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In the weeks before the election, I tried to get to know Wilmington the only way I know how: by eating everything in town.

By Betsy Andrews
October 30, 2020
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Biden spaghetti oopsie
Credit: Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

At the Charcoal Pit in Wilmington, Delaware, I had a distinctly America-in-2020 experience. I had driven down from Brooklyn, where I live, to take in the city that the guy who wants to be our next president calls home. A native Philadelphian, I grew up 30 miles away from the town, but I knew little about it. I wanted to wrap my head around Wilmington, and I do such things by eating and drinking.

A 64-year-old malt shop, the Charcoal Pit has a long association with Biden. The Democratic candidate has frequented it since his days playing high school football, when the Charcoal Pit was segregated. According to Biden’s loosely substantiated claim, he once walked out in protest when a Black teammate was refused service. A photo of a smiling Biden hangs on the wall, his arm wrapped around Lupe Avilez, a cook and manager here for the past 24 years.

“Everybody knows Joe,” Avilez told me. “He’s come here so many, so many, so many times.”

I was chatting with Avilez after eating lunch: a delicious little cheeseburger blanketed in pickle chips and a black-and-white milkshake “made just the way Joe likes it,” said my waitress, “thick and lumpy.” I asked Avilez who he was voting for.

“That’s the question I can’t answer,” he said. “Joe’s a very awesome, friendly, likeable person. To be in charge of the whole country, now we’re talking about a different thing. I don’t know. I like Joe. Joe knows that. I’m a Trump supporter. I think Trump’s awesome. I think he loves his country. He talks a lot. He gets himself in trouble. We had a debate last night. I saw Joe come on very, very strong, and that made my head change. I have, like, another week, and I think this time I want to see that change because Joe’s been devoting all his life to the government. I think he deserves a chance, so I changed my coin, and I want to vote this time for Joe. I know I want to vote for Joe this time. Absolutely.”

It was the kind of whiplash we’ve gotten used to in America. In under two minutes, I had witnessed a former Trump voter go from undecided to wishy-washy about Biden to dead set on sending the former Vice President back to the White House.  

Still, he caught me by surprise. Wilmington is a Democratic town. The mayor was re-seated during this year’s primary because there were no Republicans to run against in a general election. With most locals automatically voting for Joe, Avilez was one of the few I met who had bothered to watch the final presidential debate. I had difficulty finding a place to watch it myself. The Eagles were playing the Giants, and Philly’s football team is the closest Wilmington has to its own. The game was on at Trolley Square’s Irish pubs, Kelly’s Logan House and Catherine Rooney’s, and at the Riverfront seafood houses, Big Fish Grill and Bank’s Seafood Kitchen. I would have loved to pair the debate with excellent cocktails at Torbert Street Social or local brews at Chelsea Tavern, but the game was on at both downtown hotspots. If Biden had been in Wilmington, Biden wouldn’t have watched Biden debate.

I ended up at Ciro Food & Drink, three-time James Beard nominee Michael DiBianca’s year-old restaurant at the Riverfront. The debate was on one set, the muted game on the other. “The two worst teams in the NFL, and it’s still better than this debate,” said DiBianca’s co-owner, Venu Gaddamidi. Did he know Joe? “He lived behind our high school and came to our football games. Uncle Joe.”   

Everybody Knows Joe

Charcoall Pit
The Charcoal Pit in Wilmington, Delaware, is a long-time favorite of Biden's.
| Credit: Betsy Andrews

Familiarity and faint praise was the refrain on Biden I most often heard in Wilmington. It’s like Biden himself has oftentimes said, “Don’t compare me to the almighty; compare me to the alternative.”

“I know Joe. I like Joe. I play golf with Joe,” said a patron at the bar at Buckley’s Tavern, a suburban favorite not far from Biden’s wooded estate. “I don’t know if he should be president. But he’s better than the seven-year-old,” by which he meant Trump.

In bars and restaurants, people voiced exhaustion over Trump, along with hometown pride and the excitement of telling one’s own Joe story in a town of 70,000 where everyone knows Joe. But Wilmington, I discovered, is an unpretentious place, and nobody I spoke to had delusions of grandeur about Joe Biden. “We just see him like a regular customer,” Avilez said.

A regular Joe with a simple palate. His order is chicken parmigiana at Café Verdi, an unassuming pizza joint in Trolley Square. At the hand-rolled pasta joint Piccolina Toscana, chef-owner Dan Butler told me, “It’s cappellini al pomodoro. If he’s feeling racy, it’s penne al pomodoro. I’d rather he eat more adventurously, but he’s always effusive about how good the meal is, so I can’t complain.”

The chef was being very Wilmington—judicious and unassuming. I had expected more pre-election excitement here. Friends had told me about the buzz during the Democratic convention, and when Biden had announced Kamala Harris as his VP pick at the recently renovated Hotel Du Pont. But a dozen days before the election, Wilmington was quiet.

“Normally they’d have 200 people in here to eat, and now there’s nobody,” said Wilmington’s mayor, Mike Purzycki, spruce and affable in a crew cut and pink tie. We were sitting outside the year-old food court, DE.CO, in the former DuPont Corporation headquarters that also houses the Hotel Du Pont. As with all dining in town, the food court was allowed 60-percent indoor capacity, but COVID-19 had emptied the surrounding office buildings of customers. “We were doing really well, and then the virus knocked everything on its tail.”

Purzycki cut his teeth as director of the Riverfront, spending 20 years transforming a defunct shipyard into a destination neighborhood of waterside apartments, restaurants and bars, and a bike-and-foot trail through protected marshland. Pre-COVID, he was presiding over the rehabilitation of downtown. He has ambitions for his second term: more tax revenue from more businesses and more residential development: “Goldman Sachs is bringing 250 jobs. Barclays came back with another 300. We can’t compete with guys looking to have 5,000 jobs, but we can get 50-person employers, and they’ll come because Wilmington is a good place to be.”

I asked him how dining fit in. “Companies move here because of those things," he said. "If I don’t open up bars and restaurants, they could go to Philadelphia.”

The Scene Takes Off

La Fia
The dining room at La Fia in Wilmington, Delaware.
| Credit: Will Figg/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Monied Wilmingtonians once made a habit of driving to Philly for dinner, but Philly chefs have started reverse commuting. In the Hotel Du Pont, I dined in a vaulted, gilded space that, for over a century, was the fussy and fabled Green Room. Now it’s the friendly Le Cavalier, overseen by Tyler Akin of Philadelphia’s Stock and Res Ipsa. A Delaware native, Akin knows his crowd.

“Tyler’s concept is approachable French-inspired food with some influences from North Africa and other places,” assistant GM Cindy Schneider explained. “So there’s familiarity on the menu, but you’ll try something new”—like the zhoug-inspired Shabazi spice on the hen of woods mushrooms. “It’s not scary. It’ll be OK!” said Schneider.

Many dishes are brasserie classics. I had spot-on soupe à l’oignon and gnocchi Parisienne. But does the place pass the Joe test? "The veal shoulder is basically this beautiful roast," said Schneider. "It wreaks of homey and feeling good about your day, and that’s what he would order."

Joe might not have had it so easy when he treated Jill to a birthday dinner at Bardea, a 2019 James Beard semifinalist for Best New Restaurant. Chef Antimo DiMeo's cooking left me agog. He dabs one huge “mussel Rockefeller” with a mosaic of flavors: sea buckthorn jelly, herb and basil purée, whole grape vinegar, and squid-ink brioche crumbs. He encases an avocado in yuzu butter, ages it in shio koji, broils it, stuffs it with avocado purée, then finishes it with pineapple mustardo, chicharónn crumble, and tomatillo chile-lime water.

Yet the service and vibe were unpretentious as the happy weekend crowd dug in. DiMeo’s business partner, Scott Stein, told me how much fun he was having after running Italian restaurants in the finicky Philly suburbs: “Here, we’re looking at the glass half full.”

Bardea felt like a metaphor for a hoped-for version of the presidency that might take shape under Wilmington's most famous son. Out on the floor, Joe will be shaking hands, smiling like he does, while in the back of house, there’ll be a competent staff cooking up something good and complex. And we’ll all just relax and enjoy it.

At La Fia, another loveable restaurant from a Philly emigré—Beard semifinalist Bryan Sikora, of Django and Talula’s Table fame—I was relishing my chicken roulade over foie gras–sherry sauce when the whole restaurant broke into a rousing “Happy Birthday.” The birthday diner stood up and toasted the house, “Peace and love to you all.”

Room for Black Entrepreneurs

Walt's
Walt's Chicken Express in Wilmington, Delaware.
| Credit: Betsy Andrews

To a casual visitor, Wilmington felt warm and easy-going, like Joe. But nothing is that uncomplicated. The Mayor, who’s been criticized for doing too little for less-visible neighborhoods, told me, “The big challenge for a city like Wilmington is to learn to do what America has done very poorly, and that is dealing with the racial disconnect in our lives.”

During Black Lives Matter protests here last summer, the Mayor removed the statue of the town’s founding father, the slaveholder Caesar Rodney, to avoid it being toppled, and he’s planning to transform downtown’s Rodney Square into a site for dialogue and reconciliation. “You have to think about how you start to support young Black entrepreneurs, so we start to have pride in people who are sharing the prosperity,” he said.

Crucially, in a town that’s 58 percent African-American with a 27 percent poverty rate, some of the newest food entrepreneurs come from the Black community. Jason Aviles runs a non-profit called Wilmington Green Box that makes cold-pressed juices and sells them along with fresh produce in a downtown kiosk and on tri bikes in underserved neighborhoods, training and paying teens to manage every aspect of the business. He launched Green Box Kitchen, its for-profit sister, on hip Market Street last year. A fast-casual vegan restaurant, its target clientele are not just corporate transplants but longtime residents.

“Our approach was that the people who live in surrounding communities deserve a space carved out for them downtown that’s comfortable, approachable, and where they feel a part of that culture,” says Aviles. “Let’s be inclusive.”

In his quest to train the next generation of food entrepreneurs, he’s launching more Green Box Kitchens, plus a farmstead in North Wilmington. Delaware’s size and affordability allows such projects to happen.

“There’s still opportunity to have a stake in the growth. In New York, you’re priced out, but in Delaware, those options exist,” said Aviles. And if Biden is President? “With that comes additional resources and opportunities because this is his hometown.” 

The Regular Joints

Claymont Steak Shop
Sliced ribeye on the griddle at Claymont Steak Shop.
| Credit: Betsy Andrews

Green Box Kitchen and other new Black-owned spots have a precursor in a longtime Wilmington favorite, Walt’s Chicken Express. The Bidens are fans. 

I ate my chicken on the shop’s stoop, fried skin crackling as it yielded to tender meat. As exciting as a restaurant like Bardea is, Joe Biden’s town remains a down-to-earth place, and I would’ve been remiss if I hadn’t visited the regular joints he loves.

Not all of them impressed me. “Joe has his shortcomings,” Mayor Purzycki had told me. One of them is his uneven taste in sandwiches. Walt’s is around the corner from Capriotti’s, Biden’s favorite sub shop. I got a Bobbie, the specialty that Biden had ordered on camera in 2013 when Capriotti’s opened a D.C. location. “The best sandwich in America is out of Wilmington, Delaware,” he had said.

I beg to differ. Cold, dry turkey, stuffing that tasted like Stovetop, too much cranberry sauce, and mayo on a soft hero roll, the Bobbie was only barely redeemed by the hot peppers that I got on the side. This Philly native is sticking to her hoagies.

But as Biden must know from 51 years of political campaigns, you lose some, you win some. “The only place where Philadelphia can compete with us is steak sandwiches,” Biden said once. “Just compete. Compete. Not win.” Here, I had to agree with him. On a wall at Claymont Steak Shop in the suburb where Biden grew up, there were signed photos of Joe side-hugging various line cooks. Owner Demi Kollias told me that, since Biden’s nomination, she’s received many journalists, particularly from France: “I’m not sure why. It’s weird, right? They have these cute French accents when they say it’s delicious.”

If you ask me, these French visitors know what they’re talking about. They’re looking for the heart of the next American era, and if Biden gets the Presidency, plenty more of them will likely visit. In the steak shop’s open kitchen, piles of crimson, house-sliced ribeye seared on the grill, cooked to order. Lined in melted American cheese, the cheesesteak I ate was thick with hot, juicy beef and just the right balance of grilled onions and mushrooms. Forget the flight from France; it was well-worth my drive to Wilmington from New York past every cheesesteak spot in Philly.