Ocean-block restaurant lore on Rehoboth Avenue
Seems like I hit a nerve a few weeks ago when I rattled off a list of Rehoboth eateries that are 35 or more years old. Many of the emails I received centered on the Robin Hood restaurant and the family of long-gone eateries associated with that Rehoboth Avenue icon. Their story is fascinating.
The Robin Hood became the Robin Hood in 1968 under the new ownership of Harry and Niki Tsoukalas. Sadly, we lost Harry last year, but his legacy lives on. The Robin Hood was originally the Robert Lee restaurant, opened in 1948. New owner Harry Tsoukalas didn't want to make waves in the rather insular Rehoboth Beach of '68, so he changed the name ... but only just a bit.
Twenty-seven-year-old Harry arrived in Wilmington from Greece in '57 with his brothers, George and Nick. They learned the restaurant biz from their uncle Charlie at Wilmington's Presto restaurant where the Tsoukalas boys met head cook Tony Apostolopolous. Tony was the first to venture south to Rehoboth, opening the Delaware Room restaurant on Rehoboth Avenue next to the old Dairy Queen. The place is now the T-shirt shop to the right of Chip Hearn's Ice Cream Store.
Harry's younger brother Nick bought the Country Squire restaurant (it preceded Seaside Thai in that spot and is now Semra's Mediterranean Grill) and ended up selling it to the Hearns in 1980. Tony loved this quiet seaside town and encouraged his friend Harry to check out a little ocean-block joint called the Robert Lee.
Now this is where we have to back up a bit. Harry returned to Greece for a time, and came back in '65 with Niki as his bride. But all was not well in Wilmington. Niki was frightened by the civil unrest following the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., so when they vacationed in Rehoboth Beach, she was captivated. "It reminded me of my home," she smiles.
Well, if mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy, so her devoted husband bought the Robert Lee and made their home in Sussex. The Tsoukalas boys' emigration southward didn't end with Harry and Nick. George, the oldest, owned the Sea Wood restaurant on Rehoboth Avenue in the space to the left of Grotto Pizza. Grotto eventually razed the building to make room for their outdoor patio. Both Nick and their friend Tony are memorialized on marble plaques; one in front of Go Fish!, and the other in front of Louie's Pizza.
I remember when the Robin Hood was open 24 hours. Many a nighttime scrapple and cheese omelet was consumed in the late '60s by a skinny, long-haired yours truly after bangin' out rock 'n' roll 'til 2 a.m. by the Boardwalk in Ocean City. After they got their liquor license in '89, the Robin Hood began to close at night. Apparently it was a challenge to stop vacationers from partying just because of something as inconsequential as state liquor laws and last call.
Harry and Niki's son, Kosta, took over the Robin Hood, splitting time there with his mom. Dad used to keep a tight hold on a couple of things, including the recipe for their signature vegetable soup and his impossibly rich and fragrant rice pudding. Kosta still greets customers at the door and splits shifts in the kitchen with their cook. He laughs and reminisces, "Then dad walked in and got all the glory!"
Niki tells the story about a mandated evacuation in the face of an impending 1980s hurricane. Everything was battened down and they were all set to leave the round-the-clock eatery - but nobody could find the key to the front door. It had been that long since they'd locked it. So Niki's brother stayed behind to keep an eye on the place. The hurricane was a bust, and all's well that ends well, but nobody ever found that key. Such is the way on Rehoboth's history-rich ocean block.