An elegant whisper of France amid the pizzas, burgers and corn dogs
Cape Gazette Editor-in-Chief Trish Vernon sent me a note a couple of weeks ago regarding a recipe for a dish served by one of our pioneer restaurants here at the beach. A fan of this column had contacted her about connecting with Nancy Wayson (formerly Nancy Wolfe), the founder of one of Rehoboth’s most memorable eateries, Chez La Mer.
Back in the early ‘80s, Nancy’s restaurant at the corner of Second and Wilmington was the definitive go-to spot for much of the Washington, D.C. glitterati. Reservations ran weeks in advance; and every dish required her personal stamp of approval.
She was a foodie long before it was fashionable to be a foodie. At the Washington, D.C. congressional office where she worked in the late ‘60s, she and her coworkers used office birthdays as an excuse to venture out onto the town to try out the latest chefs. She planned those outings carefully, often enlisting the advice of then-Washington Star restaurant critic John Rosson.
I’ve written over and over that the last reason why anyone should ever open a restaurant is that they like to cook. Nancy Wayson is a notable exception to that rule. She was fascinated by the cuisine of southern France, and loved to whip up her legendary bouillabaisse and pâté for family and friends. When she moved to Rehoboth Beach in 1975, they urged her to share those skills with the world. Blissfully unaware of the dire warnings cited above, she pushed forward, eventually narrowing her choices down to the Martin farmhouse, a residence on Coastal Highway that eventually became Garden Gourmet, and a beach cottage at the corner of Second and Wilmington that had housed everything from the Collins General Store to a kite shop, a residence and an Italian eatery. She chose the downtown spot that has since played host to restaurants such as Papa Grande’s and the recently shuttered Azzurro.
“The cottage had good bones, and the stucco interior whispered, ‘South of France,’” Nancy tells me. She renovated the building and added the section that contains the bar, part of the kitchen and the treehouse roof deck. It wasn’t until after corporations had been formed, menus had been printed and signs had been manufactured that she discovered the French grammar gaffe that was to live forever in Rehoboth Beach history. Chez la Mer actually translates to “at the sea.” She intended it to mean “house by the sea,” properly expressed as “Maison de la Mer.” Nobody cared. Chez la Mer was busy from the day it opened to the day it closed. Wayson knew not to mess with success.
So in 1980, she braved Rehoboth’s treasured tradition of corn dogs and fried fisherman’s platters to bring her upscale French cuisine to the beach. In spite of her talents in the kitchen, she quickly realized that there was a lot more to restauranting than just cooking. She laughs as she tells me that she never cooked again after the restaurant opened. “I hired chefs,” she says - but that didn’t keep her out of the kitchen. She would often work as a line cook; taking orders from those chefs on her payroll so she could keep tabs on her cherished recipes. Even today, the memories of her bouillabaisse, country-style pâté, crab imperial and veal are venerated in hushed tones by those who know the difference.
I regularly get emails whining that a restaurant either (1) wouldn’t take reservations, or (2) took reservations, but couldn’t fulfill them on time because earlier diners overstayed their welcome. Nancy came up with a clever compromise: She accepted reservations, but politely warned each party that (1) they were expected to show up on time, and (2) their stay was limited, in deference to another reservation later on. She treated it as an informal contract, and interestingly enough, 95 percent of her guests respected that contract. Of course there were always the self-entitled few who rudely resented her polite reminder that another party was waiting, and that they had agreed to this. But her faithful regulars appreciated her regard for their comfort and the efforts she made to ensure that food arrived in a timely manner so they could enjoy a leisurely dinner.
As we discussed her reservation system, she told me, “It was sometimes very, very difficult, but it was a matter of professionalism and respect.” When I asked her just how difficult it was to maintain this arrangement, she smiled and replied softly, “That’s why I got out of the business.” Imagine dealing with that and all the stresses being foisted upon our restaurants right now!
Brave entrepreneurs like Nancy and many others risked everything to help make the Cape Region a dining destination. But as more and more eateries turn the key for the last time, I wonder if that appellation will ever return. Time will tell.