Domaine Hudson Part Deux

The second owners of the Wilmington restaurant have focused on food and cocktails as well as wine

Domaine Hudson isn’t the type of place you’d associate with the TV show Cheers. The Wilmington restaurant, which opened in 2005 near Midtown Brandywine, has been recognized for its wine selection and fine dining. But on a recent Saturday night, two diners turned to their right to see a couple they knew through mutual friends. They then spotted a friend on her way out the door. After finishing their duck and rigatoni with kale pesto, they joined four friends who on a whim stopped by for a nosh after a gala.

The place where everybody just might know your name has gone through a transition. In 2011, Mike and Beth Ross purchased the fine-dining restaurant from founders Tom and Meg Hudson. Both veterinarians, the Rosses had no previous experience in the hospitality industry. At that time, the fine-dining sector was struggling in the wake of the financial crisis.

While navigating a few bumps in the road, the Rosses have brought a fresh take to the original concept. Just ask longtime customer Barry Roseman. “I knew both Meg and Tom. They had a nice concept and good execution,” he says. “Mike and Beth picked it up and ran with it. Now, Domaine Hudson features some of the best and most innovative food in the state. The special event wine-matched dinners and wine-tasting events have been a great success.”

Always a top favorite for wine on OpenTable, Domaine Hudson in October was ranked the most popular restaurant overall of the 800 Philadelphia-area establishments on the online reservation site.

A Novel Approach

Domaine Hudson is the brainchild of Tom Hudson, an accountant who traveled for business. A wine lover, he noticed the number of wine bars in metropolitan areas. Meanwhile, Delaware had none. The enterprising Hudsons took the plunge in a vacant restaurant near Wilmington Hospital. They decorated it in the same style as their home, an elegant manse on Baynard Boulevard. “My interpretation … was that it had a Ralph Lauren-club kind of feel,” Beth Ross says. “It was very masculine.”

The restaurant was well received from the start, although many dubbed it a “special occasion place.” Jason Barrowcliff made a name for himself as the chef before moving on. The wine list was extensive. You could order pours in three sizes, as well as bottles.

Then came the housing crisis and the recession. Total gross sales dropped from $1.1 million a year to $750,000. “It was hard to break even,” Tom Hudson says. The Hudsons had also decided to get a divorce, which became final in January 2011. That’s when they put the restaurant on the market.

Enter Mike and Beth Ross, who’d wed in 2006. The two vets shared a love of horses, food, and wine.

Beth grew up in Lithuanian/German families that put a priority on huge family meals with traditional dishes. “My appreciation for food and how it brings people together originated with these experiences,” Beth Ross says.

Interested in exploring a business outside of the veterinary world, the Rosses told their favorite servers, including Javier Matamoros, then at Marco’s in Greenville, about their hopes to own a restaurant. He promised to keep an ear out. (He’s now a server at Domaine Hudson.)

For Beth’s birthday in May 2011, the couple went to Domaine Hudson for the first time. “I had read the reviews, and it sounded like a place right up our alley—good food and a great wine list,” she says.

They sat at the bar, ordered a flight of rosé and a cheese plate, and started chatting with Hudson. “We were impressed with the place,” she recalls. “Mike told him of our aspirations of owning a restaurant.” Hudson knew a few that were for sale. “Little did we know he was thinking of his own,” Mike Ross says.

New Beginnings

While Ross was in Italy, where he often traveled to treat horses, Hudson called. Domaine Hudson was available. On Aug. 16, just three months after dining at Domaine for the first time, they purchased the restaurant. Hudson stayed on as a consultant for four months. “It was a very, very good transition,” he says.

The Rosses agree. Beth Ross recalls the day Hudson told her husband: “My motivation is to do whatever I can to make you successful.” They appreciated Hudson’s accounting skills. He’d kept detailed records that helped the novices better understand the business.

The economy, however, remained challenging. “We realized it was an uphill battle,” Mike Ross says. “Fine dining was in decline.”

The new owners moved the focus from the wine to the food. It wasn’t easy. “There was a lot of change in the kitchen for a while,” Ross acknowledged. J.D. Morton, who’d been named a Rising Star by the James Beard Foundation, left in 2012.

In 2013, they hired Dwain Kalup, who was previously with Blackbird in Chicago, which is co-owned by Executive Chef Paul Kahan, a 2013 James Beard award recipient. Kalup had worked for restaurants under the Wilmington-based Harry’s Hospitality umbrella, including Harry’s Savoy Grill.

It didn’t take long before he began attracting new guests. Frequent diner Roseman, for one, appreciates Kalup’s use of unusual ingredients. Take sweet corn agnolotti with saffron cream, tempura corn, anise hyssop, and Urfa Biber pepper. The well-traveled Roseman says Kalup’s cabrito (roast goat) is hands down the best that he has tasted.

While selections change throughout the year, whole fish has been on the menu since the Rosses purchased Domaine Hudson. Mike Ross fell in love with it in 1991 while visiting Milan.

In addition to promoting the food, the Rosses added a cocktail menu and ramped up the beer list. The restaurant’s efforts to create a successful bar menu failed until Kalup joined the team. The items, which start at $5, change daily but often include cheese plates and oysters. “People can now stop by for a drink and a bite after work and relax,” Beth Ross says. The combination of cocktails and noshes has boosted the bar business, she adds.

Wine is still a star. The inventory has increased 50 percent. Not surprisingly, given how often Mike Ross travels to Italy for work, there are more Italian options, both affordable and high end. Ross has visited the vineyards and met the winemakers. He’s also a fan of California Cabernets, and he increased the selection on the list.

For the Hudsons, watching the Rosses’ success has been gratifying. “Selling Domaine Hudson was very bittersweet,” says Meg Hudson, who now owns Lula Brazil in Rehoboth Beach. “Yet we knew that the Rosses had the ability and resources to maintain the level of hospitality that we became known for. It is very satisfying to know that not only have they done that, but they have also excelled at it. They’ve established Domaine Hudson as one of the finest dining experiences in the region.”