Small Town, Big Appetites

Pam George

Newark is now a destination for even the most discerning diners

When the owners of Churrascaria Saudades decided to open a Brazilian steakhouse, they initially considered Middletown. Then they visited the Newark Shopping Center. “There was a new movie theater, the natural food store was opening—they felt it was a really good time to get into Newark,” says Jonathan Keegan, the restaurant’s assistant manager. “It was changing.”

But was it changing enough for diners to plunk down $46 for 15 different kinds of all-you-can-eat cuts of meat? After all, Newark is traditionally known for pizza places and sub shops—the foods that college students crave after a night spent studying or partying. In a word, “yes.”

Since opening last year, Churrascaria Saudades regularly serves up to 400 people on a Friday or Saturday night, says Keegan, who previously worked at Fogo de Chão, a Brazilian steakhouse in Philly.

And the guests aren’t all students, parents, and faculty. “You get the business professionals, the bankers,” he says. “We do a lot of medical parties. But then you get people coming in to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, graduations—lots of celebrations going on.”

To be sure, for Newark diners, there’s much to celebrate these days. The dining scene is diverse and concentrated, says Karen Stauffer, director of marketing for the Delaware Restaurant Association, which is near Main Street. “As an adventurous eater, that is something I appreciate.”

Restaurant volume is a good thing for all, says Bobby Pancake, past chairman of the Delaware Restaurant Association and a partner in High5Hospitality, whose restaurants include Buffalo Wild Wings and the Stone Balloon Ale House. “The more restaurants you have, the more people come to Newark,” he says.

But that does force businesses to up their game. “The more restaurants you have, the better you have to perform,” Pancake adds. And that’s good news for diners.

The Icons

The Main Street area has long been the epicenter of Newark dining. Admittedly, it wasn’t as diverse in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when The Glass Mug, the Malt Shoppe, Sam’s, and Daffy Deli reigned.

Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant shook up the scene when it opened in 1996—before the craft beer craze took hold. Many wondered if a brewery could survive in a town where students quaffed cheap beer and counted pennies. Fortunately, area families and diners with bigger wallets were happy to belly up to a brewpub in their backyard.

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Asian cauliflower wings at Home Grown Cafe (Photo by Jim Coarse)

Home Grown Café and Caffé Gelato also brought fresh concepts to the scene when they opened in 2000. Home Grown Café was an offshoot of a retail store, Home Grown, which opened in 1998. By 2004, the restaurant consumed most of the retail space. Surrounded by sub shops, the kitchen turned out fresh food made from scratch and vegetarian options in the days before the gluten-free revolution.

Caffé Gelato, which started as a gelato shop, has expanded to become a full-service restaurant with an award-winning wine list.

The longtime businesses have built a loyal fan base. Home Grown serves food that’s “outside the box,” says Heather Hook, a Wilmington resident who heads to Newark for the restaurant scene. “I love their buffalo cauliflower florets and the crispy russet potato chips with yogurt aioli. I swooned when I had the avocado-carob mousse.”

Two restaurants loved by generations of UD alums are still thriving, albeit with a more modern approach. The Deer Park underwent a total renovation when Bob Ashby’s company purchased it in 2001. Now it’s Klondike Kate’s turn.

In November, Gilda and Gianmarco Martuscelli bought the restaurant, which opened in 1979 in a building that held a gas station, jail, post office, pool hall, skating rink and movie theater. The family also owns Chesapeake Inn and La Casa Pasta.

Gianmarco Martuscelli saw Klondike Kate’s, which is busy during the school year, as a complement to the Chesapeake Inn, which is busy in the summer. Like Ashby, the Martuscellis have instituted some changes that initially led to pushback. Klondike Kate’s had been famous for its daily specials that extended to takeout. The UD football team would order half-priced burgers to go on Mondays, Gianmarco Martuscelli says. Offices would send someone to pick up half-priced salad and sandwiches for an entire department. Additional employees were needed just to fill the discounted takeout orders, but the dining room wasn’t full.

Back Creek Roll at Klondike Kate's made by Sushi Sumo. (Photo courtesy of Klondike Kate's)

Back Creek Roll at Klondike Kate’s made by Sushi Sumo. (Photo courtesy of Klondike Kate’s)

Now only in-house guests can order the discounted specials. Martuscelli has also streamlined the menu, which had so many items that it was worthy of a diner. The kitchen spent too much time prepping before meal service, and the volume of options slowed down the meal service. There were also too many sides, which again led to time spent prepping. Martuscelli has cut the quantity for quality. Burger meat, for instance, is now fresh, not frozen.

One addition to the menu is raising eyebrows. Klondike Kate’s offers 12 sushi rolls made by Sushi Sumo on Kirkwood Highway. “My staff had said there was no longer a sushi spot on Main Street,” Martuscelli explains. “It’s been really popular with the students.”
And for nacho lovers, rest easy. They’re still on the menu.

The Melting Pot

Sushi might be scarce on Main Street, but the surrounding area is a mecca for those who love ethnic cuisine. “There’s so much more variety in the Newark area than in Wilmington,” says Robbie Jester, executive chef of the Stone Balloon Ale House.

Consider Chef Tan and Ramen Kumamoto, both on Main Street. Chef Tan has most of the Chinese staples, complete with little red peppers beside spicy menu options. Ramen Kumamoto has created diehard noodle addicts who rave about the “tan tan,” a spicy chicken broth with miso and sesame paste, topped with minced meat, bean sprouts, noodles, and chicken or pork.

Sara Teixido, a Pike Creek resident, is such a fan of the ramen that she sent her fiancé for a takeout order of it when she was sick. She’s also a fan of Ali Baba on Main Street. “It’s stayed the same for years, but their Ali Baba hummus, carrot salad, and spicy Moroccan chicken are crave-able,” she says. “You can feast with a group, have a fun time in a unique atmosphere, and not break the bank.”

Robin Glanden, who lives within walking distance of Main Street, recommends Olive Tree Café, which also features Mediterranean food, in Chestnut Plaza. “It has a friendly owner and wait staff and absolutely delicious food—the mint tea is to die for.”

The Mexican segment is oversaturated in Newark, acknowledges Pancake of Buffalo Wild Wings and the Stone Balloon Ale House. It is home to the most recent El Diablo Burritos location, Santa Fe Mexican Grill, Del Pez Mexican Gastropub, and Tex-Mex chains, including Chipotle Mexican Grill. “There are like five burrito places within two blocks,” Martuscelli says. For now, they’re holding their own.

Good Food To Go

Along with competing for market share in a certain dining segment, many restaurants are vying for the lunch crowd, Martuscelli says. Klondike Kate’s in January added a lunch buffet on Fridays to tempt university staff interested in a quick bite. “It’s been popular,” Martuscelli says.

The plentiful choices include chains that specialize in fast-casual fare.

Roots Natural Kitchen, which offers rice bowls and salads, is a newcomer, as is honeygrow, a Philadelphia-based chain featuring salads and stir-fry.

“We wanted to open in Newark because Main Street has always been a vibrant and bustling community, whether the university is in session or on break,” says Jen Denis, the chief branding officer for honeygrow and a 2000 graduate of the University of Delaware. “The community seems ready to welcome and embrace wholesome cuisine served up fresh, fast, and fully customized. Honeygrow thrives in locations with active, creative, and civic-minded populations, and the Newark area community fits that bill perfectly.”

Soup to Nuts

Perhaps one of the most dramatic changes on the Newark dining scene has been the rise of restaurants like Churrascaria Saudades, which have a higher price point, and eateries that appeal to a variety of diners, including families.

Rigatoni & Sweet Italian Sausage at Taverna Rustic Italian (Photo by Danielle Quigley)

Rigatoni & Sweet Italian Sausage at Taverna Rustic Italian (Photo by Danielle Quigley)

Since Taverna Rustic Italian opened in 2012, it’s consistently listed among local diners’ favorites. “My husband gets pretty bored with Italian, but he loves Taverna because it is so different and the food is often locally sourced,” Glanden says.

Owned by the Platinum Dining Group, which also owns Eclipse and Capers & Lemons, Taverna has coal-fired pizzas, as well as entrees such as spinach ricotta with agnolotti, shiitake mushrooms, truffle butter, and lemon. “Taverna has been incredibly successful,” says Carl Georigi, the hospitality group’s founder, who had his eye on a Main Street location for years before the Taverna space became available. “It’s been well received by the entire community. We’re very happy we went there.”

Pancake is a big fan. He eats there often—when he’s not eating at the Stone Balloon, which his company purchased in 2015.

The Stone Balloon has gone through a few incarnations—from a wine house whose license prohibited children to an ale house concept with a celebrity chef. The most recent version gets help from Robbie Jester’s contributions. Since his appearances on Guy’s Grocery Games and Beat Bobby Flay on the Food Network, Jester has seen business soar.

He began working at the restaurant when it was the 16 Mile Ale House—an interlude between the Stone Balloon Wine House and the Stone Balloon Ale House. Business had increased 200 to 300 percent, he says. “The Stone Balloon is a different animal on the street,” he says. ““It’s a higher-quality service experience.” He’s noticed that other restaurants have stepped up their game.

Still, owners keep the college town in mind. There are a variety of price points on the menu for those who want the full dining experience or those who want a bite at the bar.

Grain Craft Bar+Kitchen, which opened in 2015, also bridges the gap between the university population and the surrounding community. Lee Mikles and partner Jim O’Donoghue are both UD grads. “We were very familiar with Main Street,” Mikles says. “The vibrancy of being on a college campus, even though we aren’t a ‘college bar,’ was very appealing. Lots of people live and work around town, and we wanted to create something to appeal to them.”

By most accounts, they’ve succeeded. “It has good food, but it’s also a bar, and it’s appropriate for families,” says Stauffer of the restaurant association, who wants to see more restaurants in the area like Grain.

A Twist on the Traditional

Longtime concepts have not gone away, but they have been reinvented. Take, for instance, Snap Custom Pizza, which lets customers choose their ingredients.

Matthew Hans, the owner of Wood Fired Pizza, also bucked the pizza parlor norm. In January 2014, he moved his wood-fired pizza concept from food truck into a restaurant. But he kept the menu focused on artisan pizzas. It also includes salads, craft beers, cocktails and a few desserts.

Wood Fired Pizza is near the intersection of East Cleveland Avenue and Paper Mill Road, a location he selected for economic reasons. But it’s turned out to be an advantage. Residents in the surrounding apartment buildings walk to the restaurant in good weather. There’s a 14-car parking lot, which may not seem like much until you realize there are only 35 seats in the restaurant.

Wood Fired Pizza opens at 4 p.m. during the week, and there’s a breakfast pizza brunch menu on weekends. The restaurant does not offer slices, and there is no delivery service. The approach is working. “We stay busy,” Hans says. “The quality of our pizza helps us stand out in a town that’s pretty saturated with pizza places.”

Buddy’s Burgers, Breasts and Fries, a local chain that recently opened a location on Main Street, turns the burger segment on its head by staying open until 3 a.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

What’s the drawback for these eateries? Parking concerns can scare some customers away, Jester says.
It’s definitely an ongoing conversation between officials and businesses, Georigi says. The city promotes its municipal lots, and many businesses validate parking. “We manage, and we work around it,” Georigi says. Still, Delawareans like to park in front of their destination.

Clearly, it’s not keeping new restaurants from opening their doors and diners from walking through them. “As far as Main Street and Collegeville USA goes, the dining scene is firing on all cylinders,” Georigi concludes.

So, what do you think? Please comment below.