Fine Dining at the Christiana Hilton

Rob Kalesse

Rob Kalesse

, Community

The hotel’s $8 million facelift includes a new restaurant with a distinct culinary presence

Based on a very unscientific poll of some Wilmington area foodies, there seems to be a feeling that dining at hotel restaurants and bars is reserved strictly for the travelers staying at those establishments. These locals opt instead for the familiarity of a favorite brewpub or family restaurant, and leave hotel dining to the out-of-towners.

The folks behind the scenes at the Christiana Hilton hope to change that mentality with an $8 million renovation of the 32-year-old hotel near the Christiana Mall. What began with an aesthetic and technological upgrade of the guest rooms and front lobby has spilled over into a new gastropub, called the Market Kitchen & Bar.

The Market’s menu boasts farm-to-table dishes and cocktails featuring ingredients that are about as locally sourced as you can get, thanks to a new herb and vegetable garden in the hotel’s courtyard. Gone is the old-school steakhouse feel, and in its place is a new dining destination worth your attention.

Twelve years after the last significant renovation, the Christiana Hilton is halfway through a complete makeover that will touch every inch of the 164,000-square-foot hotel, according to General Manager Brad Wenger. Construction began last October and should be finished late this summer, but the new restaurant is already open for business.

“When you look at the market, there aren’t many examples of hotels that are truly full service and good at food and beverage,” says Wenger. “We feel that everything we’re doing makes us different, whether you’re traveling or live locally. This hotel does a creative job with culinary and beverage efforts.”

The 270 guest rooms have been updated with a new silver/purple/blue color scheme, smart TVs that allow guests to access their personal Netflix accounts while traveling, and a new, high-tech door lock system that allows guests to access room keys from their phones.

“Through the Hilton Honors app, guests can log on, make their reservation, select their room, and even check in, without ever having to go to the front desk,” says Wenger. “This new technology, called Quantum RFID, even works as a key access. Through Bluetooth technology, you can open the door to your room while walking down the hall, or even while lying in bed awaiting room service.”

Hilton Honors members staying at the hotel also have exclusive access to Club 4, the newly redesigned lounge on the fourth floor. On Tuesday nights, Executive Chef Robert Fratticcioli gives cooking demonstrations, and on Wednesday nights, Beverage Director Pete Lynch provides mixology instruction. Downstairs on the patio, rotating acoustic musicians play mid-week from 6-9 p.m.

The Market's Tuna Poke and sesame crisps with a handcrafted cocktail. Photo by Matt Urban.

The Market’s Tuna Poke and sesame crisps with a handcrafted cocktail. (Photo by Matt Urban)

Going to Market

“A hotel should be a bustling hub of activity, and there should be excitement in the air when you arrive, whether it’s for business or pleasure,” says Wenger. “That’s our goal here and we think the programs we’re rolling out, along with the food, drink and entertainment, will create a fun environment.”

The Market Kitchen & Bar’s menu reads like a who’s who of local purveyors: Dogfish Head fondue, Maiale specialty sausages, Kennett Square mushrooms, Firefly Farm and Calkins Creamery cheeses, LeBus brioche rolls, and Woodside Farm Creamery ice cream. Fratticcioli says the rollout menu took a lot of time and research, and though he’s happy with it, things will certainly change.

“You’ve got to stay fresh in this business, and I mean that in two ways; your food has to be fresh, and the menu has to be fresh, or people will go elsewhere,” he says. “We’ll be changing things up periodically, but always getting our ingredients from vendors within 100 miles of the hotel.”

Though the restaurant is essentially in the same place, just to the left of the main lobby, the décor is completely different. Again, silver and purple dominate, and the newly renovated bar sparkles from a distance. Tiny lamps light up the 12-seat bar, which features a $35,000 zinc surface.

“This was a spare-no-expense type of project, and we’re really happy that the owners continue to give this place the attention it deserves,” says Wenger. This particular Hilton, like 90 percent of the chain’s hotels, is franchised by Meyer Jabara Hotels, which owns more than 25 lodgings throughout the U. S.

The current menu features appetizers like the tuna poké ($14), with chunks of ruby red ahi tuna, onions and cucumbers tossed in soy sauce, sesame oil, served with sesame crisps. Entrees like the pork and beans ($24), featuring braised pork belly served with Applewood smoked bacon, a bean cassoulet and garlic crostini, as well as the flat iron steak ($29), served with Kennett Square mushrooms, grilled asparagus, horseradish cauliflower mashed potatoes and a mushroom demi-glace, fill out a menu that has more than 30 items.

As for the bar menu, small plates are discounted during happy hour (Monday through Thursday, 4-6 p.m.), and there are myriad craft beer options. Additionally, handcrafted cocktails like the Queen’s Park Swizzle ($13) features a delicious blend of light rum from Seacrets Distilling Company in Ocean City, Md., along with fresh lime, simple syrup and hand-picked mint, the last ingredient harvested by Food & Beverage Director Keith Davis.

A portion of Christina Hilton's herb garden.

A portion of Christiana Hilton’s herb garden.

Hilton Herbs

Davis, a dedicated gardener, is essentially the leader of the farming program at the Christiana Hilton. He began with a small herb garden three years ago, and has since raised his output to more than 15 beds of peppers, tomatoes and other veggies and herbs, all grown in the Hilton’s patio area.

“I’m pretty passionate about gardening at home?I go out and forage for mushrooms all the time?so when the opportunity to do some planting here came up, I jumped on it,” says Davis. “We’ve multiplied the output by about five times since we started, and we not only use the ingredients in our cooking, but the different plants really add to the overall appeal of the hotel.”

Davis says he brought in mushroom soil from Chester County, Pa., to make sure he had the right nutrients for planting and growing. He’s harvested elderberries, sriracha peppers, lavender baby tomatoes, chives, rosemary and thyme, and he finds a way to use it all in the dishes and drinks.

“The fact that the garden is contained here on the grounds and not outside of the hotel near the sidewalk or parking lot makes it easier for us to tend to,” he says. “Although we have had some issues with guests and kids accidentally stepping on the flowerbeds, it’s been a real success so far.”

With all the renovations, the room prices naturally have gone up, but Wenger says the Hilton is still incredibly competitive for what it offers. “Obviously, a big focus is return on investment,” he says, “but I think these upgrades will appeal to the right traveler and guest we’re looking to have here. The next few months should be really exciting as we get up and running.”

For a full look at the dinner, lunch and cocktail menu, go to hiltonchristiana.com. There you will also find sample menus for the Chef’s Table program, which is open for reservations and offers a full-service experience with Chef Fratticcioli.

So, what do you think? Please comment below.