He may have been born and raised in Wilmington, but Paradise Grill owner Al Tortella considers himself Long Neck to the bone.
He has purposefully set things up so that he barely has to leave.
“If I have to go past the traffic light at County Bank, I know it’s a special occasion,” he said.
“The best times of my life are in Pot-Nets. My family has had a place here since 1967. They still have it. Pot-Nets was a place to come to and it always put a smile on my face. When I got older, I wanted to have a smile on my face all year round, so I moved down here. It was the best decision of my life to move to Long Neck,” Tortella said.
He had been in the car business until 2012, when he purchased what was then called Bayside BBQ. It was the first restaurant Tortella had ever worked in, and at the time, it had 95 seats and 18 employees.
“I didn’t know anything about it,” he said. “My fianceé was a bartender at the time, and she told me they wanted to sell it.”
Tortella quickly renamed the restaurant Paradise Grill - the name came from fianceé/bar manager Kristen Collins - and set to work on expanding. He said his inspiration was the long-running Ocean City, Md. restaurant and bar, Seacrets. Tortella said he loved the island theme and the layout, with multiple stages, bars and seating areas in a restaurant right on the water. He said he wanted his version to be more family-friendly, given that much of Pot-Nets Bayside’s community consists of retirees with their grandchildren or families on vacation.
Paradise Grill is clearly a passion for Tortella. Tall and bearded, he speaks rapidly and excitedly about the restaurant and its future. Walking around the restaurant, he chats up staff and friendly boaters alike.
In the seven seasons since Tortella bought it, Paradise Grill has expanded to include 1,300 seats, 350 employees, three stages, a raw bar, oyster bar, three bars, an ice cream and funnel cake stand, and two play areas for kids, including a pirate ship. Tortella also owns the adjacent marina, named Paradise Marina, with 82 slips.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing. When the restaurant sought to expand in 2015, a group of Pot-Nets Bayside residents protested, and a first application to the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission was denied before a second one was approved. Despite that, the restaurant’s popularity has only grown, to the point where it hosts not one but two fishing tournaments: the Flounder Pounder Open, to be held starting Wednesday, Aug. 14, and the Paradise By The Bay tournament, held July 20. In addition to the restaurant’s other amenities, there is a fish scale in the rear of the restaurant.
Tortella said his biggest challenge is maintaining everything, particularly in regard to parking and traffic. The surrounding parking lot only has so many spaces, he said, so he is creating some off-site parking near the entrance to Pot-Nets Bayside. Customers would be transported in using a jitney-style service that would drop them off at the entrance to Paradise Grill.
“The footprint is what it is now. There’s no more room to go anywhere. Now it’s being able to control what we have and make things better,” Tortella said.
Besides parking, Tortella said the biggest obstacles are the seasonal changes and weather. Paradise Grill is open from May 1 until late September, and because much of the seating is outdoors - the main bar and dining area is covered - it is at the mercy of the weather. Tortella said this is part of the reason why Paradise Grill is open seasonally and not year-round.
“If the weather says 60 degrees and you come here on the water, with the temps and the breeze, it’s about 10 degrees cooler. We sell a lot of hooded sweatshirts, but people tend to not to want to hang out,” he said.
The other reason for seasonal operation is staffing. Tortella said most of the staff has fall jobs or are students, so they usually begin leaving by mid-August.
While his flagship venture has garnered the most attention, Tortella has two other bar/restaurants in Long Neck to keep him busy: Paradise Pub, which is open year-round, and his latest acquisition, Seaside Grill in Pot-Nets Seaside.
Tortella said he plans to keep Seaside Grill largely as is.
“It’s not going to be another Paradise. It’s going to remain Seaside. That’s the brand we’re going to run with. We’re excited about it,” he said.
This season, Paradise Grill branched out into the beer business, collaborating with Crooked Hammock to create Paradise Pale Ale.
Tortella said Crooked Hammock is his favorite place to go in Delaware, and he wanted to create a beer for Paradise Grill.
“The cool thing is, we’ve done one beer, Paradise Pale Ale, and now in the works to do another one, the Paradise Pounder, which would come after our Flounder Pounder. We’re probably going to have to wait until after Labor Day for that,” he said.
Tortella said he admires restaurant groups like La Vida Hospitality, SoDel Concepts, Big Fish Restaurant Group and Steve Montgomery from the Starboard, and aspires to put Paradise Grill in that company some day. Still, even he marvels at how far Paradise Grill has come in seven years.
“It’s been a ride,” Tortella said. “It’s been an adventure. It’s trying to build something and have a place for everyone. I enjoy the business.”