Delaware Restaurant Association
This story was published in Delaware Beach Life magazine, June 2002.
‘It has always been said that there is not a first-rate place to eat in Rehoboth Beach,’ said Washingtonian magazine in 1970.
Today the resort town boasts more fine restaurants in one square mile than anywhere else in the state.
How did it change? Here’s a history lesson.
By Terry Plowman
In 1974, something happened in Rehoboth Beach that would cheat future students, but would delight fans of fine dining.
Wilmington High School teacher Victor Pisapia and Milford High School teacher Libby Fisher shifted their creative energies from the classroom to the dining room to open the Back Porch Cafe — a career change that began a restaurant revolution in Delaware’s prime resort that continues to reverberate today.
The two teachers, along with Fisher’s husband, Ted — none of whom had much restaurant experience — began a dramatic departure from the fare of that era, unknowingly launching Rehoboth Beach on a course that would make it the state’s capital of fine dining.
Shunning entrees like the “Captain’s platter” — that ubiquitous deep-fried seafood combination so popular in beach eateries — the Back Porch offered such “radical” choices as Shrimp Fiji, Coquilles St. Jacques and Eggplant Mousaka. Suddenly innovation had arrived at the beach.
Soon after the Back Porch broke the mold of a typical beach restaurant, other upscale establishments followed.
In 1980, Nancy Wolfe opened Chez La Mer, with a style intended to emulate the cuisine of southern France, a region she had visited. (The fractured French name for the “house by the sea” was the result of a hasty last-minute decision in her lawyer’s office when Wolfe learned that her first choice was already owned by another corporation.) The menu then featured, as it does now, such classic dishes as bouillabaisse, roast duck and paté.
In 1981, John McDonald, a co-owner of the Garden in Ocean City, Md., opened the Garden Gourmet in a 100-year-old farmhouse on Route 1 just outside Rehoboth Beach. Also in 1981, two members of the Back Porch team branched out and opened the Blue Moon — a move that ultimately changed not only the tenor of the restaurant community, but the town itself.
A few years later another wave of innovative restaurants opened, including La La Land, Sydney’s, Square One (since replaced by Yum Yum) and Ground Zero (since replaced by Fusion). Today Rehoboth Beach is widely known for its wealth of dining opportunities, with at least a dozen white-linen restaurants, including Celsius, Cultured Pearl, Victoria’s and Ristorante Zebra. The mother lode of fine dining even extends beyond its Rehoboth Beach core, to such establishments as Nantuckets in Fenwick Island, Two Seas in Dewey Beach, 1776 in Midway and the Buttery in Lewes.
How it all began
Although the Back Porch would lead the way toward creative cuisine at the beach, its original concept was less ambitious. “The intention was just to open a juice bar and sandwich shop,” says Keith Fitzgerald, a Back Porch waiter in 1974 and now co-owner with Leo Medisch and Marilyn Spitz.
But the extensive traveling done by the owners and staff of the Back Porch, as well as their metropolitan backgrounds and youthful urge to offer something different, led to a menu that included items that were unusual for the day, such as grilled veggies, exotic variations on lasagna, and sandwiches with alfalfa sprouts.
Influenced by the year he had spent in Europe with Fitzgerald and Fitzgerald’s wife, Gayle, Pisapia emphasized healthy, fresh food prepared in ways that reflected the wide variety of cuisines they had tasted.
It’s ironic that Pisapia, one of the originator’s of Rehoboth’s fine-dining fame, had little culinary expertise at the beginning. While in Europe, Pisapia mainly cooked spaghetti sauce and vegetable casseroles for his roommates — but “from those humble beginnings he became one of the innovators of cuisine in Rehoboth Beach,” says Fitzgerald.
The Back Porch’s daring approach to beach dining, combined with its outdoor deck — another idea unique for its time — proved to be a hit with vacationers looking for a hip alternative to the usual beach eatery. The Back Porch soon expanded within the funky old Hotel Marvel at 21 Rehoboth Ave., taking over adjacent shops, acquiring a liquor license and — by virtue of the owners’ winters in Key West — developing the elegantly casual island ambience it still has as it enters its 28th season.
The Moon rises
The influence of the Back Porch on dining in Rehoboth Beach didn’t stop at 21 Rehoboth Ave. In the summer of 1980, Joyce Felton, a New Yorker disenchanted with the corporate world, worked with Pisapia at the Porch, beginning another partnership that would dramatically alter the resort’s dining scene.
Joyce Felton, who would become as influential as Pisapia already was, joined him in a what may have seemed to be a risky venture off the beaten path of Rehoboth’s main street, at 35 Baltimore Ave.
Selling Pisapia’s car for cash, and maxing out their credit cards, the duo left the Back Porch to open the now-famous Blue Moon in 1981 — an establishment that would not only turn the dining scene on its ear, but would triumph as the first openly gay establishment in Rehoboth Beach.
Pisapia and Felton went in a decidedly different direction than the Back Porch, opting for a more urban ambience and an even more “cutting-edge” cuisine. The concept “was received with open arms,” Felton says today. “It was like people were dying of thirst in the desert.”
Although the Blue Moon’s vividly modern interior and sky-high plate creations were startling for Rehoboth Beach, they were ideas right out of the nouveau restaurants of New York and other metropolitan areas.
“We didn’t invent the wheel — people were doing (what the Blue Moon was doing) in New York,” says Felton. “It was just timing — we appealed to the hip, urban, sophisticated palate.”
The success of the Blue Moon was like a flare going off in the night, attracting the attention of other entrepreneurs. The economy was strong, consumer confidence was high, and “food was the thing,” Felton says. New restaurants popped up like shiitake mushrooms, each trying to carve out its own happening niche — even Felton and Pisapia weren’t immune to the excitement, branching out to create the Westside Cafe, Surfside Diner and Tijuana Taxi in Rehoboth Beach, and the Shipley Grill in Wilmington.
Why Rehoboth Beach?
That so many fine-dining establishments would cluster in such a small town is partly “the chain reaction of success,” Felton says. But she and every restaurateur interviewed for this story said that without the affluent customers who vacation and live in Rehoboth Beach, it wouldn’t have happened. Their observations were strikingly similar:
> “(Rehoboth has) fantastic demographics, a very traveled crowd, a very urban crowd. They are less conservative than Wilmington diners — it’s the right demographic for adventurous diners and adventurous restaurateurs.” Xavier Teixido, chairman of the National Restaurant Association, past president of the Delaware Restaurant Association and owner of Harry’s Savoy Grill and Ballroom in Wilmington.
> “Many people who come here are from suburban Washington communities — the clientele is more upscale. The success of a sushi place like the Cultured Pearl is an indication of the clientele that’s in town. It’s big city, open to what’s trendy. And the gay community has been a big asset, by bringing ideas from urban areas.” John McDonald, former owner of the Garden Gourmet.
> “The sophisticated customers from places like Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia are used to eating in nice restaurants, so it’s sort of the ‘if you build it, they will come’ effect. Plus the (tourist) population has grown, so it can support more restaurants.” Nancy Wolfe, owner of Chez La Mer.
n> “The gay population has a lot to do with it — it’s a more affluent clientele.” Leo Medisch, co-owner of the Back Porch.
Besides customers who can afford to support the plethora of fine-dining establishments, the small size of Rehoboth’s fancy restaurants may also be a factor in their success.
You can’t do gourmet cooking on the giant scale of restaurants you’d find in such resorts as Ocean City, Md., says Wolfe. And Sydney Arzt, president of the Rehoboth Beach Restaurant Association and owner of Sydney’s, says such smallness fosters better service. “We know our customers, or get to know them,” she says.
She notes that the because of the small size of Rehoboth’s restaurants, celebrities such as Sen. Tom Carper or former Vice President Al Gore mingle with other customers, and noted local chefs often stroll through their dining rooms, chatting with guests. “It makes you feel like ‘somebody,’” Arzt says.
Arzt also notes that the wide variety of cuisines keeps the resort’s dining scene lively. Rehoboth has become a “food-lover’s potpourri of possibilities” because new restaurants have tried to create their own niches without copying their competitors.
The success of Rehoboth’s restaurants is also a testament to plain old hard work. The seasonality of the resort requires owners to work nonstop, day and night all summer, in order to make a living. “I don’t know how they do it,” says Teixido.
The trend continues
The explosion of innovative dining sparked by the Back Porch in 1974 continues, with the opening of new establishments such as the Russian-themed Red Square, and relatively new ones such as Espuma.
The upscale market has also had a trickle-down effect, spawning innovative mid-priced “bistros” and “grills” such as Eden Cafe and Red Fin. Even the resort’s coffee shop craze of recent years and the new popularity of “gourmet” pizzas, specialty sandwiches and ethnic-influenced menu items are rooted in the same market that has kept the fancy restaurants alive.
But not all restaurateurs think the fine-dining market can continue at the exhilarating pace of the past 10 or 15 years. The stock market bubble of the 1990s has popped, “yuppies” who once had plenty of money to spend now have growing families, lower-priced chain restaurants have opened out on Route 1, and the customer pie is getting sliced ever thinner.
Of course it’s also true that consumer confidence is on the rebound and coastal Delaware’s real estate values are still surging. So, as long as gutsy entrepreneurs are willing to take the risk, and vacant spaces cry out for a concept, Rehoboth Beach will likely retain its title as the fine-dining capital of Delaware.
Sidebar - Where are they now?
Rehoboth Beach’s roots as a hotbed of fine dining can be traced to a handful of enthusiastic young entrepreneurs with liberal arts rather than restaurant backgrounds. Here’s a status report on the innovators who created and nurtured the resort’s first cutting-edge restaurant, the Back Porch Cafe, now in its 28th season:
• Victor Pisapia: Original co-owner, he left to open the Blue Moon with Joyce Felton, then later sold his share to her and moved to Australia. Today he writes for Gourmet Traveller Magazine, leads “gourmet safaris” to tropical North Queensland, Australia, and to the Greek Islands, and he leads cooking programs at food festivals, seminars and corporate events.
• Libby York: Formerly Libby Fisher, an original co-owner, she sold her share to pursue a singing career. Now splitting her time between Chicago and Key West, she returns to Rehoboth Beach each fall to perform during the jazz festival.
• Ted Fisher: Libby’s former husband, he was the original co-owner who pushed for the liquor license that resulted in the Back Porch’s “Key Westy” bar. He drowned while sailboarding off North Carolina’s Outer Banks in 1984.
• Marilyn Spitz: A Back Porch cook, bartender and bookkeeper, and Fisher’s girlfriend, she became a co-owner when she inherited Fisher’s share.
• Keith Fitzgerald: A waiter at the Back Porch in 1974, and later bar manager, he is now a co-owner and the link to the original group that opened the Porch.
• Leo Medisch: A kitchen worker who later became kitchen manager, today he is co-owner and chef. Medisch was a journalism major whose prior restaurant experience had been as manager of the Pappy’s Pizza on Rehoboth Avenue.
• Siri Svasti: A Thai prince, he had dropped out of diplomacy school in Washington, D.C., to work at the beach. His innate sense of the culinary arts helped him rise from lunch cook to chef to co-owner. He left in 1989 for other pursuits, and today is a prominent television chef in Thailand.
• Bee Neild: A 27-year employee, he started out working the raw bar, then waited tables, and later became bartender and bar manager.