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A beginner’s guide to late-afternoon sips and bites

March 20, 2020

Well, with all this craziness happening to our beloved restaurant industry here at the beach, I thought I’d do a little shout out to some of our hardworking restaurant people. I suspect that one of the best ways to maybe get your attention is to pair it with happy hour. We can fantasize, can’t we?

Every so often I host a radio show segment I call Delmarvalous Bartenders. For about an hour, I explore the back story of these hardworking men and women who, from one minute to the next, can go from being a chemist to a counselor to a host to a social director to a confidant - and even the occasional personal chauffeur. (We won’t go into how I know that - David Engel and Hari Cameron, you are both sworn to secrecy!)

Bartenders see their guests from a unique perspective. Though the French proverb, “A drunk mind speaks a sober heart” might not be entirely true, bartenders, like psychotherapists, often have to keep much of what they hear to themselves.

It’s no secret that one of the mainstays of the business of eating here at the beach is happy hour. Designed to bring guests into the restaurant early, it makes them feel welcome enough to perhaps stick around for dinner or at least order another sip. Bartenders look forward to happy hour, and some of our seasoned mixologists here in the Cape Region have specific opinions as to what makes the perfect afternoon pick-me-up.

Ginger Breneman, one of the star bartenders at Fork + Flask, tells me that it’s the special deals on the guests’ favorite food and drink items that brings ‘em in. “Time frame is also important,” says Ginger, “because it allows for people to come from work and to unwind.” As a former restaurant owner, Ginger knows her stuff. We look forward to seeing her smiling face behind the bar again very soon!

Bethany Blues in Lewes overflows with happy hour patrons virtually every night. Former barkeep Camillo Caimaricone (aka Tommy Bunns - now slingin’ cocktails at JD Shuckers near Lewes) says, "A great happy hour is made of variety, simplicity, and affordability. Not to mention a nice atmosphere. People want a variety of options when it comes to food and drinks, but also want them uncomplicated and easy on the wallet - enough to keep them coming back and telling their friends about it."

Blackwall Hitch in downtown Rehoboth Beach is lucky to have longtime local mixologist Patrick Hurley behind the bar. Pat is no stranger to the business of sipping. He was quick to respond to my question about what makes for the best late-afternoon experience: “I think a great happy hour starts with the food. Cheap eats. Cheap, but quality eats. When a restaurant discounts their popular offerings, that gets people in and excited. And it’s no surprise that people love to pay less for booze. Add a great bartender (like me!) into the mix and you know why places are busy between about 3 and 7 most days of the week.” Pat’s going to kill me for leaving that “like me” in his quote, but when you meet him at Blackwall Hitch, you’ll enjoy his sense of humor.

Anyone who has lived in the Cape Region for a while remembers Alison Blyth’s LaLa Land. One person presided over that sparkling bar for virtually the entire time LaLa Land dominated Wilmington Avenue: David Engel and his terminally dry sense of humor. Back then he was distinguished by his one-of-a-kind leopard-spotted hair color. I met David many years ago at the Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington, D.C., and this guy is the consummate pro. He reveals some of his philosophy: “Hmmm … what makes a good HH … I would say, making people feel as if they are at an exclusive party in your living room. Meaning, if it’s appropriate, introducing people to one other so they can start talking. You’ve broken the ice, and now they’re getting to know one another. I try to do this as much as possible; they remember that they met at your bar and they come back because it was a positive experience! Oh, and also, if they order wine, I always let them taste it first. I never go on descriptions alone: Their taste buds are better than my descriptions.” David Engel helped open (and close) the bar at a(MUSE.) restaurant (now but a part of Rehoboth history), and is currently enjoying a well-earned vacation before he brings his talents to The Pines in Rehoboth Beach. He finally outgrew the hair – and the five hours it took to color it.

No treatise on bars & booze would be complete without mention of Johnny Farquhar, longtime mixologist and now co-owner of 1776 Steakhouse. Johnny is a man of few words, but when he does use them they’re always funny. Co-barkeep Matt Sprenkle also brings a lot of history to 1776.  Try their array of rare Trappist beers! In that same vein, good conversation is never a problem at Touch of Italy in Rehoboth Beach if Kymmr Barker, Tracy Siranides or Jill Anderson are on pouring duty.

Denizens of downtown Rehoboth are familiar with vintage-cocktail expert Rob Bagley. He never met a bottle of bitters he didn’t like, and he’s currently shakin’, stirrin’, mullin’ and pourin’ at Michy’s on The Highway. Around the beginning of the month (if all this closure stuff is over by then) he will return downtown to the soon-to-open Port 251 in the old Beachside/El Jefe Gordo spot next to Lupo Italian Kitchen.

Bars and restaurants pair perfectly with music, and on Thursday nights, French-speaking barkeep Holly Lane juggles all three at Café Azafran on the ocean block of Baltimore Avenue. When I interviewed her on Delmarvalous Bartenders a few years ago I asked her what the hardest thing was about mixing drinks, serving food and singing - all at the same time. She instantly replied, “When somebody orders a complicated drink in the middle of a song.” Gives a whole new meaning to multitasking.

Dewey Beach native Steve “Monty” Montgomery started out as a teenager cleaning the grease traps at The Starboard in Dewey Beach. He is now the co-owner, responsible for a busy breakfast, lunch and dinner along with an army of bartenders and a calendar full of special events. Monty knows of what he speaks: “Let’s face it: It’s five o'clock somewhere. So why limit happy to just an hour? Everyone has their thing to promote those two favorite words, and at The Starboard, our happy hour starts at 9 a.m. sharp, when bloody marys and crushes are the thing!  Again, to each his - or her - own, but we start early in Dewey. Whether happy hour to you is the reward at the end of a tough workday, or the start of a big night on the town, that special time can’t help but put a smile on your face.

“In its basic form, happy hour pairs smaller appetizer specials with reduced drink prices. From wines by the glass and draft beer specials to the fancier martinis and craft cocktails, most everyone in the hospitality industry makes it their business to feature some sort of happy hour special. For whatever reason, there's something magical about the late afternoon and early evening, and I believe that that’s what makes happy hour one of the most special things ever created!” I couldn’t have said it better, Monty. So I won’t even try.

Let’s all think positive and help our local food industry people get through this. In the meantime … think about happy hours to come.

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at byesbek@capegazette.com.

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