It’s rare, but when my wife and I do sneak out for a childless dinner, we like to go somewhere with a unique menu and ambiance. Owned and operated by a husband and wife team, this Hockessin restaurant boasts exquisite cuisine featuring fresh local ingredients and dishes that you won’t find elsewhere. williamandmerry.com.
— Matt Loeb, Creative Director & Production Manager
Hummingbird to Mars
This clandestine speakeasy-themed bar is located above Catherine Rooney’s in Trolley Square, accessible from 16th Street. But as any Prohibition-era watering hole should be, it’s easy to miss if you’re not looking. Press the outside intercom, venture up the narrow stairway and enter a dimly-lit Gatsbyian universe of jazz and cocktails. The intimate, period-specific bar typically features around 10 seasonal cocktails. Beer and wine are available, too, as well as food from the restaurant downstairs. Live music Thursdays-Saturdays, starting at 8:30 p.m., features some of the area’s best artists, including regular performing duo Bruce & Sam. catherinerooneys.com/hummingbird.
— Krista Connor, Senior Editor & Media Manager
For many, the dinner date has perhaps become a bit stale. The standard “sit down, order and eat” dining experience borders on the formulaic—and boring.
For those willing to deviate from the ordinary, try Chef Tan’s hot pot experience. Chef Tan is a Newark restaurant specializing in authentic Chinese cuisine, which includes the hot pot, a culinary adventure becoming trendy in the U.S. It’s a communal style of eating, requiring the dating partners to cook a variety of chosen ingredients in a specially spiced broth. You can select from several starting broths that range from mild to spicy, as well as an array of vegetables, meats and seafood to cook in the broth. The flavors are as rewarding as the overall experience, which serves to push both parties out of their comfort zones, and it requires cooperation. Your cell phone will be quickly forgotten, and your attention fixated on the fun task at hand, using chopsticks to continually add and remove ingredients from the broth.
At Chef Tan, the hot pot entrée is only $29.99. Learn more about the menu at cheftan.com.
— Mathew Brown-Watson, Intern
In terms of quality of cuisine, service and intimacy, there are few places in Wilmington that can compete with Domaine Hudson. It exudes feelings of quaint comforts and tradition, yet it’s far from staid or stuffy.
The restaurant, at 1314 N. Washington St., boasts an extensive wine list and a selection of Prohibition-era cocktails like the Sazerac and Ginger Side Car. But ultimately, it’s the menu that steals the show, with each shared plate and entrée created like a delicious work of art. The focus on details is first-rate.
While Domaine Hudson is the ideal place to celebrate Valentine’s Day, it also features “Date Night” every Thursday, with an enticing and affordable special: three courses and a bottle of wine for just $95 a couple.
That’s what you have to look forward to if Whole Foods is right and these are the hottest trends of 2017. And that’s why you need to care about food trends, lest you be caught unawares by a sudden beet noodle in your entrée.
You will find no beet noodles here. This is my third year of making predictions for the future of Delaware food, and one thing I’ve learned—I’m not very good at it. (Check the scorecard below.) While I thought 2016 would find a distillery opening in northern Delaware, I missed the brewery boom that was fermenting all around us. And though I saw sushi cooling off, I didn’t notice Newark becoming a hotbed for truly authentic Chinese cuisine.
But those are the risks foodie prognosticators take. There’s no accounting for taste, and even less accounting for what taste buds will crave from year to year. And so I rounded up a few of my usual suspects, did my research, and herewith offer another few predictions for the new year, in full knowledge that life will likely prove me wrong. Again. Happy dining.
Trend: Restaurants enter the bowl game
There’s a reason bowls are the serving vessel of choice at fast-casual restaurants. They’re quick to assemble, can contain both liquid and solid ingredients, and since they don’t require slabs of bread to hold the good stuff together, they’re easy to make low-carb or gluten-free. But while fast-casual trends often filter down from fine-dining experiences, expect bowls to be one idea that trickles up.
“I think that a growing theme is losing the pretense in a lot of things,” says Chef Robbie Jester from Stone Balloon Ale House. “When you get into tuna tartars and tuna carpaccio, they all sound really fancy. But when you shorten that to a four-letter word, I think that’s approachable.”
That four-letter word? “Poke,” as in Hawaiian for “slice,” and no relation to 2016’s least palatable smartphone trend. Jester serves his ahi tuna and avocado poke in ginger sambal sesame sauce with toasted sesame seeds in a bowl. Since he introduced it, it’s been (in his words) “supremely popular.”
“You can mix it with different ingredients, since it’s a larger cut,” Jester says. “I just think it’s a better preparation, and I enjoy eating it. And I think it’s going to continue to catch on until people beat the shit out of it on the East Coast.”
Prediction #1: Pokes pop up on appetizer lists around the state (gotta eat them all!), and bowls don’t stop there. Watch for authentic Asian flavors in a bowl near you.
Trend: Third-wave coffee washes over Delaware
What, you missed the first two waves? Then you haven’t been staring at the coffee horizon as deeply as the coffee nerds who have transformed caffeine consumption on the West Coast. The waves, loosely defined:
First wave: Insta-cofeee. The best part of waking up.
Second wave: The Starbucksization of America.
Third wave (as popularized by San Fran coffee maven Trish Rothgeb): “[In the third wave,] the coffee will make the moment, not the whipped cream or flavored syrup. These baristi will be able to tell you exactly when their coffee was roasted, how the beans were processed, the idea behind the blend, and offer cupping notes.”
The third wave first started to crash over the First State when Drip Café opened its doors and Brew HaHa! expanded its Trolley Square outpost into a coffee roastery. Both were smashing successes. Expect more to come.
Prediction #2: More quality coffee shops, increasingly local coffee production (perhaps another roastery in town?), and potential invasion by national third-wave riders like Stumptown Coffee.
Trend: Breakfast for breakfast, breakfast for lunch, breakfast for dinner
Breakfast for dinner has been a thing since I was a kid, but you can probably blame McDonalds for proving that people dining out will eat breakfast all day, any day, if given the option. Delaware may not have a strong diner culture, but some restaurants will be quick to fill the gap.
“I don’t think that boom is over yet,” says Karen Stauffer, director of communications for the Delaware Restaurant Association. “I see restaurants, especially in bigger areas, expanding to Saturday brunches, with more breakfast-themed items on menus.”
In Newark, brunch hasn’t just expanded to Saturday. It’s already a seven-days-a-week thing at Home Grown Café, where five brunch items are now available daily from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and the breakfast burrito is one of the top three items at lunch.
“We would get calls daily to ask if we were serving breakfast,” says Sasha Aber, owner at Home Grown. “It’s just nice, comforting food for people to start off the day. And they’re a good price point for people too.”
Prediction #3: Diners make a comeback. A new one will open, with a commitment to local, freshly sourced ingredients and breakfast all day.
Trend: Fast-fresh-casual takes over the world
Consider this trend a subset of “everything in a bowl,” since that’s where you’ll find most fast-fresh-casual food being served. Also consider it one of the most obvious trends I missed in 2016, with the opening of two Honeygrows (one in North Wilmington, one in Newark), a Zoës Kitchen at the Christiana Fashion Mall, and Roots Natural Kitchen in Newark.
But the fast-fresh-casual trend deserves a category of its own. People certainly want to eat healthy, people increasingly want to eat fresh/local … but people don’t have much time. Those realities used to cancel each other out. Not anymore.
“I think we definitely see more of this coming in 2017, especially in Newark, Wilmington and Dover,” Stauffer said.
Prediction #4: Definitely in Wilmington. If there’s a concept that seems ready-made for Market Street, this is it.
Trend: Wild game gets tamed
Game meats have been popular in Delaware since the first time someone looked at a muskrat and thought, “Hmmm, I could eat that.” But what once was an acquired taste, embraced by a few select spots (like the always-game Stewart’s Brewing Company and the serving-kangaroo-before-its time Matilda’s) is now entering the mainstream. Metro Pub & Grill in Middletown has venison chili and wild boar sloppy joes. Stone Balloon in Newark has a venison Salisbury steak—and expects to add more game to the menu this year. Game meats tend to excite chefs—and they’ll try to excite you.
Prediction #5: It won’t be hard to find wild boar, ostrich and venison on menus in 2017.
Three final trends to watch:
• House-cured meats. (Domaine Hudson has the best charcuterie plate in town; Maiale Deli and Sulumeria continue to impress. Watch for more.)
• Locally produced sour beers.
• Wawa-style touchscreen ordering expanding everywhere.
Last Year’s Predictions Scorecard
1. The End of Tipping: At least one fine dining restaurant in Delaware eliminates tipping in 2016—most likely one at the beach.
Ouch. Not only did the trend to eliminate tipping not come to Delaware, but it seems to have stalled nationally. In fact, the San Francisco restaurant where I first ate under a no-tipping policy brought it back after only five months. If no-tipping is the future, the future is not now. 2. Home Cooking: Increased interest in home cooks entering the sharing economy leads Delaware legislators to loosen cottage food regulations, or they get no pie.
On May 1, 2016, the Division of Public Health published new Cottage Food Regulations that allow for the preparation of a limited type of food products in residential kitchens, pies included. Those regs are now final. 3. Scrapple is the new bacon: The biggest scrapplephobic in your life will venture to try some in 2016.
Only you know what your people think, but Bill Hoffman’s scrapple at The House of William & Merry was a revelation to scrapple-deniers in my life in 2016. 4. More wineries, more breweries … and more distilleries.
One out of three … well, that ain’t good, but at least I have beer to drown my sorrows. Breweries exploded in northern Delaware last year, with the arrival of Dew Point Brewing and Bellefonte Brewing, the re-opening of Twin Lakes, and more. And we got a meadery in Liquid Alchemy. Fenwick Wine Cellars expanded into Salted Vines Vineyard down in Frankford. But still no signs of a distillery up north. 5. Market Street, Dining Destination: Look for a net gain of five places on or near Market Street in 2016.
Let’s see: We added Merchant Bar, Masala Kitchen, Twisted Soul, Starbucks, Market Street Bakery & Cafe and Coffee Mode. Brew HaHa! moved across the street and expanded, but closed the first location, so that’s a net neutral. Still, nailed it!
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.