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Beloved restaurateur lives on in our memories and in her recipes

August 6, 2021

One of the not-so-fun parts of getting older (I’ll just leave that there) is that new friends can sometimes become dear friends who can be taken away from us way too soon. Last week’s untimely passing of Nancy Wolfe Wayson, founder and operator of Chez la Mer restaurant, was a shock to many, including myself. I had the pleasure of interviewing her several times for my columns, and her appearances on my radio show were always upbeat, full of laughter and fascinating behind-the-scenes stories.

Her unpretentious, award-winning French restaurant in downtown Rehoboth attracted legions of faithful diners from the Washington, D.C. area, contributing immeasurably to our Cape Region’s reputation as a dining destination. To this day there are still websites and blogs that sing the praises of her legendary bouillabaisse and pâté.

Nancy loved the cuisine of southern France, and regularly whipped up that bouillabaisse and pâté for family and friends. When she moved to Rehoboth Beach in 1975, they urged her to share her skills with the world. Blissfully unaware of the likely pitfalls, she opened Chez la Mer in a beach cottage at the corner of Second and Wilmington. “The cottage had good bones, and the stucco interior whispered, ‘South of France,’” she told me. She renovated the building, and it wasn’t until corporations had been formed, menus had been printed and signs had been manufactured that she discovered the French grammar gaffe that would live forever in Rehoboth Beach history. Chez la Mer actually translates to “at sea.” She intended it to mean “house by the sea,” properly expressed as “Maison de la Mer.” Nobody cared. Chez la Mer was busy from June 1980 to the day it closed.

In spite of her talents in the kitchen, she laughed as she told me that she never cooked again after the restaurant opened. “I hired chefs,” she said. She even worked as a line cook - taking orders from those chefs - so she could keep tabs on her cherished dishes. Even today, the memories of recipes that included her crab imperial and veal are revered in hushed tones by those who know the difference.

One of the things that set Nancy’s wildly popular eatery apart was her reservations policy. Because of the long lines, she was forced to require reservations, but granted them with one caveat: she politely warned every party that they were expected to show up on time, and, in deference to later reservations, their stay would be limited to a reasonable amount of time. She smiled as she told me that 99 percent of her guests respected that contract. Of course there were always the self-entitled few who rudely resented her polite reminder that another party was waiting (and that the first party had agreed to this). But her many regulars appreciated her regard for their comfort and the efforts she made to ensure efficient service so they could enjoy a leisurely dinner. “It was sometimes very, very difficult,” Nancy said. “But it was a matter of professionalism and respect.”

Her regard for professionalism, customer service and respect even outlived the restaurant. I got to experience that firsthand about a year or so ago when a very nice woman contacted me through Cape Gazette and asked if I could put her in touch with Nancy. I closely guard my personal contacts with our restaurateurs, so I asked her why. She said that her husband had been a loyal fan of Chez la Mer and she wanted to surprise him on his birthday with the actual bouillabaisse that helped put the restaurant on the map. She was hoping to get the recipe and attempt to reproduce it in her kitchen.

I contacted Nancy, who immediately lived up to her reputation for never doing anything halfway: she not only connected with the lady, but ensured the success of the birthday surprise by engaging one of her former chefs to personally cook up a pot of that soup for the party. The surprise dinner went off without a hitch, and Nancy could not have been more pleased to accommodate the unusual request. That’s the kind of lady she was.

I’m sad about her passing, but I feel fortunate to have been her friend and to have helped spread the word about this exceptional woman who, without the slightest bit of restaurant business experience, plowed forward with her dreams and raised the bar for quality and professionalism in Rehoboth Beach dining.

  • 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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