Wilmington, Delaware's Restaurant Scene Deserves Your Attention

A revamp of the state's most historic restaurant marked a local dining renaissance in 2020.

Green Room Wilmington Delaware
Photo: Neal Santos

In early 2020, Tyler Akin finally found out what the floors looked like. The drab, worn rugs inside the 2,500-square-foot dining room would soon be ripped up, revealing the terrazzo underneath, which may or may not have been ruined from a previous renovation. Akin, the chef and owner of Philadelphia's Stock and Res Ipsa, was working on his biggest project to date, about 30 miles south.

The Delaware native was tasked with reimagining the Green Room in Wilmington's historic Hotel Du Pont, which had, until then, remained largely unchanged for the last hundred-or-so years. The restaurant, named Le Cavalier, opened in spring 2020, joining a host of new restaurants that are helping to make Delaware's biggest city a supremely compelling place to eat.

Hotel Du Pont first opened in 1913 inside the DuPont building, which occupies an entire city block in downtown Wilmington. Inspired by the opulent hotels populating European cities at the time, the 217-room property has hosted dozens of luminaries over the years, including Amelia Earhart, Katherine Hepburn, and Eleanor Roosevelt. In 2017, the building was bought by a local real estate developer, the Buccini/Pollin Group, which, along with PM Hotel Group and Akin, set about giving the Green Room a contemporary upgrade. It's since become one of the best restaurants in Wilmington, Delaware.

"There aren't many examples quite like the Green Room," says Akin, who grew up visiting it. "It hits you in the face — you're walking through history."

The Green Room revamp happened in the midst of a restaurant renaissance that's been helping to revitalize the city of Wilmington at large. In fall 2018, modern Italian bistro Bardea opened, and within the year it was a James Beard Award semi-finalist for the best new restaurant — a first for Wilmington.

Co-owner Scott Stein says he and partner Antimo DiMeo started thinking about opening a restaurant in the city about five years ago. "It still had some growing and developing to do, so we were patient and waited a few years before going for it," he says. "When we found the space that is now Bardea, we knew it was a fit and we were eager to become a part of this amazing city."

Courtesy of Stokes Architecture & Design

In fall 2019, a local restaurant group opened the speakeasy-style cocktail bar Torbert Street Social in a historic brick building that was once a horse stable, tucked behind a string of restaurants in the city's Financial District.

Also housed in the DuPont building, DECO — short for Delaware Collective, and a nod to the area's Art Deco architecture — is a new food hall with eight restaurant stalls, a bar, and a private event space. Seven stalls in the $3.5 million project remain constant and range from pastries and banh mi to a pizza-focused outpost of Bardea, while one stall is revolving, allowing local chefs to test concepts before committing to a brick and mortar. While food halls have been opening in cities across the country over the last few years, this was Wilmington's first, and it's still a big deal.

But as places like Deco and Bardea were propelling Wilmington's food scene forward — with dishes like Deco's banh mi with barbecue pork and housemade veggie chips, and Bardea's hamachi collar aged in foie gras — the Green Room remained stagnant, serving standards like shrimp cocktail and surf and turf.

Akin, who has worked in Washington, D.C. restaurants including Jose Andres' Minibar and Michelin-starred Komi, as well as Philadelphia's Zahav, recognized it was a significant moment for the historic eatery. Up until now, its reputation and aging clientele had made it hard for any new chef to come in and shake up a menu. Akin says he gives the chefs who preceded him credit, noting, "There was only so much they could do without really breaking down the walls, like we're doing right now."

Green Room Wilmington Delaware
Neal Santos

The Green Room had dark, oak-paneled walls, an intricate plaster ceiling, and gilded chandeliers. Heavy curtains hung from soaring windows, blocking out sunlight, while a well-worn carpet spanned the floor. Since Hotel Du Pont is listed on the state historic registry and is also registered as a historic property with the National Parks Service, more consideration was required for the renovations — the team worked with Philadelphia-based Stokes Architecture and Powers & Company, a consulting firm that specializes in historic building rehabs. The rules dictated that unless it was a moveable fixture, any renovations had to bring the space closer to its original condition. The chandeliers and light sconces could stay, and while a new U-shaped bar couldn't be anchored to the wall, it was allowed to float next to it.

Besides the full-service bar, the team completed a major interior design overhaul, adding banquettes and abandoning starched white tablecloths in favor of marble-topped tables. The food and drink menus got a full revamp, too. The dour dining room was transformed into a modern French brasserie, taking some inspiration from places like Frenchette and Balthazar in New York City and Parc in Philadelphia. The dinner menu now includes dishes like swordfish à la Grecque and roast chicken, along with craft cocktails and natural wine.

While Akin recalls donning a blue blazer to visit the Green Room on special occasions with his family, his goal for the new incarnation was to create a vibrant new go-to restaurant in the city. He also didn't want culinarily engaged Wilmingtonians to have to make the drive to Philly for Saturday night dinners. "Wilmington has cosmopolitan people who can support a restaurant that has a real voice doing progressive food and contemporary service," says Akin.

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