As with anything creative, change is inevitable
Singer and songwriter Enya summed things up nicely when she wrote those words that are the title of this week’s column. Food service is akin to music: When done well, they both please the senses in undefinable ways while creating lasting memories. And that’s no less true here at the beach when a locally owned fine-dining restaurant can boast 47 years of longevity. Of course, when that restaurant is the Back Porch Café on the ocean block of Rehoboth Avenue, it’s easy to understand the accolades that sing the praises of the place that sparked the fine-dining trend here at the beach.
The Back Porch is a slice of Rehoboth history. It all started in the early ‘70s with a few disillusioned schoolteachers. Ted Fisher, who had a furniture/appliance store in Milford, was the only one with business experience. Victor Pisapia was a social studies teacher in Wilmington who worked at the old Dinner Bell Inn with former schoolteacher Libby Fisher, who was married to Ted.
Ted, Libby and Victor felt that affluent vacationers deserved something more upscale than, in partner Keith Fitzgerald’s words, “fried captain’s seafood platters.” Keith explains that the three were intrigued with the fact that most Rehoboth restaurateurs (at that time) worked for three months and took nine months off, while schoolteachers suffered the exact opposite timeline. The choice seemed obvious.
Libby eventually sold her share to the partners to pursue her successful jazz singing career as Libby York. Server/bartender Keith Fitzgerald became a partner when Victor left the group after wisely hiring a young and talented Leo Medisch as a broiler cook. Pisapia is still going strong as a restaurateur and celebrity chef in Australia.
Leo’s innate sensibilities with food earned him an off-season pilgrimage to New York to attend culinary school. His postgraduate position at the legendary Le Train Bleu firmly rooted him in the classic French style of cuisine. He joined forces as a partner with Ted and Keith.
As one of the only upscale restaurants at the beach to serve lunch, the need arose for a daytime chef. The partners hired a young Thai man named Siri Svasti. It wasn’t long before they discovered that this unassuming cook was actually a Thai prince whose childhood memories were of chefs preparing food for the palace royals in Bangkok. They sent him to the Culinary Institute of America, and he returned to become a partner. Several years after that, Ted Fisher died in a windsurfing accident, and his girlfriend Marilyn Spitz inherited his share in the restaurant. She was no stranger to the Back Porch, having worked there for several years already.
Siri had ambitions for expanding the Back Porch Café into a year-round business with an active catering service. But the schoolteachers were firmly attached to their three-months-on/nine-months-off philosophy. Fitzgerald sums it up: “We were committed to a lifestyle choice, not a business venture.” Siri moved on to make a name for himself as the most famous TV chef in Southeast Asia, boasting a collection of Thai- and English-language cookbooks, along with several popular TV cooking shows as Chef McDang. To this day he remains close friends with Keith and Marilyn. Leo confided to me that Siri, “…taught me the great satisfaction of preparing a perfect piece of fish, whether you’re cooking one or a hundred. We were the perfect team; Siri was out front, and I took care of the kitchen.” Sadly, Leo passed away over six years ago.
As luck would have it, 20 years before his untimely demise, Leo had hired a young sous chef named Tim McNitt. The toques worked elbow-to-elbow (quite literally) in the restaurant’s tiny kitchen to make Back Porch Café the culinary icon that it is today.
No discussion of Back Porch would be complete without mention of longtime barkeep Bee Neild, who has worked there just about the entire time; first as a server and now as head bartender. On busy nights, the unflappable Bee is an island of calm amid the summer onslaught.
The Back Porch Café opens for the 2020 season some time around the first week of May. And, true to form, there have been some changes! As of just a few weeks ago, remaining schoolteachers Keith Fitzgerald and Marilyn Spitz no longer own the landmark eatery. Longtime employees Dmitry Shubich and Aksana Voranova have purchased the restaurant. That’s the good news. Even better news is that Keith and Marilyn will remain on staff as, in Keith’s words, “facilitators and advisors.” Things get even better: Mixologist Bee Neild will remain at his post behind the bar, and Executive Chef Tim McNitt will remain in the kitchen. The late Leo Medisch described McNitt as “the guiding force for dinner,” and good food aficionados return again and again to enjoy that guiding force. Everything is in place to ensure that the ownership change will be seamless.
Over the years, Back Porch Café partners and staff (including the new proprietors) always agreed that they must be willing to invest in only the very best of everything. With the longtime owners in the wings to offer assistance, and the same people occupying key positions, there’s no doubt that that investment will continue to please the legions of Back Porch Café followers.