Swimming With the Big Fish

Mikimotos and Washington Street Ale House are now owned by Big Fish Restaurant Group. Photos Krista Connor

Restaurateur Eric Sugrue builds on Darius Mansoory’s legacy

Eric Sugrue met Darius Mansoory only once. They were both guests at an Eagles/Redskins tailgate. But Sugrue, the managing partner of Big Fish Restaurant Group, had visited Mansoory’s restaurants many times, particularly Stingray Sushi Bar & Latino Grill, in Rehoboth Beach, Sugrue’s home town.

After Mansoory’s sudden death in January, many wondered what would happen to his company, Cherry Tree Hospitality Group. Of particular interest were Mansoory’s Washington Street Ale House and Mikimotos Asian Grill & Sushi Bar, side-by-side restaurants that anchor Washington Street in downtown Wilmington. The answer came in June when Sugrue announced the purchase of Mansoory’s businesses, which are now under the Big Fish Restaurant Group umbrella.

Those with an interest in downtown Wilmington’s vitality were pleased by the news. “I am so excited that Big Fish, a company that enjoys a statewide reputation for excellence, has purchased the properties of the Cherry Tree Hospitality Group,” says Martin Hageman, executive director of Downtown Visions.

Dr. Carrie Gray, managing director of the Wilmington Renaissance Corporation, agreed. “We’re thrilled to hear that Big Fish has purchased Darius Mansoory’s restaurant group,” she says. “Darius was a long-committed restaurateur in Wilmington who believed in downtown before many others did. To know now that the vision he had for his restaurants will not only be continued but expanded upon is very exciting news for Wilmington.”

Darius Mansoory died suddenly in January.
Darius Mansoory died suddenly in January.

In many respects, it’s fitting that Big Fish Restaurant Group should have ownership of Mansoory’s culinary legacy. Mansoory and Sugrue shared a path to success that is laced with certain professional similarities, most importantly the ability to spot an opportunity and an untapped niche.

Taking Chances

Improving Wilmington’s restaurant scene was one of Mansoory’s goals in 1997 when he opened the Washington Street Ale House, which is located in two circa-1920s buildings that he’d purchased and merged.

Mansoory was no stranger to that section of town near Wilmington Hospital. He’d owned a tavern, Knuckleheads, and a pizza restaurant there from 1991 to 1993. (Between 1993 and 1996, he worked in restaurants in Atlanta and Washington, D.C.)

His idea for a beer-centric restaurant came just as brewpubs were bubbling up around the country. Dogfish Head, for instance, debuted in 1995 and Iron Hill in 1996. Mansoory, who borrowed money from friends on a handshake, was banking on people’s burgeoning interest in microbrews. He once vowed to put “chili and cheese on every chip.” Nachos, burgers, and sandwiches made up the bulk of the menu, which evolved with changing tastes.

But in the 1990s, restaurant patrons weren’t flocking to downtown Wilmington in the late evening. There were more than a few nights when the ale house’s restaurant was empty by 8 o’clock. Mansoory, however, refused to close until 1 a.m.

By 2000, he was confident enough in the growing scene that he opened Mikimotos. The sleek, contemporary restaurant was a departure from the more common mom-and-pop sushi restaurant with bamboo and pagodas.

Renovations that enlarged the ale house’s kitchen led to the creation of Presto!, a coffee house and—hopefully—an after-theater hangout, as well as Maraschino, a second-floor event space. Unfortunately, Presto! had trouble finding its footing and closed.

Big Fish In the Small Wonder

Like Mansoory, Sugrue entered the entrepreneurial waters in 1997 when he and brother Norman

The bar at Washington Street Ale House, which has undergone some cosmetic makeover.
The bar at Washington Street Ale House, which has undergone some cosmetic makeover.

opened the first Big Fish Grill on Route 1. At that time, most independent restaurants were in downtown Rehoboth Beach. (The restaurant 1776 was an exception.) Opening on the highway was a risk.

Sugrue already had a wealth of experience. He started working in the industry at age 13 as a busboy in Rehoboth Beach. After earning a degree in business from the University of Delaware, he joined Knoxville, Tenn.-based Cooper Cellar Restaurant Corp.

Back in Delaware, Sugrue and his brother pooled their money, borrowed from friends and family, and took out a bank loan to open Big Fish. The restaurant was a hit with families looking for affordable but good food at the beach.

Big Fish on the Wilmington Riverfront opened in 2009, and a location in Glen Mills followed the next year. Recently, a Big Fish debuted in Ocean View. The company also has other concepts, including Bella Coast on Route 202 and The Crab House on Route 1 in Rehoboth.

Sugrue also has a knack for finding established restaurants that go up for sale. Consider Summer House and Salt Air in Rehoboth Beach; he has kept those two concepts, which had name recognition. That was not the case with Satsuma in Trolley Square, which he turned into the successful Trolley Square Oyster House.

Big Fish Restaurant Group now has 10 restaurants in its stable, as well as a bakery, market, and wholesale division. The coffee shop space is expected to reopen, albeit to a tenant, and the banquet facility is functioning.

Nourishing & Nurturing

The sushi bar at Mikimotos Asian Grill & Sushi Bar.
The sushi bar at Mikimotos Asian Grill & Sushi Bar.

By the time Big Fish took control, Cherry Tree Hospitality Group’s restaurants needed “a little love,” says Holly Monaco, vice president of operations for Big Fish Restaurant Group.

Fresh paint and artwork and new booths and tables are part of the makeover. Improvements are also underway on the HVAC, lighting, computer systems, audio and TV systems, and flooring. Updates on the banquet facility should be done by mid-September. “We’re putting a great plan together to revive the on- and off-premise catering,” Sugrue says.

The company hired Paul DeBrigida to help ease the Wilmington restaurants’ transition into the Big Fish fold. “He has done a super job thus far of observing, assessing, and evaluating the current operations and implementing some new systems and processes that we feel make for a better experience for all of our guests and team members,” Sugrue says.

The service is being brought up to Big Fish’s standards. One has only to dine in the flagship Rehoboth Big Fish to spot the efficiencies that keep guests moving through the crowded waiting area to the tables.

Big Fish’s restaurants embrace a team approach. One server might take your order, but a number of servers may refill your water glass, deliver your meal, or whisk away dirty dishes. “They do it for each other,” says Monaco, who’s been with the company since 1999. “It’s one big team effort.” How to motivate this team to pitch in? “We find that a little structure and constant gentle pressure is key for us.”

The kitchens are creating dishes for possible menu additions, some of which are now on the ale house menu. But the Big Fish crew is still “getting our feet wet” with Mikimotos, Monaco says. Sugrue acknowledged that running a sushi and Asian restaurant—the group’s first—has caused some trepidation.

Hageman says the markedly different concepts, combined with Domaine Hudson, make the stretch of Washington Street a dining destination. “I believe Big Fish will not only continue this idea but will also grow the area’s desirability,” he says. Will Minster, director of development for Downtown Visions, concurs.  He says the nonprofit organization wants to focus on new growth in this section of downtown.

Sugrue’s vision includes enhancements to Torbert Street, which runs between Mikimotos and

Eric Sugrue

the ale house. The street until now has offered limited parking for the restaurants, and it’s often a game of musical cars to find a space.

“We hope to share our plan with the city as soon as possible,” Sugrue says. “Our goal is to bring the area a bit back to life, as no improvements have been made in many years.”

Meanwhile, he’s also juggling plans for a seven-story, 122-room hotel and banquet venue on the Riverfront. And he’s a partner with other restaurateurs in Baltimore restaurants.

But he seems to be up to the tasks, and judging by Trolley Square Oyster House’s busy dining room, he’s got a good track record in the city.

Says Hageman of the Big Fish team: “They are a very welcome addition to downtown Wilmington’s restaurant scene.”

Remembering Darius

Darius Mansoory’s first restaurant in Wilmington was Knuckleheads Saloon in the late 1980s. He’d be the first to tell you that it was aptly named; Darius knew little about running a restaurant in those days.

So, after a few years he sold the place, left town for nearly a half-decade, and returned to repurchase the same building – 1206 Washington St. – at sheriff’s sale. In 1997, the location was reborn as the Washington Street Ale House. Darius had, indeed, learned quite a bit about running a restaurant by then.

The Ale House, which is still going strong after nearly 20 years, was the foundation for Darius’ Cherry Tree Hospitality Group. Mikimotos Asian Grill followed. Then Presto Coffee Bar & Bistro and The Marashino Room – all three located along Washington Street in Wilmington. A few years ago, he expanded his restaurant holdings to Rehoboth Beach with Stingray Sushi Bar & Asian Latina Grill. The former “knucklehead” had become quite the restaurateur.

“When I opened up, I knew it all. I was the best,” Darius told Out & About during a 2012 interview for the Ale House’s 15-year anniversary. “And then the next year went by. I looked at me in the previous year, and I said, ‘Oh, that guy probably didn’t know anything. I know it all now.’ And then the next year goes by, and I look back at myself the year before and say, ‘That guy didn’t know anything.’ Where does it end? I don’t think it’s gonna.”

Unfortunately, it ended much too soon for Darius; he died Dec. 31 of an apparent heart attack while vacationing in Cuba. He was 52.

I knew Darius for all 28 years of this magazine’s existence; saw his shortcomings; was amazed by his resilience; admired his creative intelligence. Darius lived big and had a heart even bigger. The size of his heart is what I’ll remember most.

Let’s hope Darius’ restaurants continue to operate. It would be a fitting tribute.

The More the Merrier: New Eateries on the Horizon for Market Street

Restaurants are springing up all over Market Street, giving redevelopment a boost

In 2013, when Bryan and Andrea Sikora opened La Fia on the 400 block of Market Street, they had no intention of creating a restaurant group focused on LOMA, the nickname for the lower end of Wilmington’s main commercial corridor. La Fia was so well received, however, that the Sikoras decided to expand.

In 2015, they opened Cocina Lolo at 405 N. King St., which has been a hit with the lunch and happy hour crowd. Also that year, Merchant Bar, which opened at 426 N. Market St., quickly debunked the complaint that there’s nothing to do after 9 p.m. on Market Street.

The Sikoras appreciate Market Street’s diverse scene. “There’s a nice representation of various arts groups—arts, theater—we thought that was a good match for the customer base that we are trying to reach,” says Andrea Sikora, whose restaurants are just steps from World Cafe Live at the Queen. And there are enough office workers to sustain the lunch hour.

That’s also the case at the upper end of Market, where the Grand Opera House holds court. For a pre- or post-show pint, the Grand’s customers often make a pit stop at Chelsea Tavern, located at 821 N. Market.

While diners still drive in from the suburbs, particularly if they are going to a show, a growing number live just around the block. “We see many more residential regulars than we have in the past,” says Joe Van Horn, owner of Chelsea Tavern.

In the past six months, Sikora has also seen more local traffic. She largely credits The Buccini/Pollin Group, or BPG, whose Market Street corridor project includes 114 existing apartments, liberally sprinkled from the 400 to the 800 blocks—and more are on the way.

BPG in June broke ground on the Residences at Midtown Park, a $75 million complex that will include 200 apartments, 12,000 square feet of retail space, and a 500-space underground parking garage. In September, BPG announced the acquisition of three properties with more than 60,000 square feet that will include apartments above retail/restaurant space.

“When we bring new apartments to the area—and they get filled—then there’s the next wave of restaurant-retail activity,” says Sarah Lamb, director of design and marketing for BPG. “And we’re in that next wave right now.”

In short, the Sikoras and Van Horn are about to get some more culinary company.

Breaking the Barriers

For decades, Market Street restaurants have been dependent on office workers and theatergoers. But even when the DuPont Co. and MBNA were in full swing, it was an inconsistent customer base that exacerbated the challenges of restaurant ownership.

A short walk from Market Street, the Washington Street Ale House, Mikimotos, and Domaine Hudson persevered. Dan Butler’s Deep Blue, which he’s recently reinvented as Tonic, also displayed longevity on 10th Street. These restaurants benefit from proximity to the Wilmington Hospital and the Midtown Brandywine residential, as well as corporate offices.

Market Street, however, witnessed a series of high-profile casualties in the early 2000s. Remember 821, The Maine Course and National? Stalwarts such as Cavanaugh’s at 703 N. Market and Govato’s at 800 N. Market are open only for lunch. If the theaters were dark and the offices were closed, you could chase tumbleweeds down Market Street.

BPG’s approach puts an emphasis on residential as well as commercial development. The developer has a range of options along the Market Street corridor, from 76 studios and one-bedroom units at 6 E. Third St. to The Residences at Rodney Square, an office-to-residential conversion with 280 apartments.

Marketing materials for the 200-unit Residences at the Midtown Park, which is under development where the Shipley Street parking garage once stood, show hip urbanites riding bikes and standing on corners checking their phones.

If that rendering becomes a reality, these are the folks who want a bite, a beer, and conversation, preferably with some live music nearby.

From Top to Bottom

The northern end of Market Street has traditionally seen the bulk of restaurant activity. In 2010, Chelsea Tavern took over space formerly occupied by Restaurant 821, a fine-dining establishment that rode in on the coattails of MBNA. Chelsea took the opposite approach by espousing an alehouse concept. Owner Scott Morrison also opened Ernest & Scott Taproom, at 902 N. Market. Van Horn manages both.

Morrison planned to open a brewpub three doors down from Chelsea Tavern. Then, in February, he suffered a fatal heart attack. Van Horn has since purchased Chelsea Tavern and is in negotiations to acquire Ernest & Scott.

Joe Van Horn, owner of Chelsea Tavern. (Photo by Joe del Tufo/Moonloop Photography)
Joe Van Horn, owner of Chelsea Tavern. (Photo by Joe del Tufo/Moonloop Photography)

Van Horn is planning an expansion for Chelsea that will include indoor and outdoor seating in what is now a thruway linking Market and Shipley streets. The building at 815 N. Market is coming down, allowing the tavern to open a small beer garden in the future plaza. “We hope to be up and running in early spring,” Van Horn says.

If all goes as planned with the Ernest & Scott deal, he will renovate the space and partner with a local chef to reopen with a new concept.

Meanwhile, Daniel Sheridan has picked up the baton and is running forward with a brewpub concept for 829 N. Market St.: Stitch House Brewery.

Sheridan’s name is fairly familiar around town—he’s an owner of Locale BBQ Post and Wilmington Pickling Company. And he’s no stranger to Market Street, having worked with chef Bryan Sikora at La Fia for nearly two years while planning Locale.

“It put me at ease about being on Market Street because I saw that he could bring in clients after downtown [office workers] cleared out,” Sheridan says. “We’re confident that with a nice brewery and a nice menu we can bring people downtown. Plus, with the Midtown Park project, we’ll have a parking garage right behind us and more apartments right behind us.”

A rendering of Stitch House Brewery at 829 N. Market St. It's expected to open next spring. (Photo courtesy of Buccini/Pollin Group)
A rendering of Stitch House Brewery at 829 N. Market St. It’s expected to open next spring. (Photo courtesy of Buccini/Pollin Group)

Stitch House Brewery, which will have 90 to 100 seats, is named for the building’s former occupants, a tailor and a linen shop. (It’s also been a coal house and an icehouse.)

Sheridan, who hopes to open next spring, says to expect some barbecue; there will be a smoker on the premises. But barbecue isn’t the star. To cater to the lunchtime crowd, the menu will include paninis and sandwiches. Sheridan is also incorporating a fun factor: dishes prepared and served in mini cast iron skillets, such as dips, lasagna and warm vegetable salads with goat cheese.

LOMA, at the lower end of Market Street, got its boost from La Fia’s opening. The restaurant and its siblings have created a bustling couple of blocks in the evenings.

Last summer, Twisted Soul Restaurant & Bar joined the trio. Steve and Khim Taylor, who received assistance from the Market Street Corridor Revitalization Fund, own the 80-seat restaurant, located at 413 N. Market.

Filling in the Gaps

Now BPG and city stakeholders, including Downtown Visions, are turning their attention to the blocks between Fourth and Eighth streets. Not only will this appease those who live in those areas, but it will create more activity from one end of the street to another instead of at either end, making it more inviting for those who wish to walk the corridor at night.

Starbucks is scheduled to open a location early this month at 629 N. Market. The restaurant, which sports a high-level design similar to the décor in the Riverfront site, will be open seven days a week. “It’s something our residents are demanding,” says BPG’s Lamb.

A rendering of Arde Osteria at 629 N. Market St., also expected to open this spring. (Photo courtesy of the Buccini/Pollin Group)
A rendering of Arde Osteria at 629 N. Market St., also expected to open this spring. (Photo courtesy of the Buccini/Pollin Group)

Across the street, Ardé Osteria, an Italian concept, is in the works. The restaurant is owned by Pino DiMeo, Scott Stein and Antimo DiMeo, whose first Wilmington venture, DiMeo’s Pizzaiuoli Napulitani, is a destination for pizza-lovers at 831 N. Market.

To offer an enhanced menu, the partners first looked at the space now occupied by Merchant Bar. Meanwhile, a location in Wayne, Pa., became available, and they opened Ardé Osteria as a BYO.

“Always the vision—the next evolution—was to have a wine bar, craft beer, and creative cocktails,” Stein says. “We always knew we would go back to Wilmington with this concept.” The buffalo mozzarella bar, a highlight of the Wayne location, will be available in Wilmington.

The Ardé Osteria on Market Street will reside in what some today know as the Kennedy Fried Chicken building, which is situated at the corner of Seventh and Market streets. But old-timers will recall it as Snellenburg’s Department Store. Atop the restaurant will be 15 one-bedroom and two-bedroom-den apartments. If all goes well, Ardé Osteria will open in spring 2017.

Moving Forward

The Italian concept joins a melting pot. The Market Street corridor and the surrounding area have a significant number of small ethnic restaurants featuring sushi, Chinese, and Indian cuisine. More than a few, though, close around 6 p.m.

Sheridan wants the corridor to become better known for diverse dining during all hours, including happy hour and late night. “There’s not one restaurant that will carry the whole street,” he says. “It needs to be a collective.”

But the pie is only so big, Sikora says. Some might say that’s especially true in the 800 block, where craft beer is already big. Van Horn of Chelsea Tavern isn’t worried about Sheridan’s new brewery. “It was going to be great for business when we were going to do it, and it will be great for business when Dan does it,” he says.

On Market Street, the adage proves true: the more the merrier.