Aug 092011

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BETHANY BEACH, Del. – Perched on a counter stool, Lisa Cunningham was flipping through dozens of vacation food photos on her iPhone while she waited for lunch at Matt’s Fish Camp restaurant. Dressed for the beach, the Virginia resident recalled each dish with such zeal, one would assume she had just returned from a gastronomic tour of Provence. But this digestible anthology was compiled in – wait for it – Delaware.


It turns out that a respectable number of good restaurants have sprouted in the towns that line Delaware’s coast in recent years. The sheer number of restaurants is impressive: There are about 100 in downtown Rehoboth Beach; another 100 in the Bethany and Fenwick area, and even more in Lewes. Marilyn Spitz, an owner of the 40-year-old stalwart the Back Porch Cafe, estimates there have been 20 or so openings in the last few years alone.

But it’s the quality that’s worth a second look – or maybe a summer rental.

Since 2001, there has been a second coming, in a way, thanks to chef Matt Haley and his business partner Bryony Zeigler. Their SoDel Concepts restaurant group owns seven high-caliber, mostly fish-focused restaurants, in this 25-mile seaside stretch. A catering division and culinary consulting company add to their impressive, growing company.

They opened their first restaurant, now called Bluecoast, in 2001, because they noticed a hole in the scene – something between fine dining and pizza. “We thought we could put out great food, at a cheaper price point, and take an approach where we really educate our staff on service and the food and wine,” says Haley.

What they did was create a genre of restaurants reflective of what was happening in all the great food cities. Restaurants were serving high-quality food, with polished service, in a casual, denim-friendly dining room. “We were doing the local thing before it was a thing,” says Haley. “We had to, because no one delivered here, so you had to buy from local farms.”

Really, it was a natural evolution of a dining scene that already had a solid foundation. The Back Porch Cafe – a fine-dining eatery, steps from the sand – is widely credited with having sparked the increased interest in food. Back Porch swung open its shutters in 1974, and to this day has an eclectic and ambitious menu. Crispy veal sweetbreads with smoked olives and prune-stuffed lamb sirloin meatballs are among the options.

For decades after, the white-tablecloth establishments, crab shacks, and fry stands kept on coming. On Rehoboth Avenue, there’s a fish and chips shop called Go Fish, and a caviar bar called Red Square. The area’s craft credibility bubbled over when Dogfish Head opened its brewpub in Rehoboth in 1995, though the brews are much better than the eats.

And with a diverse, well-heeled, and well-fed clientele pulling from Washington, Maryland, and Philadelphia, the restaurants are busy. On a Saturday night, Zeigler says, it’s not unusual for Bluecoast to serve 450 people. The breezy space has a killer bay view, and fewer than 100 seats.

She reports similar successful nights at all of SoDel’s properties. Lupo di Mare is their Italian restaurant; NorthEast backs up to the marshes in Ocean View and has an incredible oatmeal pie. (“If I go to NorthEast, I get the Ipswich clams, and like four desserts,” Zeigler jokes.) There’s also the popular Catch 54, Fish On!, Betty’s, and their newest concept, Matt’s Fish Camp, which opened this year. At Matt’s, lobster rolls come with just-fried chips, and fish is served the same day it is pulled from the water. The jars of house-cured pickles are crisp, and lip-smacking dishes such as lobster deviled eggs, buttermilk-fried chicken, and hot bacon crab dip have made it this summer’s go-to spot. (The John Daly, a mix of sweet tea vodka, and lemonade, probably helps, too.)

But for seasonal restaurants, summer is flush and winter is flat. “The summer needs to get you through to next summer,” says Zeigler. They keep their spots open all year, a decision that is motivated, mostly, by their staff. “We have really quality people,” she adds. “Quite frankly, quality people aren’t looking for something seasonal.”

For multi-property operators, seasonality has an upside that urban restaurateurs can only dream about. Haley and Zeigler each travel extensively in winter and bring home new ideas. Haley spends time doing charity work in Nepal and India; Zeigler heads to the Napa Valley. There are also frequent trips to Philadelphia, Washington, and New York, and last summer, a tour of Italy and 10-day road trip through New England. “You’ve got to get an idea of what other people are doing,” says Zeigler.

The success of SoDel Concepts, no doubt, lies in the partnership. While they both have an eye for every aspect, Haley focuses on food, while Zeigler – whose impressive oil paintings hang on the restaurant walls – focuses on wine, service, and design. She’s calm and wide-eyed; he’s energetic and inquisitive. They both work tirelessly in the summer.

The duo speak modestly about their impact on the local scene. But new restaurants opening here seem to be reaching for the new standard that SoDel has set. Two recent additions, Henlopen City Oyster House and Salt Air Kitchen, are both lively, well-designed restaurants that any metropolitan area would gladly claim as its own.

Salt Air has Haley and Zeigler literally written all over it. SoDel’s consulting company, Highwater Management, helped with the opening. With Highwater, the team (along with partner Scott Kammerer) provides conceptual, culinary, and operational support to area restaurants that are just getting started or need some help. Que Pasa, the Lighthouse, and Crabbers Cove are a few of the local establishments that have come calling. Haley and Zeigler cast their consulting net all the way to Wilmington and Ocean City, Md.

Their plans for the future, Zeigler says, change every day. There is a cookbook in the works, more charity work, and of course, restaurants. “We will have a restaurant in New York in the next five years, and D.C. in the next two,” Haley says. “I’ve thought about Philadelphia on and off, but it’s a tough, competitive market.” And one that could use more seafood restaurants, for sure.

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