Restaurant forum goes ‘way back when’
We knew it would be good, but we didn’t know it would be that good. In response to the popularity of the Rehoboth Beach Museum’s Beach Eats! exhibit, Executive Director Nancy Alexander and Program Coordinator Barb Smith asked me to help organize a panel discussion with some of Rehoboth’s restaurant pioneers - past and present. Last week’s event ended up attracting a standing-room-only crowd to the second floor of the Rehoboth Beach Public Library.
After numerous phone calls, endless emails and a bit of cajoling, the lineup was finally engraved in stone: Sydney Arzt (Sydney’s Blues & Jazz Restaurant), Emmalane Ewing (Surfside Grill on the Boardwalk), Keith Fitzgerald and Marilyn Spitz (Back Porch Café), Sue Krick (Summer House), Terry Plowman (Front Page) and Nancy Wolfe Wayson and Tom Wayson (Chez la Mer) all shared their memories of beach eats past. Our list was by no means exclusive, and there are many others who were eminently qualified to be part of our panel - but some were unable to make it, and frankly, we had only so many chairs.
I was honored to moderate the discussion. After a dedication to late chef and Back Porch Café co-owner Leo Medisch, I asked the panel what advice they would give to potential restaurateurs in a resort town where the off-season doldrums can spell disaster for an eatery. Nancy Wolfe Wayson blurted out, “Don’t do it!” and the evening was off and running. She and Tom Wayson addressed what would be a recurring theme throughout the evening: “We didn’t know what we didn’t know.” For example, Nancy loved to cook French food, but that’s certainly no reason to open a restaurant - but nobody told her that, so she just did it. The longevity of Chez la Mer is now an indelible part of our history.
Keith and Marilyn gave proper deference to former schoolteachers Victor Pisapia (still going strong as a celebrity chef in Australia) and Libby Fisher (now jazz singer Libby York), along with her late husband, Ted, for putting their livelihoods on the line to open a fine-dining restaurant in a cheesesteak and corn dog town. And Back Porch Café is still going strong after 39 seasons!
I asked the panel what particular feature of their restaurant they felt was adopted by other eateries to follow. This sparked a hilarious back-and-forth between Sue Krick and Terry Plowman. Terry always blamed Mooney’s Iced Tea Tuesdays at Summer House for the fact that his customers - and his staff - deserted him on that day. And anybody who has tried to get into the Summer House on a wintertime Burger Night can see how that Monday tradition has also lived on, even to this day. Marilyn Spitz suggested that Back Porch Café was the first to offer al fresco dining, and look how ubiquitous that is today.
Sydney Arzt not only maxed out her credit cards to open up American Pie (eventually Sydney’s Side Street Café) out in the untamed wilderness of Wilmington Avenue, but she also pioneered live music in the off-season at her fabled Sydney’s Blues & Jazz Restaurant on Christian Street. In fact, her efforts directly contributed to the formation of our annual Rehoboth Beach Jazz Festival, now in its 24th year. Her stories about three schoolteachers and a nurse trudging through the snow to open up a bakery in the dead of winter brought smiles to many of the old-timers in the audience.
Delaware Beach Life magazine Publisher Terry Plowman recounted how he had to fake it ‘til he made it at the Front Page, where necessity was the mother of invention, and recalcitrant beer coolers secretly became ice chests. He marveled at how his regulars envied him for “having so much fun every night,” when in fact he was nearly comatose from exhaustion.
One of the most memorable comments to come from the floor was from Barb Smith, who recounted how Dewey Beach kids would be allowed to walk the beach to Rehoboth as a teenage rite of passage. It was a privilege they would never forget. The prize at the end of that rainbow? Emmalane Ewing’s Surfside Grill - the southernmost Boardwalk oasis of snowballs, ice cream and, interestingly enough, delicious fried mushrooms. Local faces lit up yet again when Emmalane described the popularity of her signature items scarfed up by hungry beachgoers - and excited Dewey Beach teenagers - back in the day.
This foodie forum could have gone on all night, and the most difficult thing I had to do was put the brakes on the festivities (either that or finish in the dark - the library was very clear about our time limit). It was an honor to spend a couple of hours with these people who, in spite of “not knowing what they didn’t know” have become household words in our little beach town.
Speaking of household words, it is also my pleasure to announce that the Delaware Restaurant Association has chosen to bestow the coveted Cornerstone Award onto none other than the Back Porch Café in recognition of its part in making Rehoboth Beach the culinary destination that it is. The honor of Restaurateur of the Year was conferred on a(MUSE.) restaurant chef/owner Hari Cameron for, in their words, “his creative, cutting-edge cuisine.”
I’ve used up my allotment of ink (and then some), but there will never be enough ink to honor the brave pioneers, past and present, who risked it all to bring quality dining and national respect to our sandy little corner of Delaware.
The circle of life continues, even in the restaurant business, and we have to take the good with the bad. On that note, Rehoboth has lost yet another restaurateur, Frank Vasilikos, who passed away last Tuesday morning at the tender age of 52. He was the co-owner of Pete's Steak Shop, a respected entrepreneur, and a good friend. His sense of humor and morning meetings at Starbucks will be sorely missed.