With an address of 50 Park Avenue, the Corner Cupboard Inn might have been in New York City’s tony Upper East Side, but it wasn’t. In its heyday it had a tony yet homey feel, nestled in The Pines of Rehoboth Beach.
Those who remember the inn typically first recall the friendliness of its owners. The inn’s restaurant was known for excellent food, a screened-porch dining room, and live jazz music.
It has been called an institution.
In 1935 Alice and Jesse Gundry rented their two side-by-side houses with 18 guest rooms.
Alice Gundry retired nearly 40 years later, in 1974. Her niece, Elizabeth ‘Els’ Gundry Hooper, bought the business from her and kept the doors open.
After purchasing the inn, Els is reported to have said, “I want to keep it the way I've always known it.”
She hired Al Krauss to manage it and serve as maitre d.
Leroy Walker, who had worked at the restaurant for several years, stayed on as chef-cook. Neither Els nor Leroy could remember how many years he had been there.
Inn brought back days gone by
Sydney Arzt became a Rehoboth Beach restaurateur in 1988, opening Sydney’s, a restaurant featuring live music – mostly jazz – and good food.
For Sydney, the Corner Cupboard was a wonderful place.
“It was a throwback to another time, a reminder of service guidelines from the South,” she said about the inn.
Els hired African-American wait staff, Sydney said, and attired them to look good: black pants, a crisp white shirt, black bow tie, white gloves and the famous, fire-engine red vest.
“Els was a grande dame. She had her eyes on the community.”
Sydney, said to describe herself as an inexperienced restaurateur, doesn’t go far enough in explaining how little she knew about operating a restaurant.
She said during her first year in business she failed to pay quarterly income tax to the federal government and at the end of the year she owed the IRS $4,000.
“Els asked me how I was doing one day, and I told her about my problem,” she said. To her surprise, Sydney said Els told her she would loan her the money she needed.
She said she and Els went to the bank, Els drew up a simple agreement they both signed and she was given the money, which she repaid.
Sydney said the following year she again had the same tax problem, and she asked Els if she would help. This time, Els said no.
“She said, ‘I’m in support of helping one time,’” Sydney said, adding she understood. Sydney said later she would learn Els had a history of lending financial help.
“She had done it for others because she wanted to see young entrepreneurs become successful,” Sydney said. She said Els’ willingness to help her, a business competitor, demonstrated the quality of her character.
Sydney said throughout the years many musicians played the Corner Cupboard but in her mind, two standout.
“I remember on Sundays listening to Scotty (Scott) on piano and Phil Miller on upright bass. It was the kind of music you’d want to hear sitting on your back porch or veranda.”
Inn employees reflect
Becky Jones worked at the inn for 12 years, starting in the late 1970s.
“There was always a set of regulars who came back to the inn,” Becky said. She started at the inn working in the kitchen preparing breakfast, and later became sous chef.
She said Els needed help in the office and gave her the title of assistant innkeeper. Becky, 56, said the inn held a season opening party every year. “It was always on Friday night of the Memorial Day weekend. It was a big deal,” she said. Furniture was taken out of the dining room and a couple first-floor guest rooms to make space for the party.
“All of the furniture had to go back so we would be ready for breakfast on Saturday,” she said.
Sydney, too, remembers the opening party.
Sydney said getting an invitation to it meant something. “If you got invited to that party, you knew you were part of the fabric of Rehoboth,” she said.
Becky worked with Danny Barfield, whom she called the ultimate waiter.
“I was 19 my first summer there. I liked it very much,” he said on the phone from his hometown Lake Wales, Fla.
Danny got the Corner Cupboard job through Buck Green, who was a chef in Lake Wales during the winter and a chef at the inn during the summer.
“At the end of the season for the first eight or nine years I’d go back to Florida because it was too cold up there. But I started to stay later because it’s beautiful when the trees change. They don’t do that in Florida,” he said.
Danny said he remembers longtime local jazz musician Lawrence ‘Scotty’ Scott tickling the ivories. “I was a fan of his,” he said.
He said because Els handled real estate she would see he had a place with reasonable rent to stay for the season.
The inn never obtained a liquor license so patrons who wanted alcohol could bring their own.
Danny, 60, worked at the inn from 1974 until 2001-02 – nearly 30 years.
He said during his last several years he started to see men who were boys when he started working there coming to the inn with their own children.
“They were good years, and I’ll never forget them,” Danny said.
Danny wanted to know whether Park Avenue in front of the inn had ever gotten paved.
“Els was always trying to get that road paved,” he remembered. Els died in November 1999 at age 75. Park Avenue where the inn was remains unpaved.
The inn’s end
In 2010, 75 years after it first opened, John and Leslie Inkster and family along with Leslie’s family decided to close the inn. Leslie, a second-cousin-once-removed-by-marriage to Hooper, bought the business in 2000.
Before she purchased the inn with former husband Stuart Vining, grandson of original owners Jesse and Alice Gundry, Leslie had worked a decade side-by-side with Hooper in the inn and restaurant.
In an open letter to customers the Inksters wrote of their enjoyment serving others and fond memories of the inn.
But, they wrote, for most of the year there weren’t many people in the neighborhood and they thought it was too isolated to raise a family there.
They said they would move into a subdivision that had children and families their age.
In closing they wrote:
“This transition is bittersweet for us, and for some in the community, tragic. Memories abound of when the restaurant was booming, the afternoon parties welcomed the summer, the previous owners, Jesse and Alice Gundry and Elizabeth Hooper, the sounds of Scotty on the piano, especially during Sunday brunch and the explosions of laughter on the back patio.
“Also, the quiet walks to and from the hustle and bustle of Rehoboth Avenue are still etched in the minds of the few with whom we've shared this news. May these memories always be cherished.”