LEWES, Del. — Around the crackling fire pit at the Dogfish Inn, the guests play Baggo and make s'mores after returning their loaner bikes to the motel after bucolic bayside rides through nearby Cape Henlopen State Park. Craft beer talk inevitably ensues, with "fireside chats" on occasional Saturdays often presided over by the affable Sam Calagione himself.
The thirsty fans come literally from across the globe — England, Colorado, Long Island, and Alabama on one recent night — for a chance to crack open a can of SeaQuench with the effortlessly cool cofounder of Dogfish Head in his laid-back coastal element. Nearly a quarter-million people a year visit the brewery in Milton, the Dogfish restaurants in Rehoboth, or both. And there's no doubt the presence of this cutting-edge beer pioneer has grown a certain cachet of cool around the local tourist trade in recent years. A rapidly growing number of other fun breweries have blossomed here in its wake.
But we had come to the Dogfish Inn as a convenient way station to explore Delaware's seaside towns and restaurants for the first time. As veterans of the Jersey Shore, we had plenty to learn.
First off, people here head to the "beaches" — not "down the Shore."
The sand and surf are admittedly a little rough. But the pace is decidedly mellow.
"We say 'Lower Slower Delaware,' and it's a point of pride," Calagione says.
That's true whether you're in historic Lewes ("It's pronounced 'Lew-is,' not 'Lou's' like they say in Jersey,'' says restaurateur Meghan Lee), the touristy hub of Rehoboth, the party town of Dewey Beach, or upscale Bethany Beach, whose actual motto is "the quiet resort."
"You don't get the eccentric-ness of the Jersey Shore, and I don't think you'll ever see a reality TV show made here," restaurateur Leisa Berlin says. "It would be … quiet. But in a nice way!"
It would also be delicious. These beach towns have cultivated a surprisingly sophisticated roster of independent restaurants whose kitchens rise on local seafood from the Delmarva Coast, the produce bounty of Sussex County farms, and a year-round population that keeps these tables lively while Jersey's seasonal business wanes. As a result, we ate very well, to supplement all that craft beer. If these seven places are indicative of what the Delaware beaches' restaurants have to offer, I definitely hope to return for more.
Meghan Lee had a business plan and a strong background in successful restaurants, having worked for Aimee Olexy and Stephen Starr at Talula's Garden and Sovana Bistro before that. And yet four banks still denied her funding. But if they weren't bullish on the quaint grace of downtown Lewes or Lee's vision to transform an 1899 Victorian house into the farm-to-table haven that has become Heirloom, they're looking pretty silly now.
Heirloom, which she financed privately (financing she's nearly paid back in full within just three years), is one of the loveliest seaside restaurants I've visited in a long while — and one that thrives all year, not just during the summer rush. A refreshing Hemingway daiquiri and crisp Spanish rosé got us settled at our table in the homey dining room while our charming server, Angel Morales, deftly guided us through chef Matthew Kern's frequently changing seasonal menu.
Kern, who trained at one of my favorite farm-driven restaurants anywhere, Bolete in Bethlehem, Pa., turned out a stellar charcuterie platter with a savory country ham that hung for six months in the basement, lamb loin cured with juniper and harissa, silky chicken liver pâté, and veal terrine with pickled green strawberries.
House-pulled burrata stuffed with ricotta made from local milk was a creamy stage for sweet green peas and the brown-buttered crumbs of house sourdough. Ravioli stuffed with pureed ramps were a celebration of the season beside fiddleheads, morels, and pickled pink rhubarb stems. Heirloom's kitchen delivered a perfect duck breast with earthy sunchokes and sweet onions. A huge pork chop was still juicy over carrot puree perfumed with exotic spice. Cast-iron-roasted chicken took a familiar comfort to a new level, the bird's tawny skin drizzled with rich jus that puddled into potato gnocchi flecked with Cabot cheddar.
We could have stayed for Heirloom's "chocolate fix" or vanilla pavlova, or even one of the fine cheese platters featuring Doe Run, Meadow Creek, or Jasper Hill. But Lee's restaurant had already hit the perfect sweet spot of casual elegance. We took a short stroll around the corner instead to the Lewes branch of a retro King's Homemade Ice Cream parlor, and that creamy throwback cone was this lovely night's perfect finale.
Heirloom, 212 Savannah Rd., Lewes, Del. 302-313-4065; heirloomdelaware.com
The Station on Kings
We had a breakfast date with an old friend scheduled for the Station on Kings. But when we pulled in to the gravel lot of a big tan barn flanked by wooden tables of potted plants for sale, it was hard to know: Is the Station on Kings a garden center, retail shop, or restaurant?
"It's all of that. It's everything I've always wanted to do in a business thrown into one," owner Leisa Berlin says of the airy barnlike building she opened in December with a solarium for a dining room, a barista in the corner serving Counter Culture coffees, a glorious pastry counter, and a retail area featuring cookbooks, housewares, and artisan cheeses to go.
Berlin is a veteran of Lewes' restaurant scene: She founded the popular Agave with her son Chris McKeown, who now owns it, and she still owns the charming Edie Bees Candy Shop nearby. For this latest business, just off Route 9, Berlin was inspired by Terrain at Styer's in Glen Mills. She's made it a distinctly family affair.
Her daughter, Laura, a pastry chef who trained in San Francisco and worked at Talula's Garden, oversees a stellar baking program that rotates throughout the day, with excellent croissant variations stuffed with everything from creamy almond paste and ribbons of chocolate to spicy peppers and bacon. Morning displays of airy doughnuts and gorgeous strawberry-rhubarb galettes shift by afternoon to colorful macarons, mojito lime curd tarts, and some impressive wedding cakes.
Laura's husband, Alex Ostash, a chef whom she met at Talula's Garden, makes outstanding loaves of crusty sourdough bread with whole-wheat flour that he mills when he isn't out back working the garden center's tomatoes. His bread is sold to go (yes!) but is also a foundation for some of the kitchen's savory menu items, like the fig and ricotta toast, or the house-cured duck pastrami sandwich made by chef Theo Lipkins, whose seasonal menu ranges from watermelon gazpacho to brisket tacos and pimento grilled cheese at lunch. An expanded menu was just introduced for dinner, including harissa lamb chops and a light summer halibut in dashi I've yet to taste. Based on our breakfast alone, I'd eagerly to return to this unusual garden center for another meal any day.
The Station on Kings, 720 Kings Hwy., Lewes, Del. 302-645-0300; thestationlewes.com
Nectar Cafe & Juice Bar
As we settled in for breakfast at a banquette beside the wall hung with antique plates, the Nectar Cafe & Juice Bar hostess made the introduction: "Your server Angel will be right over …"
"Whazzup, guys!" he said, approaching us with a familiarity we might have found strange if we hadn't quickly realized this was the same Angel who'd served us dinner at Heirloom the night before. It was like seeing an old friend in a strange new place that had quickly proved to be a very welcoming small world. It got even smaller when I realized Nectar's owner, Sarah McKeown, is another of Leisa Berlin's children.
Each of the restaurants is operated independently, McKeown says. And it's clear she brought her own angle to the Lewes restaurant business when she returned from a legal career in Philadelphia to open this charming breakfast destination on Neils Alley in 2014. The juice-bar trend pairs with updated breakfast favorites here, and I certainly got a good chlorophyll buzz going with the Smarty Pants, a bright-green blend of apples and kale ("and just one leaf of basil") goosed with chia, flax, and hemp.
It was a virtuous sip of clean living — until I dove into a short stack of old-school comfort. Even so, there was always an element of freshness and quality that lent these indulgences a healthy spin, like a touch of earthy wheat flour for the excellent blueberry pancakes drizzled with syrup turned indigo with pureed blueberries. The exceptionally light but crisp waffles (thanks, sister Laura) had a boozy boost of bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup. The fluffy Spanish omelet benefited from a roasty salsa from her brother's Agave kitchen next door. Next time? I'll be down for the "green eggs and ham" with almond pesto, Gruyère, and a sunnyside-up egg over brioche, which is essentially a croque madame with a Lewes juice-bar twist.
Nectar Cafe & Juice Bar, 111 Neils Alley, Lewes, Del. 302-645-5842; cafenectar.com
Henlopen City Oyster House
When I first came to Rehoboth over the winter to scout the Delaware beaches, this bustling modern fish house with whitewashed brick walls was where we landed for lunch — and I was hooked. The oysters were the first test, and though Delaware has yet to enter the local bivalve resurgence that New Jersey has embraced, the almost-local "Henlopen Salts" cultivated in Virginia just for the restaurant were a plump and bracing start, flanked by briny Copps Islanders from Connecticut, vegetal Marionports from Buzzards Bay, and saline Pink Moons from Canada that had my full attention.
A great beer list has been a draw here since Chris Bisaha and Joe Baker opened this updated seafood bistro in 2010 with, among other things, a long list of large-format Belgians, lambics, and local brews. But I also was impressed with wines by the glass that delivered affordable seafood-friendly sipping (most $11 or less) without getting dull. Try the biodynamic Alsatian white blend from Barmès-Buecher, or a sunny Picpoul de Pinet with roasted clams casino whose buttery crumb topping was scented with smoky Benton's bacon. I loved the straightforward goodness of the tomatoey seafood chowder, which boded well for the fancier bouillabaisse with saffron broth for which the Oyster House is known.
You'll always find some unusual fish here for intrigue. A sea bass cheek, for example, a jerked Panamanian tripletail, or scallops grilled with truffled goat butter. At our lunch (a meal the Oyster House unfortunately discontinues during the busy summer season), however, I was impressed with some of the basics chef Bill Clifton's kitchen did well: the fried chicken sandwich topped with tangy chowchow, an airy beer-battered cod, and a seafood twist on the Reuben stuffed with lobster salad. You'll have to settle for the equally luscious but simpler lobster roll this summer. But once again, that Reuben speaks to the perks of Rehoboth as a year-round draw: "In the fall when we get ready to reopen for lunch and people start clamoring for that lobster Reuben," Bisaha says, "it's like releasing a special seasonal beer."
Henlopen City Oyster House, 50 Wilmington Ave., Rehoboth Beach, Del. 302-260-9193; hcoysterhouse.com
The Blue Hen
When Chris Bisaha and Joe Baker had the opportunity last year to open the Blue Hen, an ambitious but casual restaurant in a hotel across the street from their Oyster House, they intentionally looked outside the area for fresh talent. They found it in Julia Robinson, a Wilmington native who worked in Chicago before Philadelphia, where she was chef de cuisine at both the White Dog and Brigtanessa. It's been an attention-getting move for this entire crew, as Robinson has earned regional nominations for prestigious James Beard Awards for seafood-centric menus that deliver a modern American twist.
A lightly battered soft-shell crab over ramps and a Thai curry amped up with extra turmeric and lemongrass were a memorable example of her seasonal touch. The dilled gnocchi with fiddleheads, ramps, and Westphalian ham in leek cream was a beautifully rich ode to spring. Spicy 'nduja sausage-spiced potatoes brought earthy zing to big seared scallops. A creamy lobster take on shrimp toast, stuffed between crunchy brioche beneath a puddle of spicy pepper jelly, is one of the best riffs ever on the old Cantonese favorite.
For all the anticipation of a fine meal, though, the Blue Hen's brusque service and overdrive kitchen rushed us through a meal — two breakneck courses, from seating to bill drop in less than an hour — so that it was like eating at a diner. And some of the cooking showed flaws of haste, too. The coveted biscuits were burned. The highly touted fried chicken was oddly bland. The "medium rare" duck breast was served practically raw, then predictably overcooked to almost gray on the follow.
I might have ordered another drink from the excellent indie wine and beer list. But by the time I hit the lemony almond bottom of my relaxing Wyoming Whiskey Daisy, our speedy dinner was already done and I knew it was time to go.
The Blue Hen, 33 Wilmington Ave., Rehoboth Beach, Del. 302-278-7842; thebluehenrehoboth.com
Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats
When a brewery grows to become as widely distributed as Dogfish Head — it's now the 13th-largest in the country — it can be a challenge to give fans a compelling reason to visit. But Rehoboth is where founders Sam and Mariah Calagione launched their "off-centered" beer empire at a wildly experimental brewpub in 1995, and they haven't let up in maintaining their home base as a vital and unique experience. With most of the brewing now done at the sprawling production facility in Milton, they've spent the last three years completely remaking their original downtown corner into a fresh destination on its own.
This spring, they debuted a sleek al fresco courtyard connecting their seafood restaurant, Chesapeake & Maine (home of the campfire-scented "Smoke on the Water" raw oyster) to a craft distillery, R&D brewery, and the roomy brewpub called Brewings & Eats, which looks like a boozy cruise ship inside with porthole-shaped window booths and a dining room surrounding a performance stage. Based on the formidable lines for a seat, any extra lingering space is welcome. But if the table wait hits multiple hours, as can happen in peak season, let me put this in perspective: the pub-plus menu here tries hard to keep it interesting with wood-fired cooking, beer-infused sauces, and scratch preparations. But it's more about fun than finesse.
The Frank's RedHot-infused pasta pile of the McLaine mac and cheese, topped with 90 Minute IPA cheddar sauce, blue cheese, and orange chicken wings jutting out like a poultry Stonehenge, is the comfort noodle embodiment of one of Dogfish's extreme brews — goofy but ultimately irresistible. The wood-grilled "indulgence burger" stacked with an onion ring, drippy cheese sauce, and bacon jam made with Burton Baton Imperial IPA is awesomely juicy if you can unhinge your jaws wide enough to take a bite. The doughy pizza lacked the character I'd hoped for from a wood-fired oven. But the SeaQuench-marinated chicken tacos and Namaste-battered fish and chips (with excellent fresh fries) were solid.
The best reasons to visit Dogfish Head remain liquid ones, especially the beers that are fleeting brewpub exclusives, like the experimental ale made with the citrusy single hop #06297, or a double-strength edition of Chicory Stout, or a Green Light golden ale so hazy with tropical yeast and bready malt it was almost chewy. And then there was the high-octane darkness of Siracusa Caber-Nero, an imperial stout brewed with syrah grape must aged in oak barrels still wet from fresh-dumped Napa cab. It's just the kind of broodingly complex, bold, and balanced hybrid of beer and wine that scandalized, then revolutionized, the craft-brewing industry when Dogfish started 23 years ago. Guess what? It's still awesome.
Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats, 320 Rehoboth Ave., Rehoboth Beach, 302-226-2739; dogfish.com
Matt's Fish Camp
It's impossible to eat across the Delaware beaches without noting the ubiquitous SoDel Concepts group, which has continued to expand its polished portfolio of seafood-centric restaurants despite the tragic 2015 death of its founder, Matt Haley. It's at 10 places and counting. The latest is a crisp new branch of the group's flagship, Bluecoast Seafood Grill, in a strip mall parking lot along Route 1 in Rehoboth. But we were more in the mood to channel the casual coastal vibe of a seafood shack. And the original Matt's Fish Camp in North Bethany, a converted old diner that gazes out onto the tranquil waters of Beach Cove, was exactly what we'd hoped for.
Actually, it was even better. The laid-back space is done up in the expected nautical kitsch — life preservers framing mirrors from wood plank walls, an old oar above the diner counter, taxidermied fish — with a classic menu that doesn't shy away from the deep fryer for hush puppies, delicately breaded fish and chips, Ipswich belly clams, and onion rings stacked so high I was oh-so-tempted to pluck one off my neighbor's table. What really surprised me was the freshness of the cooking overseen by chef Maggie Cellito, who showcases beautiful seafood in simple preparations that have taken a slight Southern twist in recent years. An excellent shrimp and grits with spicy andouille and okra in rustic tomato sauce over Anson Mills grits — the legacy of a South Carolina cook who once worked there — was a perfect example. A thick steak of Ocean City tuna was blackened to rare perfection over a carrot puree and couscous salad filled with shiitake caps. Plump peel-and-eat shrimp dusted in Old Bay and a gluten-free crab cake bursting with sweet lumps of fresh meat were spot-on, as was a New England chowder that was creamy but not too thick.
We could have lingered over glass mugs of Fish Camp punch. But it was really the key lime pie that made it hard to leave. As I took forkful after forkful and let its densely rich but tangy custard melt away, I savored the fresh graham crust and whipped cream pouf dusted with lime zest, and decided it wouldn't be our last. Next year, I hope, I'll get to plunge my fork into another tasty slice of Delaware Beach goodness.