Three brothers from Greece helped shape Rehoboth’s culinary history
My recent column about Back Porch Café’s upcoming season - number 48, to be exact - set off a bit of an e-tussle regarding other longtime eateries here at the beach. A number of emails I received centered on the Robin Hood restaurant and its family of associated (yet long-gone) eateries. It’s an engaging success story about achieving the American dream with hard work and perseverance. And the Robin Hood is still going strong to this day.
The Robin Hood became the Robin Hood in 1968 when it was acquired by Harry and Niki Tsoukalas. Sadly, we lost Harry several years ago, but his legacy lives on. The Robin Hood was originally opened in 1948 as the Robert Lee restaurant. Harry 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 The 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 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 back in the late ‘60s when the Robin Hood was open 24 hours. Many a nighttime scrapple and cheese omelet was consumed by a skinny, long-haired yours truly after bangin’ out rock ‘n’ roll ‘til 2 a.m. by the boardwalk in Ocean City. After the restaurant got a 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.
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 the 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 - until they discovered there was no 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. Yet another bit of Rehoboth Avenue lore that has helped to carve our culinary landscape here at the beach.