Memories of a Rehoboth restaurant past

May 17, 2024

One of the popular topics on my weekly radio show is the history of some of our long-gone – but still treasured – Cape Region restaurants. A few weeks ago I wrote about the iconic Dinner Bell Inn that was opened and operated by local Realtor Butch Emmert’s grandmother. I received an avalanche of emails (is 26 an avalanche?) sharing memories of the Dinner Bell and suggesting other cherished eateries.
Diagonally across Second Street from where the Dinner Bell used to be is a historic building that formerly housed the Rehoboth Beach jail. Every couple of months, I get an email or a text that mentions Chez la Mer, one of our beloved dining spots that has occupied that space. Nancy Wolfe Wayson, its founder and operator, is sadly no longer with us, but her unpretentious, award-winning French restaurant attracted legions of faithful diners from the Washington, D.C. area. Chez la Mer contributed immeasurably to our Cape Region’s reputation as the Nation’s Summer Capital. To this day, there are websites and blogs that sing the praises of her legendary bouillabaisse and pâté.

Nancy loved the cuisine of southern France, and she 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 until the day it closed.

In spite of her talents in the kitchen, Nancy told me 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 her crab imperial and veal are spoken of in hushed tones by those who know.

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% of her guests respected that contract. Of course there were always the self-entitled few who rudely resented her notice that another party was waiting (and that the first party had agreed to the time limit). 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 when a very nice woman contacted me through the Cape Gazette offices 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 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.

Bob Yesbek writes and talks beach eats nonstop. He can be reached at


  • 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

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