The Business of Eating

Three brothers open three restaurants on the Avenue

April 24, 2012

Seems like I hit a nerve last week when I rattled off a list of Rehoboth eateries that are 30 or more years old. I missed at least one – my apologies to Daisey and Terry Hudson of Adriatico; 36 years and counting!

Some of the other emails centered on the Robin Hood restaurant and the family of long-gone eateries associated with that Rehoboth Avenue icon. The Robin Hood became the Robin Hood in 1968 under the new ownership of Harry and Niki Tsoukalas. It was originally the Robert Lee restaurant, opened in 1948 (if you remember that, I suspect you’re reading this through bifocals). 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 (where Seaside Thai used to be) 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 Avenue 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 its 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 (yes, I too peer at the world through bifocals). 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. in Ocean City. After it 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 last call.

Harry and Niki’s son, Kosta, has pretty much taken over the Robin Hood, splitting time there with his mom. Dad still keeps a tight hold on a couple of things, including the recipe for the signature vegetable soup and his impossibly delicious rice pudding. Kosta greets customers at the door and splits shifts in the kitchen with Martin, the cook. Kosta laughs and elaborates, “Then dad walks in and gets 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 - 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.

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