There are not many things in life you can be sure of, except…
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of hearing longtime beach bartender and restaurateur Matt Sprenkle on a (brilliantly produced…) radio show. Turns out that Matt’s first job after graduating high school was working at Funland in Rehoboth Beach while he commuted back and forth to college. After three years on the Boardwalk, Matt signed on with Summer House owners Susan and Richard Krick to be the bouncer. (Their 23 years of ownership there is another great RB story.) During his 12-summer stint there, Matt moved from front-door enforcer to barback to bartender, remaining in the mixology position through the sale to Big Fish Restaurant Group.
When Regan Derrickson opened his Hawaiian-themed Nalu in Dewey Beach, Matt jumped aboard as bar manager. This is where it gets interesting: While working a part-time shift at Catch 54 in Fenwick (beach bartenders are known for getting around), Matt was approached by his longtime friend, the late Rob Stitt. Years before, Rob’s parents had operated Mimi’s Fruit Bowl, a tiny storefront on Rehoboth Avenue, eventually moving it across the street as Eden Garden Café (where Cilantro is now). Young Rob helped out and eventually distinguished himself by relocating what is now the fine-dining Eden to Baltimore Avenue. It occupies the attractive building that had been built by Betsy Leroy for her second Pizza By Elizabeths location. More about that later.
Rob had a proposal for Matt: The ill-fated Cosmopolitan at 10 Wilmington Ave. (formerly the home to Confetti’s/Manos/Dos Locos and many others) was floundering, and Rob saw an opportunity to bring his kitchen talents to the fore. But he needed a bar-savvy partner. Matt sums it up nicely: “Twenty-four hours later, my life’s savings was gone, and Rob said to me, ‘You just bought a bar!’” And thus was born Rehoboth’s Shorebreak Lodge.
In an early review, I described Chef Rob’s menu: “Every item on the list at Shorebreak is something people like. Even those of us (I was one of those) who ran screaming from octopus, now love Rob’s masterful treatment of the tentacled cephalopod.” In fact, his Thai Chili Wings remain on the new owners’ menu to this day. Rob’s talented yet mercurial nature eventually led to the sale of Shorebreak Lodge, and after a while Matt found himself behind the bar at 1776 Steakhouse, working elbow-to-elbow with bar manager and part-owner Johnny Farquhar. Sprenkle’s laid-back manner and virtually infinite knowledge of mixology fits perfectly with the upscale Midway mainstay.
I promised you a closer look at that time in 1995 when Betsy Leroy purchased an old beach cottage on Baltimore Avenue across the street from Café Azafran. She replaced it with the building where she and her business partner (also named Elizabeth) installed location number two of their upstate Pizza By Elizabeths restaurant. But the commute was just too much, and around 20 years ago the two Elizabeths dialed things back to the mothership location in Greenville. The building is now home to Eden restaurant.
Before PBE became reality, Betsy and her friend Elizabeth used to share a pizza recipe that friends loved. The two Elizabeths (with Betsy’s 3-year-old and 9-year-old boys in tow) took the plunge and in 1993 opened just a few miles from the current spot on Kennett Pike. Located just a few minutes from Winterthur Museum and Longwood Gardens, a steady stream of visitors was virtually guaranteed. To say the place is campy is an understatement. The first thing you see is a life-size statue of Betty Boop! Refocus your eyes, and huge images (in all variations of media) appear. Each and every one is, in Betsy’s words, a “famous Elizabeth.” Movie stars, TV personalities and even political notables are honored, including the Queen Mum, Elizabeth Montgomery, Betty Grable, and even Lizzie Borden and the Queen Elizabeth ocean liner. The menu follows suit, listing Eliza-centric delights such as the Barrett Browning, the Davis, the Claiborne and the Arden.
Back to the present in downtown Rehoboth. Rob Stitt and Matt Sprenkle’s Shorebreak Lodge continues to please guests under the capable ownership of Kate Wall and Sean Pusateri. Sean makes it his business to ensure that any and all wines consumed on the premises pair perfectly with the guests’ menu choices. Their personal involvement in every diner’s experience reinforces the friendly, neighborhood atmosphere for which Shorebreak is known.
The late songwriter Benard Ighner said it best not only in the title of this article, but also when he wrote, “Everything must change; nothing stays the same.” That’s one thing we can bank on when it comes to the business of eating here in the Cape Region. We can no longer stroll down Baltimore Avenue to pick up a signature pie from the clever and very funny Betsy Leroy. But Rob Stitt’s legacy lives on at Shorebreak and Eden, as does Susan and Richard Krick’s stamp on Rehoboth’s landmark Summer House. And the talented Matt Sprenkle continues to wow guests at 1776 Steakhouse.
So, Benard, maybe some things do remain the same; all you have to do is look at them a little differently.