Wilmington, Delaware's Restaurant Scene Deserves Your Attention
In just a few days, Tyler Akin will know what the floors look like. The drab, worn rugs inside the 2,500-square-foot dining room will be ripped up, where the terrazzo underneath may or may not be ruined from a previous renovation. Akin, the chef and owner of Philadelphia’s Stock and Res Ipsa, is working on his biggest project to date, about 30 miles south.
The 36-year-old Delaware native is reimagining the Green Room in Wilmington’s historic Hotel Du Pont, which has, until now, remained largely unchanged for the last hundred-or-so years. The new restaurant, named Le Cavalier, is expected to open this spring, joining a host of new restaurants making Delaware’s biggest city a supremely compelling place to eat.
The 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 local real estate developer the Buccini/Pollin Group, which, along with PM Hotel Group and Akin, have set about giving the Green Room a contemporary upgrade.
“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 is coming in the midst of a restaurant renaissance that’s helping to revitalize the city of Wilmington at large. In the fall of 2018, modern Italian bistro Bardea opened, and within the year it was a James Beard Award semi-finalist for 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.”
Just last fall, 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 are 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 is Wilmington’s first, and it's a big deal.
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, recognizes it’s a significant moment for the historic eatery. Up until now, its reputation and aging clientele have 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.”
The Green Room has dark, oak-paneled walls, an intricate plaster ceiling and gilded chandeliers. Heavy curtains hang from soaring windows, blocking out sunlight, while well-worn carpet spans the floor. Since the Hotel Du Pont is on the state historic registry, and is also registered as a historic property with the National Parks Service, more consideration is required for the renovations. (The team is working with Philadelphia-based Stokes Architecture and Powers & Company, a consulting firm specializing in historic building rehabs.) The rules dictate that unless it’s a moveable fixture, renovations have to bring the space closer to its original condition. So chandeliers and light sconces stay, and a new U-shaped bar can’t be anchored to the wall, but instead will float next to it.
Besides the full service bar, the team is doing a complete interior design overhaul, adding banquettes and abandoning starched white tablecloths in favor of marble-topped tables. The food and drink menus are getting a full revamp, too. The dour dining room will become a modern French brasserie, taking some inspiration from places like Frenchette and Balthazar in New York and Parc in Philadelphia. The dinner menu will include 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 is to create a vibrant new go-to restaurant in the city. He also doesn’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.”