A hidden gem - and a lot of history - on Wilmington Avenue
How many of you remember Mimi’s Fruit Bowl? The little health-food stand opened almost 35 years ago on the ocean block of Rehoboth Avenue near Louie’s. The owners’ son, Rob, commuted from Pennsylvania to help his mom and dad on the weekends. They eventually moved across the street where Cilantro restaurant now stands, naming the modest snack bar Eden Garden Café.
It was just sandwiches, pastas and salads, but Rob Stitt loved the larger space. His entrepreneurial spirit came to life when a friend graduated from culinary school and suggested he bring new world cuisine to the beach. Young Rob liked the idea of managing an upscale eatery – until his friend left for greener pastures. He had no choice but to don an apron, grab a spatula, and cook. Undaunted, he added a bar in season two.
Around that same time, Betsy LeRoy’s Pizza by Elizabeths was churning out Wilmington-style pies next door to the Middle-Eastern-flavored Camel’s Hump (now home to JAM Bistro) over on Baltimore Avenue. She’s still whippin’ up pizzas in Greenville, but after the Rehoboth location morphed into the upscale and jazzy Ocean Club, the now full-fledged restaurateur Rob moved into that space – the home of today’s Eden.
The mandatory 24/7 commitment to restauranting can take its toll. By year three, Rob had had it. He assumed there weren’t many people crazy enough to make that commitment, but he listed it for sale anyway. It sold in two weeks. Washington, D.C. entrepreneurs Jeff McCracken and Mark Hunker were just crazy enough to not only keep Eden successful, but to spawn JAM Bistro. “I relaxed,” Stitt smiles. “I worked here and there, but mainly I relaxed.”
It was at Regan Derrickson’s Ponos and Nalu restaurants in Dewey Beach that he met bar manager and inveterate surfer Matt Sprenkle. Matt emigrated south to Matt Haley’s Catch 54, but was itching to do something on his own. Like most of us who thought retirement would be fun, Stitt’s “relaxed” quickly morphed into “bored.” After a year in Dewey Beach, he tended bar at the original Salt Air and eventually opened Bayside Bar-BQ in Long Neck.
In the meantime, just a few steps from where Wilmington Avenue meets the ocean, Beal Thomas (who opened Iguana Grill in ’94) and transplant Ken Gerhart were struggling with their new and increasingly unwieldy Cosmopolitan Grill. Stitt and Sprenkle knew that the worst time to open a resort eatery is at the end of the season, but Cosmo was nicely appointed, and the owners were anxious to move on. So, in late summer 2011, the guys slapped on a new coat of paint, changed this and that, and drew on Sprenkle’s surfing lingo to launch Shorebreak Lodge. Within a week, it was a favorite locals’ hangout. Sprenkle’s surfer dude persona and the culinary skills of Stitt and his kitchen team were the perfect match. Early last year, and in keeping with his history, Rob decided to move on. As with boat ownership, many people say the happiest times in a restaurateur’s life are (1) when he or she opens the restaurant, and (2) when he or she is able to sell the restaurant.