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It’s all about family at this Cape Region Mediterranean mainstay

October 2, 2020

I sort of miss the food halls that were so popular in the Ocean City area back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The Bonfire. Embers. Mario’s. Melvin’s. Phillips. Paul Revere. Big, noisy, beachy rooms full of happy vacationers. Some had buffets; others dished up heaping plates of comfort food.

One of my favorites from that era was Libby’s in Fenwick Island. The big white structure was all about polka dots and families with about a million kids scarfing down everything from pancakes to chicken to burgers.

The restaurant was owned and operated by the late Ruth Steele, and the concept became so popular that she opened another in Rehoboth Beach in 1970 in the space now occupied by Crabby Dick’s. That business was sold, but the new owners didn’t last long, so in 1979, Steele’s family pitched in to transform the site into the Lamp Post restaurant. Ruth’s grandsons Rich and Mark literally grew up there, doing everything from washing dishes to running food to seating guests. This trial by fire honed their skills, and in December 2002 they decided to go out on their own and open what would become the wildly popular Café Azafrán in Lewes. The Mediterranean-flavored menu reflected Mark’s travels abroad, as Rich kept a close eye on the kitchen.

The tiny restaurant looked like a coffee shop, but quickly became one of the preferred breakfast and lunch spots in Lewes. After the family sold Lamp Post in 2003, they added a Mediterranean-style dinner menu to that cozy little spot on Market Street.

Things did so well in Lewes that in 2010 they opened a second Café Azafrán on the ocean block of Rehoboth’s Baltimore Avenue. One thing led to another (as it so often does with family businesses) and in 2013 the Lewes location was closed.

Just a couple of years ago, Rich “returned to his roots” by opening Olive & Oats, a mini-Azafrán right next door to their original Lewes location. The breakfast and lunch spot is in the old Half Full/Patty’s Carryout spot behind King’s Ice Cream. Owner Rich Steele now concentrates his efforts on both locations, serving up Azafrán’s famous baked oatmeal breakfasts in Lewes while keeping culinary-savvy Rehoboth Beach diners smiling over his flavorful small plates on Baltimore Avenue.

Rich’s son Ryan is the kitchen boss in Rehoboth. And in spite of all the recent damage inflicted on restaurants, Café Azafrán continues to carve out a secure niche for itself; standing toe-to-toe against any of the finest eateries in town.

Rich’s paella night, a summertime tradition, caught on quickly in Rehoboth Beach. Several restaurants offer paella, but Rich Steele brings out the big guns: Flames from a circular gas burner power a 4-foot diameter skillet bubbling with onions, peppers, tomatoes, garlic, green beans, mushrooms, Arroz Calasparra imported from Spain, over $80 worth of Spanish saffron along with generous portions of snow-white calamari, spicy chorizo, scallops, shrimp, chicken, clams and Indian River mussels.

A combination of top-secret spices is stirred into a savory house-made stock. He builds the huge creation in front of hungry guests (reservations only!). The heady aroma that fills the back dining area separates Rich Steele’s paella from all the rest. Azafrán translates to saffron in English, so it’s only right that he use the best and most expensive.

In the off-season, Rich only does pop-up paella feasts, but you can be informed simply by giving them your email address at their website. Rich has been performing the hallowed paella ceremony for over seven years.

Café Azafrán is still open every day except Sunday. Happy hour is still from 3 to 5 p.m. and dinner starts at 5. My pick hits include the still-crispy haricots verts bubbled in blue cheese, hazelnuts and butter, along with the veal sausage simmered forever with plump white beans. You can make an entire meal out of the tapas menu. Steak Night is still on Thursdays, and celebrity barkeep Holly Lane still works her chemical magic on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.

You can get Café Azafrán’s new fall menu delivered to your front door simply by going to Deliveroso.com. You can also pick up curbside by checking out the menu at CafeAzafran.com and then calling the restaurant at 302-227-8100. When you pull up out front, simply give them another call and your car will take on a wonderful aroma for the drive home.

  • 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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