How Wilmington’s rising restaurant scene is gaining national attention

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Picture this: Tyler Akin, 15 – now a leader from Philly and co-founder of the Independent Restaurant Coalition – having afternoon tea with his friends in Wilmington, Delaware, in the centennial Green Room of the hotel Du Pont. It was “an ironic goodbye” before Akin, a star college football player, underwent spinal surgery. For the Wilmington native who visited the city’s best foodie destination since childhood in a tie and blazer for events like his grandmother’s birthday, the stately space made the distinction between “awe-inspiring” and “sultry.”

Today, 22 years later, he runs the establishment.

The Green Room is now Le Cavalier, a resolutely stripped down French brasserie. After living in New York, DC and Philly, Akin didn’t expect to return to his hometown, but with Wilmington on the rise, he and a group of chef friends moved in, bringing with them some impressive accolades and national attention.

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The burgeoning food scene has not happened organically, but strategically – thanks to a committed real estate developer and a local government that wants to compete with the big cities to the north and south.

This was not always the case with the largest city in Delaware. Wilmington is “the mecca for business”, thanks to the many banks and businesses headquartered in this tax-advantaged state, says Jennifer Boes, executive director of the Greater Wilmington Convention & Visitors Bureau. About 32,000 people work in downtown Wilmington – and most of them leave at 5 p.m., creating a quiet zone after hours and on weekends. There was a time when downtown residents could barely have a cup of coffee on Sunday mornings.

The downtown area served as the headquarters of the famous DuPont company for more than a century, until 2014, when the company stunned Delaware by announcing its decision to leave. As a financial center, the 2008 recession also hit Wilmington particularly hard.

Yet there has always been hope for the city to develop. It sits on the busiest Amtrak rail route and is conveniently located on the I-95 corridor between Washington, DC and New York. The city is home to the opulent Grand Opera House, an attractive riverside, sporting venues, an important Underground Railroad history and cycle paths. And of course, no card-carrying Wilmingtonian fails to mention that this is President Joe Biden’s adopted hometown.

For brothers Rob and Chris Buccini, these are all good things. Their Buccini / Pollin Group (BPG), a property development and management company, has invested $ 1.5 billion in downtown Wilmington since 2000. The people of Wilmington take this old mantra seriously. build, they will come ”.

Who recruited Tyler Akin at the Hotel Du Pont? The Buccini. Who developed more than 50 downtown apartment and office buildings – with retail and restaurant tenants on the ground floor – that now serve 15,000 people a day? BPG. Who runs DE.CO Food Hall, the Queen Theater, Chase Fieldhouse, three downtown hotels, a beer garden, and so on? You guessed it: BPG.

A tall white building at dusk with a red sign hanging outside that says The Queen.

The Queen Theater, a concert hall in Wilmington.
BPG

Rob Buccini sees restaurants and places of entertainment as part of a “virtuous circle”: businesses move to places where young people live, people move to places with restaurants and entertainment. “The better the restaurants, the more there are, the easier it is to attract new residents and businesses,” he says.

When asked how the restaurant renaissance started today, Wilmington insiders tend to cite one place: La Fia. Buccini estimates that 80% of the downtown main drag buildings were vacant in 2013 when BPG lured celebrity chef from Philly Bryan Sikora (known for his Queen Village BYOB, Django) to Wilmington’s Market Street. The famous 35-seat bistro has enjoyed sustained success with special occasions and business dinners, which has led Sikora to open the Merchant Bar and Crow Bar nearby. “Brian was the pioneer,” says Buccini. Today, those vacancies have fallen to around 5 percent.

James Beard Award semi-finalist Sikora appreciates Wilmington’s “small town atmosphere, charm and cool architecture”. It also offers “accessibility in all respects”. Construction costs are cheaper than in Pennsylvania, as are liquor licenses – hundreds of thousands of dollars less. And then there are contributions from the city government, including a loan of $ 35,000 for furniture and signage.

Mayor Mike Purzycki told Eater Philly that creating a “thriving restaurant culture” is part of Wilmington’s overall economic development plan. Through the Wilmington Economic Development Corporation, the city is offering loans and “modest financial incentives to bring the project to the finish line” to promising businesses. Along with La Fia, this funding helped Cavanaugh’s, Chelsea Tavern, Merchant Bar, Stitch House and Tonic, according to Purzycki.

Investing money in hospitality projects attracts businesses and their employees to his city – the “virtuous cycle” mentioned by Buccini. As Purzycki said Food and wine: “If I don’t open bars and restaurants, they could go to Philadelphia.

Purzycki adds that “what has happened in Wilmington over the last 20 years or so in residential and commercial growth has happened without gentrification … none of these efforts include the withdrawal of people or businesses. of their place of residence and work in order to replace them with other people. or companies. Gentrification doesn’t have to happen.

Since the development takes place in a business district, it is less likely to impact long-time residents as gentrification has done in some neighborhoods in Philadelphia, such as Kensington and West Philly. Buccini echoed Purzycki’s message by saying, “We have purchased over 100 properties in downtown Wilmington. We have never moved a resident or a business.

Development “is a good thing and a bad thing” for Sandra Ben, pastor of Praying Ground Community Church on East 22nd Street and director of the non-profit organization Safe United Neighborhoods, which organizes weekly food and drink distributions. clothes. “Market Street [in downtown Wilmington] is improving a lot and the new businesses have made a difference, but it’s right on Market Street, ”says Ben, who has lived in Wilmington for over 40 years. Ben hopes the developers and the city won’t forget other parts of the city, like its predominantly black neighborhood where many in his congregation rent out their homes. “Right now we are waiting to see what happens. “

A round bowl of pasta with red sauce.

Barded

Longtime Philadelphia restaurateur Scott Stein and chef Antimo DiMeo opened Bardea, a modern 120-seat Italian restaurant in Wilmington, in 2018. Within a year, they had achieved recognition from the James Beard Foundation. Stein says the duo would never have opened in Wilmington without Rob and Chris Buccini. The Buccinis visited Wayne BYOB of Stein and DiMeo, Ardé Osteria, almost weekly until restaurateurs agreed to visit downtown Wilmington in 2016. They walked through BPG’s planned new development – residences, office buildings, entertainment venues and hotels.

“It was obvious,” says Stein. “We fell in love with Wilmington. We couldn’t get Wayne a liquor license. We shook hands in Rob’s car and that was it.

Stein says he and DiMeo are “all about Wilmington”. The restaurant is busy – often with members of the White House press corps in town with the president – and diners travel from across the East Coast to try DiMeo’s food. In 2022, they are opening a steakhouse next door, designed by Philly’s Stokes Architecture & Design, known for its vibe-rich destinations including Park and Suraya.

“Wilmington’s food scene is hitting way above its weight,” says Rick Fitzgerald, a longtime Philadelphia resident, Francophile and food lover who moved with his wife, Marilyn, to Wilmington during the pandemic. “We just assumed we had to go back to Philly for some great dining experiences.” Then they had dinner at the Cavalier. “It was a revelation! A wonderful bar and perhaps the best steak frites outside of France.

Then there was “a breathtakingly wonderful dinner” at Bardea, followed by visits to La Fia where “Django’s spirit is alive and well”, Californian vibes at Torbert Street Social, pizza at Crow Bar, “upscale brunch” at Ciro Forty Acres, meatballs in peanut sauce at Eclipse Bistro, outdoor entertainment at Constitution Yards, visit to the “charming” snuff mill for dinner and wine purchase at Swigg.

Swigg, a wine merchant in Wilmington.
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The Wilmington newcomer is excited about the city’s future, especially the future Bardea Steak, housed in a BPG building. BPG has also partnered with Method Co., owner of Wm. Mulherin’s Sons, in a soon to be opening boutique hotel with an Italian restaurant, cafe and rooftop lounge in an 1800s brownstone designed by Frank Furness.

When he left Wilmington as a child, Akin said he “was determined to work in restaurants in major markets and to chase after the golden ring … and to be in the big cities was the only way to do it “. With The Cavalier, the chef did more than dip a toe in the waters of his hometown: two weeks after opening it, he returned to Delaware.

While living in a two-bedroom apartment in Kensington during the pandemic, he began to think “life would be better with a garden” for his two daughters. “I visited La Fia and Bardea,” he recalls. “I wouldn’t miss out on things that I enjoy living here.

“Rob [Buccini], Chris [Buccini], and Dave [Pollin] are at the root of what is happening, ”says Akin. “They had a vision for downtown Wilmington two decades ago, and slowly but surely it has come to fruition.”

Now, Akin and BPG are striving to integrate the next generation of Wilmingtonians. In partnership with the Teen Warehouse community center, they train local teenagers in hospitality and then place them in well-paying jobs. JPMorgan Chase is funding the effort, which has already placed 22 young people and is now forming a new cohort. “If we can help create [the] the next generation of talent, then everyone wins, ”says Akin.

A photo from above of a fried steak with a glass of red wine and a sauce on the side.

Jason varney

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