Restaurants old and new, east and west of Route 1

May 8, 2022

I have to say that the Back Porch Café has been my favorite restaurant since its inception in the early 1970s. It's never open on my birthday or wedding anniversary, but I manage to splurge there several times in the summer. There are always old friends around, and the preparation of the flaming house coffee is a real spectacle to behold.

Before then it was The Avenue Restaurant on Rehoboth Avenue, owned by Helen and Alvin Simpler. When I was a teenager, our family went there every Friday, and sometimes, if I was lucky, Saturday night, too. It served wonderful classic American dishes like crab imperial and braised beef, and the key lime pie was to die for! Then I would walk next door to The Art Age, an art supply store, and visit with Mr. Howard Schroeder, who to me was the first example of a "real artist,” as I someday wished to be.

I was at a recent class reunion, and classmates were waxing nostalgic about the Sea Horse and the Dinner Bell, also old favorites. Since we moved back down here at the end of 2016, I've been fortunate enough to go out to dinner both Friday and Saturday nights like my parents did. When we spent our summers on Rodney Street in Dewey Beach, they used to go out for date nights to the Bottle & Cork or the Henlopen Hotel.

Jeff made lists of both economical and expensive restaurants. Now we have begun to search western Sussex for restaurants that are down home, Southern, or let's face it, affordable. We still venture to Rehoboth and Lewes establishments part of the time to splurge. Feeling somewhat like food critics, we like to discuss our experiences afterward.

There have been some humorous happenings. Once we visited a local diner a few times for, shall we say, a really economical dinner. One evening, I ordered a Bloody Mary from a waitress who seemed beleaguered, flustered and naive even though there wasn't a crowd there to beleaguer her. The cocktail had always been well prepared before, served by a waiter with flair, and containing celery, olives and even carrot curls, but this waitress brought me a juice glass of tomato juice, with maybe a teaspoon of vodka and one ice cube. She then proceeded to say she couldn't make a Greek salad. Finally, a more seasoned waitress, looking bemused but exasperated, brought me a competent version of my order. The feckless first waitress appeared with our main entrees and asked cheerfully, "Who's hungry?"

Later on, the waitresses were assembled in a group nearby. A woman who appeared to be the head of them all was preaching to them about their duties at the breakfast buffet the next morning, and about server comportment in general. Finally, amused, I asked, "Are you the head waitress?" "No, I'm the dishwasher,” she replied, to my amazement! Finally our bill arrived, and it was for two corned beef hash breakfasts – nothing remotely like what we had ordered. If this all sounds like Mel’s Diner from the old TV show "Alice" or the movie "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore,” it was. Where is good old waitress Flo when you need her?

Then there's a local Italian restaurant whose owner is like a well-known character on a Seinfeld episode, and all of the patrons feed on the hope that they will make him like them, because he's temperamental – or it could be that they keep coming back because his food is good and reasonably priced, too. My husband's sister went there and ordered a bottle of Italian sparkling water – on ice. He told her it was chilled enough, and it didn't need ice!

My search has rendered some real gems west of Route 1. One is on Route 13 near Seaford, a diner called Stargate. It's a 40-minute drive through rural pumpkin fields in the fall and definitely worth the trip. The immaculate salad bar is phenomenal, well stocked with crisp choices chilled on ice. The usual offerings are lettuce, cherry tomatoes, shredded carrots, bean salad, piles of thinly sliced onions and marinated mushrooms. But they also have the most fabulous potato salad, coleslaw, and even a chilled mountain of boiled eggs!

Their 2 for $25 special is a real good deal. You get either soup or salad bar, an entrée, and a pudding or ice cream dessert. Our favorite entrée is the broiled flounder. I also recommend the Maryland crab soup, loaded with vegetables and even dotted with Brussels sprouts, a first for me.

Another favorite restaurant west of Route 1 "down Ellendale way" is the Southern Grille, where there are many Southern offerings as promised by the name. Lima bean soup with dumplings, homemade yeast rolls, and even chittlins (aka chitterlings) and muskrat for the true down-homers. And of course, there’s pretzel salad, a square of shimmering strawberry jello with a luscious foundation of cream cheese and pretzels. The cakes lined up in the refrigerated display case are worthy of a painting. The people who own and work in the Southern Grille are great as well. We've had a dinner and a breakfast paid for by kind patrons who said they were paying it forward. Our first Thanksgiving here in Sussex, a waitress there invited us to her Zion AME Church down the street from the restaurant for its free dinner. I've always believed that the best Thanksgiving dinners, like the very first one, are shared by new friends, and this was no exception.

Finally, to complete my tour, we happened upon Bella Capri, a real find of an Italian restaurant in Georgetown across from the Walmart store. The owner is from Naples, Italy, and he offers great Italian classics and nightly specials that can be of 4-star quality! One memorable entrée for me was a beautiful, gleaming oval dish plated with pumpkin ravioli in a luscious sauce, and studded with shiny black-shelled mussels and shrimp. Even the salads that accompany the dinner are generous. The bread is hot and crusty. Thursday is half-price wine night, and the waitstaff is friendly and efficient.

So, there ends my tour of eateries in eastern and western Sussex County, both old and new. I'll never taste The Avenue's luncheon special or homemade key lime pie again, but I’ll always remember that warm feeling all the way back home driving down Cave Neck Road after one of those weekend dinners.

  • Pam Bounds is a well-known artist living in Milton who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine art. She will be sharing humorous and thoughtful observations about life in Sussex County and beyond.

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