Long known as a party hub, Trolley Square has become a culinary hotspot
When the Trolley Square Oyster House opened in 2016, it capitalized on a growing fascination with two trends: icy cold bivalves on the half shell and draft beer. The restaurant, owned by The Big Fish Restaurant Group, also has the crab cakes, lobster rolls, and other seafood dishes for a variety of tastes. Enter the slender restaurant at 6 p.m., and you might see retirees and families. Come at 10 p.m., and you’ll belly up to the bar next to a beer-sipping hipster.
Trolley Square Oyster House has bridged the divide between those who want to sup and those who prefer to sip. “Trolley Square Oyster house continues to exceed our expectations,” says Eric Sugrue, managing partner of the Rehoboth Beach-based Big Fish Restaurant Group. “It has a great vibe with great people—it’s a great place to go.”
Sugrue might as well be talking about Trolley Square in general. Big Fish Restaurant Group has gone from owning one neighborhood restaurant to owning three. If all goes as planned, Bar Roja, a Mexican concept, will open this month in the old Scratch Magoo’s site. The hospitality company also purchased the old Moro restaurant, which will become a steakhouse, and it bought OldBanks Craft Bistro, which has been leased to seasoned restaurateurs Andrea and Bryan Sikora.
Traditionally known as the city’s party central for twentysomethings, Trolley Square is becoming a dining destination with restaurants that put food first.
Building on Past Successes
Certainly, the area—including Forty Acres—has had its share of good and even fine dining. Aside from Constantinou’s House of Beef —now Catherine Rooney’s—many establishments were a few blocks from the intersection of Delaware Avenue and North DuPont Street.
One of Wilmington’s most sophisticated restaurants, The Silk Purse, opened in 1978 on North Scott Street. It later morphed into the more casual Sow’s Ear before closing and becoming Moro, which also received regional acclaim before its run ended.
Dan Butler took a chance when he opened Toscana, now Piccolina Toscana, in 1991 in the heart of town. Butler, who came back to his hometown from Tampa, Florida, installed an open kitchen with an Italian pizza oven. The décor was modern, and the Italian-inspired food was elevated.
“Toscana was seen as very different from anything that existed on the Wilmington landscape at the time,” Butler says. “It created quite the buzz.” He’s reinvented Toscana several times to suit the modern diner, who wants high-quality food in a more relaxed environment. “My job is to keep things as fresh for my customers as I can,” he says. “But after a point, it’s about consistency.”
Kid Shelleen’s Charcoal House & Saloon, which opened in 1984 on West 14th Street, is another survivor. “There weren’t many upscale bars where you could also get good, fresh food,” says Xavier Teixido, who helped open the restaurant while with the 1492 Hospitality Group. For the first few years, the place was so popular that there was a doorman at the entrance four or five nights a week, he says.
Teixido left 1492 in 1993, and the restaurant was sold in 2005. Some said the quality slipped. In 2010, while looking for a location for a Kid Shelleen’s-type restaurant, Teixido learned the original was for sale. Once he returned to the saddle, he put the emphasis back on fresh ingredients and a family-friendly menu. “On St. Patrick’s Day, we sold more food than alcohol,” says Teixido.
That might sound unusual for those who picture Trolley Square as a watering hole for PRB-loving young adults. But the influx of residents of all ages is altering that stereotype. “People are retiring and want to live in town, know their neighbors and walk to restaurants or hair salons,” Teixido says. They can get their coffee at Brew HaHa!, which expanded its site in Trolley Square to accommodate a roastery.
Don Scalessa, owner of Scalessa’s Old School Italian Kitchen on North Lincoln Street, agrees that the neighborhood’s walkability is a large part of its appeal. About half of his customers live in the area and walk to the restaurant. However, Trolley Square also feels safe, he adds.
Scalessa’s is not the only “red gravy” Trolley Square spot to pick up the slack since the Del Rose Café died in 2013. (The oyster house is now in the café’s location.) Galluccio’s Italian Restaurant on Lovering Avenue, now owned by Sergio Pellegrino, is nearly 50 years old. Café Verdi has been a staple since the 1990s.
Scalessa’s, however, has gained a steady following despite lacking a liquor license or BYO permit, which the surrounding neighbors fought. “It’s authentic Italian home-cooked food,” says fan Mitch Hill. Area resident Mike Dodson comes for the eggplant stack, and nearly everyone who frequents the restaurants praises the meatballs.
Southeast Asian Kitchen on Delaware Avenue did successfully obtain permission to be a BYO with wine or beer. Even before allowing alcohol, however, the restaurant had quietly put the corner of Delaware Avenue and North Lincoln Street on the map for Asian food lovers. “Their red curry is out of this world,” says loyal diner David Nordheimer.
Southeast Asian Kitchen is an example of the diversity that is drawing diners with a multicultural palate to Trolley Square. De La Coeur Café et Patisserie on Lovering has minimal space but its crepes have a big following. Opa! Opa!, located in the Trolley Square Shopping Center, has been serving up gyros and Greek salads since 2015.
Opa! Opa! is near the flagship location of El Diablo Burritos, which opened in 2010. “I chose the spot in Trolley Square because it was available and it was in Trolley Square—plain and simple,” says owner Dean Vilone. “To me, Trolley Square has always been the village hub of all of Wilmington. It’s a great place with a community vibe.”
While Kid Shelleen’s helped spearhead the movement to provide upscale ingredients in a casual atmosphere, El Diablo brought that approach to a fast-casual concept. On the opposite side of the shopping center, Eric Huntley is following in their footsteps at Gaudiello’s. When he took over the sub shop, he upgraded all the meats, sauces, cheeses, and breads. (See page 49.)
Up & Coming
As a Latin concept, El Diablo is in good company. Anejo Mexican Grill and Tequila Bar occupies 1717 Delaware Ave. Both will get some friendly competition when Big Fish’s Bar Roja opens. The restaurant will feature tacos, tequilas, and cocktails. It also will offer two features that Trolley Square-ites love: outdoor dining and a full menu available into the night.
Andrea and Bryan Sikora’s new restaurant in the short-lived OldBanks site also will have an outdoor dining area. The still-to-be-named restaurant will have a pizza oven and pasta section, but it won’t be like Hearth, the couple’s Kennett Square restaurant.
The menu will be smaller. However, it won’t be like the Sikoras’ intimate La Fia on Market Street. “We expect bigger parties rather than the intimate dining we see at La Fia,” she says. Consequently, there will be a large section of items suitable for sharing. “Basically, our restaurant will be very neighborhood-oriented and casual but with as good food as we can serve,” she says.
As far as the steakhouse in the old Moro building, Sugrue says that Big Fish Restaurant Group is going through the redesign and permitting phase. “We hope to be open by late summer or fall,” he says. Expect an extensive wine list.
The grab-and-go diner with a healthy mindset can stop into HoneyBee Seasonal Kitchen & Market, which sells prepared meals that cater to vegan and keto diets. This spring, Island Fin Poke Co. will join the mix. “It’s geared to the healthy lifestyle, including vegan,” says Renee Tamboles, who owns the restaurant with her husband, John. “Everything is gluten-free except for the crispy onions.”
As is the case at Moe’s Southwest Grill or Subway, diners will move down the line, choosing the ingredients to create a customized dish. Located in a former bike store, Island Fin can seat about 30 people, but many customers will want takeout, Tamboles predicts.
The New Jersey neighbors chose the site because “Trolley Square is the hotspot in Delaware,” says Tamboles, who for 12 years worked in a law firm in the neighborhood.
While diners and residents are undoubtedly happy about the new additions, the vibrant scene also helps employers, Butler says.
“To attract employers to Wilmington, you have to be a friendly place to employees,” Butler explains. “What happens in downtown Wilmington is part of that, but Trolley Square is a big part of that. The more interesting Trolley Square becomes, the more interesting Wilmington becomes, and the easier it is to attract business to Wilmington.”
Trolley Square Oyster House
1707 Delaware Ave., Wilmington
384-7310 | Trolleysquareoysterhouse.com
1709 Delaware Ave., Wilmington
1412 N. DuPont St., Wilmington
654-8001 | piccolinatoscana.com
Kid Shelleen’s Charcoal House & Saloon
1801 W. 14th St., Wilmington
658-4600 | Kidshelleens.com
1400 N. DuPont St., Wilmington
384-6344 | Brewhaha.com
Gallucio’s Italian Restaurant
1709 Lovering Ave., Wilmington
655-3689 | gallucios-de.com
Scalessa’s Old School Italian Kitchen
1836 N. Lincoln St., Wilmington
656-1362 | scalessas.com
Southeast Asian Kitchen
1901 Delaware Ave., Wilmington
691-7728 | southeastkitchen.net
De La Coeur Café et Patisserie
1836 Lovering Ave., Wilmington
660-7178 | delacoeurcafe.com
7A Trolley Square, Wilmington
654-4500 | Opa-opagryos.com
El Diablo Burritos
13A Trolley Square, Wilmington
691-5532 | eldiabloburritos.com
29A Trolley Square, Wilmington
428-1060 | sandwichmob.com
Anejo Mexican Grill and Tequila Bar
1717 Delaware Ave., Wilmington
655-5080 | anejode.com
HoneyBee Seasonal Kitchen & Market
11A Trolley Square, Wilmington
407-5579 | honeybeekitchenandmarket.com
Island Fin Poke Co.
1604-1608 Delaware Ave., Wilmington
654-8793 | islandfinpoke.com