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Brave entrepreneurs paved the way to our dining destination

August 20, 2021

The untimely passing of Chez la Mer founder Nancy Wolfe Wayson got me thinking about the people who stepped up to the plate to open restaurants at a seasonal resort - back when it just didn’t make sense to open a restaurant in a seasonal resort. I still pause at the vacant lot at 22 Wilmington Ave. that used to play host to La La Land restaurant and bar. This iconic hangout holds so many memories; summer evenings dotted with airborne bubbles, presided over by wisecracking leopard-haired barkeep David Engle. Ahhh.

To the average vacationer, Rehoboth Beach is an exuberant Oz, where ribbons of umbrellas flutter in the sand, taffy-chewin’ tourists stroll the Boardwalk, and restaurants somehow appear (and disappear) with no apparent consequence. What they don’t see are the talented businesspeople behind the scenes, many of whom gambled their livelihoods to bring excitement to this tiny town long before it was what it is today.

Any list would certainly include Dominick Pulieri (Grotto Pizza); Joyce Felton, Victor Pisapia, Libby and Ted Fisher, Keith Fitzgerald, Leo Medisch and Marilyn Spitz (Blue Moon, Back Porch Cafe, Tijuana Taxi, Surfside Diner, Westside Café and the Strand in various combinations); Chip Hearn (Country Squire, Starboard, The Ice Cream Store, Peppers); Gus Svolis (Gus & Gus’ Place); Louie, Tim and Tony Gouvas (Louie’s Pizza); Betsy LeRoy (Pizza by Elizabeths); Rich and Ryan Steele (Café Azafran), Kevin Reading (Espuma, Nage); Shawn and Danielle Xiong (Confucius), Jon Orlando (Potpourri), Steve Taylor (Anne Marie’s), Nicholas Papantinas and Achilleas Vounatsos (Ground Zero), Harry Tsoukalas (opened Robin Hood after it was Goodie Garden and Robert Lee Snak Bar), Matt Haley (currently 12 busy SoDel Concepts eateries); Joan and Nick Caggiano (Nicola Pizza); Susan Wood (Cultured Pearl); Justine Zegna (Planet X); Georgette Schaefer and Pat Whittier (Plumb Loco which eventually became Dos Locos under the ownership of Joe Zuber and Darryl Ciarlante); Hugh Fuller (Purple Parrot); George, Soula and Irene Vrentzos (Corner Grill); Roland Buckingham (Catchers); Jeff Hamer and partners (Arena’s, Fins); Terry Plowman (The Front Page, eventually sold to Beal Thomas who opened Iguana Grill); Richie and Marcia Shihadeh (The Camel’s Hump), John DiLeo (Casa DiLeo); Greg Talcott (Third Edition), Sike Sharigan (Fran O’Brien’s, Zebra and Obie’s), Fusion (Jonathan Spivak); Yolanda Pineda (Mariachi); Rob Stitt (the original Eden and Shorebreak Lodge), and Sydney Arzt (Sydney’s Jazz Club). Some are still with us. Sadly, some are not. There are so many more both in and out of downtown Rehoboth (Sir Boyce’s, Sir Guy’s, DiNardo’s Crab House [which followed The Sea Horse], Dinner Bell Inn, Country Cupboard, Twig’s, The Canyon, Adriatico, and The Homestead [Oscar’s] come to mind), but paper is paper, and I’m allowed only so much of it.

This gastronomic hall of fame also includes London-born Alison Blyth. For three years she managed a hair salon in Bermuda, dreaming of a career in theatrical makeup. Around 1980, she moved to Washington, D.C. to cut hair at a salon on Capitol Hill that was adjacent to the quirky (and long gone) Two Quail restaurant. It was there that she met Houston Vaughan.

One of the partners at Two Quail owned Astral Plane, a tiny eatery in a tiny town called Rehoboth Beach. Who wouldn’t want to work near the ocean? And Alison did just that, until Sydney Arzt moved Side Street Café out of 22 Wilmington Ave. and morphed Astral Plane into her Cajun-flavored jazz club.

The potential of 22 Wilmington was not lost on Houston, Alison and her roommate Vinci Panzella. Blyth imported Robert Carney from his garde-manger position at Washington, D.C.’s posh Shoreham Hotel, and they were off and running.

The partners sold La La Land in ’94. Connections were made, ideas were hatched, dollars were spent, and Alison eventually partnered up with Steve Webster (Coffee Mill) to turn Savannah’s at 39 Wilmington into a pan-Asian bistro called Yum Yum. The building finally gave way to the expansion of The Avenue Hotel complex.

In the winter of 2002, Alison and a former co-worker at Astral Plane purchased 24 Rehoboth Ave., converting Joe’s Italian Ice into Go Fish!, a British-accented fish ‘n’ chip shop. Business increased so rapidly that she created a quick-service version out on Coastal Highway. Go Brit!’s menu mirrors that of the downtown mothership, but with casual counter service.

When she opened Go Brit!, Alison’s flyer proclaimed, “More British are coming!” But the truth of the matter is that this particular Brit had been working tirelessly here in Rehoboth for many years. She and the other pioneers listed (or not listed) above certainly earned their success in this Business of Eating at the beach.

  • 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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