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Business breeds business in the third block of The Avenue

September 28, 2018

It all started with a little gas station near the corner of Rehoboth and Lake avenues where Catchers Restaurant is now located. Keith Martin’s grandfather operated a taxi service from there, and in the late ‘50s he opened Peg’s Diner just one door east. Peg was his wife, and the little diner eventually became the Homestead Restaurant, specializing in breakfast and lunch. When the Martins decided to extend their hours to include dinner, they renamed it Oscar’s Seafood. They eventually closed Oscar’s, and the space became home to the fledgling Purple Parrot, which remained there until around 2004.

In the meantime, their daughter Peggy (born in Rehoboth) and her husband Bill (a Lewes native) gave rise to young Keith, who eventually married Sherri. Alongside the restaurant were several small stores, including a cute little place called Mostly Irish. In 1994 the Martins built the Comfort Inn on Coastal Highway and sold it in 1997. They loved downtown Rehoboth and watched with great interest as the little beach town slowly morphed not only into the Nation’s Summer Capital - but also a burgeoning culinary mecca for vacationing foodies.

And along with those foodies came the need for additional places to stay. As vacation season began to extend into the late spring and early fall, the demand for high-quality lodging increased. Keith elaborates: “Rehoboth needed more rooms, and my parents, Sherri and I wanted a facility to compare with lontime landmarks like the Bellmoor, the Avenue Inn and the Boardwalk Plaza.” And thus was born Hotel Rehoboth in 2008.

The classic style and sunny color of the building have already made Hotel Rehoboth a landmark in its own right. The Martins’ goal was casual elegance, and their 52 rooms are accented by muted yellows, blues, creams and golds to evoke sun, sand and sea.

The hotel’s commanding presence helped legitimize the gaggle of restaurants that now gather nearby. Located just off the lobby is SoDel Concepts’ Italian brainchild, Lupo Italian Kitchen, where Tuscan-themed dishes are served up in simple yet elegant surroundings.

Hotel Rehoboth is flanked to the west by one of Rehoboth’s hidden gems, Roland Buckingham’s Catchers restaurant. This unassuming little spot might be dwarfed by its bright-yellow next-door neighbor, but Buckingham dishes up big tastes such as his beachy and informal scallops wrapped in bacon, fried shrimp and mini-crabcakes. Fine dining? Of course not. A fun, family-friendly eatery where everything is cooked fresh and to order? Yup. And every dish is served up with a side of Roland’s engaging sense of humor.

After the ill-fated Beachside finally gave up the ghost, I asked Fins Hospitality Group boss Jeff Hamer (1) why he wanted to take over that space, and (2) why he named it El Jefe Gordo. He told me that he had always envisioned a kid-friendly Mexican concept in that spot just west of Catchers where the gas station used to be. In answer to question number 2, he just smiled and rubbed his moderately ample midsection. Al fresco dining is the name of the game at Jeff’s new eatery, and on many nights El Jefe Gordo (translation: The Big Boss) can be seen in the kitchen of his namesake Tex-Mex joint whompin’ up burritos, tacos and some of the best Mexican Street Corn around.

On the east side of the hotel is one of El Jefe Gordo’s (the guy, not the restaurant) very first ventures, Fins Fish House. After the recent remodel, the popular spot is even more user friendly. And this concept has given rise to equally popular spots in Bethany Beach, Berlin, Md., Lewes, and on Coastal Highway in Rehoboth.

So guests at Hotel Rehoboth will never go hungry! Keith Martin speaks reverently about the businesses in Rehoboth Beach. “We’re all in this together, and without all of us there wouldn’t be business for any of us.” Another perk is that Hotel Rehoboth is one of the gathering spots for the weekly downtown restaurant tours operated by EatingRehoboth.com.

It’s fun to put a face on various businesses in town. Getting to know Keith, his mom Peggy, Jeff Hamer, Roland Buckingham and so many other entrepreneurs has given me even more respect for the brave locals who step up to the plate to make Rehoboth Beach an even better place to visit - and to live.

  • 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.