Finally! The much-beleaguered Jimmy’s Grille in Rehoboth’s Shore Plaza is predicting a mid-May opening. Anyone who is conscious around here knows some of the obstacles that have plagued the third location of this iconic Delaware eatery that started in Bridgeville as a Tastee-Freez. In 1993 Jim Tennefoss purchased the property (where Route 404 meets Route 13) and opened Jimmy’s Grille Family Restaurant. The informal diner-like location quickly became a don’t-miss for locals and beach-bound vacationers alike. The huge portions, homemade pies, cakes and fried chicken quickly became the stuff of Delaware legend.
In 2006, the facility was purchased by Highway One LP, headed up by lawyer and entrepreneur Alex Pires. Two years later, the beachy and open-air Jimmy’s Grille in Dewey Beach was unveiled, with a menu that featured just a few Bridgeville favorites - not the least of which was that fried chicken. 2013 brought well-deserved recognition to the longtime restaurant and caterer in the form of Delaware Division of Tourism’s Most Iconic Restaurant award, along with a spot on Delaware’s Culinary Trail.
The old PNC Bank in Shore Plaza on Coastal Highway in Rehoboth was torn down in 2015 to make room for Jimmy’s Grille No. 3. And that’s when the road to success got a little rocky. (Of course, if it were not rocky, everyone would be doing it.) A federal judge suggested that Pires redesign the exterior of the facility to look a bit less like Cracker Barrel. The entrepreneur complied, and that’s now in the past. But even before that, fate was not kind to the Highway One LP crew: Excavators discovered undocumented pipes that required moving and reconnection. Issues like this brought the construction to a screeching halt several times.
But, if suffering does indeed strengthen character, then Alex and his partners have used that strength to continue plodding forward. A few weeks ago, the new pylon sign appeared in the parking lot. And now it’s even lit up! Earlier this week, I got a sneak peek at the massive kitchen that will service the 5,000-square-foot facility. The kitchen alone is larger than many local restaurants, and runs the entire length of the property from front to back. There is a designated station specifically for dredging (breading) their “no-antibiotic-ever” fried chicken - never frozen, and sourced from Coleman Farms. There are steam-jacketed kettles for soups and sauces. There are multiple prep stations, including a separate area outfitted with a wall (quite literally!) of ovens just for baking. There is a special window just for carryout items. Flattop grill square footage (pass the pancakes and burgers, please) takes up about the same space as my car. And a retail area will be jam-packed with sauces, chicken-making ingredients, cakes, cookies, pies and who knows what else. It’s going to be like an army base in there.
The senior officer of this battleground is none other than Highway One LP Executive Chef Pete McMahon. And he’s fully qualified for that commission. Pete’s grandfather worked at the Russian Tea Room in New York for more than 25 years. Pete earned his culinary degree from the prestigious Johnson and Wales University in Providence, R.I., and has been thriving in food service for almost 30 years, 13 of which were spent at Rehoboth’s famous Blue Moon. His flair for keeping the fine-dining menu beach friendly helped contribute to Th’Moon’s longevity and reputation.
In 2005 he left the Blue Moon and partnered with Pires to open JD Shuckers in Lewes. Pete realized he wasn’t on Rehoboth’s Baltimore Avenue any more, as Shuckers’ location clearly defined it as a neighborhood watering hole with no patience for high-minded cookery. He rose to the occasion, and his resourcefulness paid off: After five years, he and Pires sold to partner Jamie Davis and walked away debt-free. Davis kept it running smoothly and is preparing to open Shuckers No. 2 in Georgetown. You don’t hear that every day in this business of eating!
Pete took over the kitchen at Dewey’s Venus on the Half Shell, eventually morphing it into the upbeat Ivy with dancing under the lights, an eclectic menu and a long, long list of bookings for weddings and other events that crave an unobstructed view of Rehoboth Bay sunsets. Pete now oversees the food operations at Dewey’s insanely busy Rusty Rudder, the “happy beach food” (Alex’ words) at Northbeach, the noisy and inviting Jimmy’s Grille and of course, Ivy.
Pete’s easygoing style has brought him a bit of “celebrity chef” status. Pires told me that he’ll never forget a fine-dining experience with Pete in California when a chef, decked-out in his dress whites, approached their table, smiled and asked, “Well, how am I doing?” That chef was none other than Wolfgang Puck.
The chicken, pancake, fritter and cherry pie sensibilities of the Jimmy’s Grille in Rehoboth might not be Wolfgang’s cup of tea, but he’d be hard pressed to not have a good time when the bands start to play and comfort food is flyin’ out of the kitchen. If fate smiles on Alex, Pete and the rest of the hardworking players, that time should start sometime next month.
Bob Yesbek is a serial foodie and can be reached at byesbek@CapeGazette.com.