italian Restaurant (207 Rehoboth Ave., Rehoboth Beach, 260-9106). Spencer Derrickson is the owner of Vine Wine Bar (211 Rehoboth Ave., Rehoboth Beach, 226-8463).

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Managing multiple restaurants is familiar territory for Matt DiSabatino, who started in 2001 with Striper Bites in Lewes and moved on to Half Full and Kindle, which opened in Paynter’s Mill in Milton in 2007. (DiSabatino and wife Ali own Striper Bites. They are co-owners with Ian Crandall and Joanna Goode on the other two ventures.)

Kindle has moved to the old Books By The Bay location (111 Bank St., Lewes, 645-7887), where it will be closer to its siblings and the tourist action. The restaurant lost about 20 seats with the move, but outdoor seating in summer helps ease any pain.

Kevin Reading of Nage (19730 Coastal Hwy., Rehoboth Beach, 226-2037) has been in an expansive mood. He and wife Kelly earlier this year unveiled Lotus Spa, Salon and Wellness, which completely took over the old Salon Fur location in Rehoboth Beach, where Lotus had a smaller space. Last June, Reading expanded Nage into the old Afishionado Seafood Market.

A new private room can handle parties of up to 40 people. The dining room now has 95 seats, and there are 25 seats at the bar. “We added a whole bar area for a wine bar concept,” Reading says. “We have 21 to 26 wines by the glass and we’ve added some interesting draft beers.” The lounge-like atmosphere has inspired a new tapas menu. A tasting of three nibbles is just $6.

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Beer is also big at the new Pickled Pig Pub (18756 Coastal Hwy., No. 3, Rehoboth Beach, 654-5444), with nine craft brews by makers such as Victory, Troegg’s and Dogfish Head on tap and a more extensive bottle list. Brought to you by the quartet that opened The Pig+Fish Restaurant Company in Rehoboth, The Pickled Pig is similar to a gastro-pub, “but so much more,” says owner Doug Frampton. Consider Brit fare such as the chip buddy sandwich of mashed peas and fries covered in curry sauce, as well as food with other influences, such as barbecue-spiced pork wings and sesame-chili sea bass. There’s a large list of great sandwiches and entrées, all priced $9 to $16.

Value is a buzzword around the beach towns these days. At Ocean Point Grille (16922 Savannah Road, Lewes, 644-8081) in the Village of Five Points, which opened in late 2008, dinner items run $8.95 to $15.95. Ocean Point, in the Savannah Café’s old digs, is Antonios Nomikos’ 20th restaurant and the younger sister to Ocean Point Grill (26089 Shops at Longneck, Millsboro, 945-3553). “At least 95 percent of our items are homemade,” Nomikos says. The soups are especially popular, as are the seafood dishes.

Barbecue has become as big as seafood. Bethany Blues in spring opened a second location, Bethany Blues of Lewes (18385 Coastal Hwy., Lewes, 644-2500). The new site seats 300, about 50 more than the original restaurant (6 N. Pennsylvania Ave., Bethany Beach, 537-1500). The Lewes restaurant boasts similarly colorful murals and tables—but there is no waterfall. That makes Kevin P. Roberts, a partner in the venture, very happy. Although eye-catching, the two-story-high fall tends to flood.

Some things are different. Some are the same. “We’ll still do curbside carryout, and we have two private dining rooms that seat about 100,” Roberts says. “We’re also featuring Delaware’s first bourbon bar, with more than 70 different bourbons.” The menus are similar except for the addition of steaks from Hickman’s Meat Market in Rehoboth Beach. The new site has two smokers to handle the demand for tangy barbecue.

The old Blind Factory building in west Fenwick is jammin’ thanks to chef Jonathan Yanek, a 20-year veteran of the restaurant industry. Last summer, Yanek opened Jammin Jon’s Island BBQ (38015 Fenwick Shoals Blvd., Selbyville, 436-RIBS), which features traditional barbecued ribs and chicken. The menu also includes island-inspired dishes, including coconut conch chowder, which Yanek describes as “a party in your mouth.”

The exotic Crab Daddy Burger is a 6-ounce patty packed with jumbo lump crabmeat and topped with avocado-mango cream. The Smoked T-Rex Turkey Legs are hefty 2½-pound gams. Items range from $5 sandwiches to $15 platters.

Like barbecue, Asian food is becoming a seaside staple. Last fall, Mei Lan and her father, Zhzenbiao Lan, took ownership of Beijing Buffet (18908 Rehoboth Mall Blvd., No. 19, Rehoboth Beach, 644-7198), an all-you-can-eat spot. The restaurant ventures outside China’s boundaries, with such dishes as Korean kimchee, Japanese seaweed salad and sushi.

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Visitors from North Wilmington will be pleased to know that Tammy Wang and Winson Chinupakit, owners of the popular Jasmine on U.S. 202, last year opened Saketumi (4298 Coastal Hwy., Rehoboth Beach, 645-2818). “We just tried to blend all of the Asian cuisines on one menu,” Wang says. Along with a sushi bar, the restaurant offers traditional Chinese dishes, including General Tso’s chicken, and Thai curries. Most entrées cost less than $20, including pad Thai noodles. For true blue Westerners, Saketumi sells a rack of lamb and filet mignon.

Beer is also big at the new Pickled Pig Pub, with nine craft brews by makers such as Victory, Troegg’s and Dogfish Head on tap and a more extensive bottle list. The Pickled Pig is similar to a gastro-pub, “but so much more,” says owner Doug Frampton.

After working at her sister’s restaurant, Seaside Thai in Rehoboth Beach, for five years, Lily Thamibutra decided late last year to go it on her own with Lily Thai Cuisine (10 N. First St., Rehoboth Beach, 227-3348), in the old Lingo’s Market. Expect the standards, including pad Thai and tom yum goong soup, as well as some local twists, such as kao pad fried rice with Maryland crabmeat. Most dishes are under $18.

Jerry Richard, owner of Steakhouse 26 (238 Atlantic Ave., Millville, 539-0626), has tweaked his menu to offer “more affordable family dining.” He also added more seafood dishes, as well as authentic Thai and New Orleans cuisine. Chef Inton hails from Thailand and makes a mean pad Thai, spring rolls and potstickers. Regulars don’t fret. The filet, New York strip and ribeye are still on the menu.

The roster of new beach restaurants wouldn’t be complete without a casual live music venue. Enter the Rehoboth Ale House (15 Wilmington Ave., Rehoboth Beach, 227-2337), which opened in March. Owner Hugo Mazzalupi hopes to expose patrons to beer’s epicurean qualities. “People get so caught up in the domestic beers that they don’t realize how much flavor beers have. There are so many more beers that bring out the flavors of the food than there are wines,” he says. The restaurant features live music on weekends. Its proximity to the beach—and its hours—should encourage repeat visitors.

“People can have lunch, go spend some time on the beach, and then come back to us for dinner,” Mazzalupi says.

For good-for-you fare, head to the appropriately named Good For You Natural Market (28841 Lewes-Georgetown Hwy., Lewes, 684-8330). This year, owner Andrew Meddick hired chef Austin Andrews to create to-go dishes for vegans, vegetarians, gluten-free customers and customers who simply like to eat healthy foods. Dishes include free-range chicken, vegan meatloaf, grilled shrimp and gluten-free pizza dough. Andrews is known for pastries, and desserts include chocolate chip cookies and gluten-free brownies.

Vegan or gluten-free, one thing is certain. “We’re keeping our focus on things that are organic, but we also want them to taste good,” Meddick says. “If they don’t taste good, people obviously aren’t going to want to eat them.”

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