The Evolution of Bar Appetizers

Goodbye, peanuts and chips; hello tuna poke, bao buns and lamb meatballs

Editor’s note: On Saturday, July 14, owner of Goat Kitchen & Bar Dave Weir, who is quoted in this story, passed away. Weir was a respected area restaurateur and Out & About felt it important to keep his comments.

Remember when bars served only snacks from a chip rack behind the counter or a communal bowl that offered some assortment of the three p’s—peanuts, pretzels and potato chips?

Snacking has long been an integral part of the American drinking culture, so it’s no surprise that robust bar food menus have evolved markedly—moving away from salty snacks to healthier and often gourmet options.

Across the state and especially in Wilmington, chefs have led the way in innovative takes on bar appetizers by making them more shareable, upscale and raw.

Take Goat Kitchen & Bar for instance. Opened three years ago in a small shopping center on Marsh Road, Goat has become a leader in the shared plates revolution. Owner David Weir, the former operator of Buckley’s Tavern, has used his considerable bar drink and food knowledge to bring a diverse lineup of shared plates to the masses. The plates and snacks allow diners to share a communal meal while leaving room for dessert.

“The menu has traditional big plates like sandwiches and burgers,” says Weir, “but the snacks are designed especially for hanging out. As my grandma would say: ‘Always eat when you drink.’”

From pickles made twice a week to BBQ pork belly lettuce wraps and the aptly named “Texas Trash” (a platter that includes smoked habanero pimento cheese, sausage and saltine crackers), Goat embraces creativity and a touch of Asian flair.

These takes on bar food are departures from a not-too-distant past, when, says Weir, “All you could order was fried appetizers like Buffalo wings and spring rolls. You should’ve just put your cardiologist’s card in your napkin.”

Though fried morsels still show up on many menus, diners now crave healthier options like hummus and cauliflower, marking a massive shift in taste. But, as Weir points out, “I go through multiple cases each week for the Buffalo cauliflower ‘wings.’” And even though the cauliflower is served Buffalo-style, it still saves diners potentially hundreds of calories in saturated fat compared to chicken wings.

As more millennials and retirees come to downtown Wilmington to live, work and play, there has been an exponential increase in food and drink establishments. One of Market Street’s newest darlings is Stitch House Brewery, a brewpub that burns the midnight oil (the kitchen is open until 1 a.m. every night except Sunday). So for those who need a hearty late-night snack, Stitch House offers a list of skillets—its take on a shared plate.

Skillets are available in three sizes, priced accordingly: The $7 skillets offer standard fare of salads, soups and nachos; $10 skillets are a bit more adventurous and include pierogi, four-cheese mac and queso fundido; $13 skillets are mini-meals that can be shared or eaten by one hungry diner and include short rib stew, chicken parm and scallops.

Upscale Classics

Chef Bryan Sikora and his wife, Andrea, began their Market Street takeover in 2013 when they opened the charming La Fia restaurant to much fanfare. Fast forward five years, and the Sikoras now have a Wilmington portfolio that includes Merchant Bar and Cocina Lolo.

On Market Street, the ornate Merchant Bar draws inspiration from past maritime explorers with a menu that evokes the old-school surf ‘n’ turf movement from the ‘60s and ‘70s. From tuna poke to crispy lamb meatballs, the Sikoras are pushing the bar food boundaries with dishes you can’t really find elsewhere.

Says Andrea: “Customers are looking to graze on food that goes beyond typical bar food. Variations on chicken wings will never be wrong, so offering customers more creative plates can allow them to try things they wouldn’t normally expect at the bar.”

More examples of shared plates include upscale classics like bistro fries—thin cut fries topped with za’atar, a middle eastern spice blend, and served with saffron aioli and curry ketchup; and Korean barbecue smoked chicken wings with red chili aioli and blue cheese.

On the other side of Market, Cocina Lolo serves everyone’s favorite pre-dinner snack, chips and salsa, but dig a little deeper into its menu and there are some surprising items like chorizo deviled eggs and short rib tamales. Most important, the happy hour is well worth a visit with $5 margaritas and wines and $3 cervezas to wash down the half-priced tacos and guacamole and $4 tamales.

Raw Bars

With oysters, clams and mussels, the raw bar with all its fixings is hot right now. Delaware has seen an increase in popularity for raw bar options, including neighborhood favorite Trolley Square Oyster House (TSOH).

Crab dip skillet from Stitch House Brewery. Photo Jim Coarse

Since opening in 2016, TSOH has served up a menu full of hip, new items not normally found on its Big Fish Grill menus. As one of the few oyster houses in Delaware, it far exceeds the raw bar definition. With bar bites like lobster-crab guacamole and made-to-order fried calamari served with house-made long hot aioli, you can make an entire meal out of any combination of shared plates.

And with an extensive range of oysters—up to nine varieties from the East and West Coasts are available—TSOH is also known for its mussel pots.“[The mussels] come in a black metal pot with a side of garlic crostini and topped with your choice of four flavors: Portuguese, diavolo, coconut curry or white wine,” says Michael McNutt, director of culinary operations.

Mussel pots should be paired based on the ingredients, though most pair well with a crisp, clean white wine or a traditional Belgian wheat beer. Economize by heading to TSOH on Monday night, where you can save $2 a pot during happy hour, Monday through Thursday from 3 to 6 p.m., Friday from noon to 6 p.m. and every night from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m.

Looking for other raw bar options in Wilmington? Head down to the Riverfront and the newly named Banks’ Seafood and Raw Bar, the former Harry’s Seafood Grill , which has been taken over by Chef David Leo Banks, longtime business partner of Xavier Teixido.

Banks has kept much of the menu the same, but he has devoted more space to increasing the ceviche offerings, something which I predicted earlier this year in the seafood trends piece (and is now coming true as Poke Bros. expands to a total of four Delaware locations).

At a recent lunch meeting, I had the Bigeye tuna togarashi, a raw, sweet and spicy dish drizzled with key lime crema and served with crispy wonton chips. It’s a wonderfully fresh take on a traditional tuna tartare. For those new to togarashi, it’s a Japanese spice blend made with chilies, sesame, orange peel and so much more. It’s typically used to flavor noodle, meat and seafood dishes, and one of my favorite spices to add to pretty much anything from seafood to the oh-so hipster avocado toast.

Bar food is no longer the boring lineup of fried foods, nachos and that mysterious tub of bar mix. It has evolved to the point where the sky—or a chef’s imagination—is the limit. Who wouldn’t want to try pork belly bao buns from Merchant Bar or chorizo stuffed oysters from TSOH?

So, what do you think? Please comment below.