Independent restaurateurs are settling in increasing numbers in North Wilmington
When Harry’s Hospitality Group announced plans earlier this year for a second Kid Shelleen’s Charcoal House & Saloon, Facebook lit up with “likes.” The original restaurant, which opened in 1984, is a landmark in Wilmington’s Trolley Square. Not only was “Kid’s” gaining a sibling after all this time, but it would occupy the former WSFS Bank site in a North Wilmington shopping center.
The suburban setting might seem unusual for Kid Shelleen’s, but the area’s demographics “marry up well for who we are,” says Xavier Teixido, who owns the restaurant with Kelly O’Hanlon. Teixido should know. He used to live within walking distance of Branmar Plaza, the site of Kid Shelleen’s second location. He is also the owner of Harry’s Savoy Grill, which is located on Naamans
Road a couple of miles from Branmar.
When the new Kid’s opens in early 2020, it will be in good company. Already this year, Wilmington-based Platinum Dining Group opened El Camino Mexican Kitchen and Taverna in The Concord, a new mixed-use development on Silverside Road. A brewery and bakery are in the works for this summer in other centers.
The area offers a lot of advantages. However, it also can present challenges. For one, there is limited real estate available. For another,
North Wilmington isn’t one cohesive area. Smart restaurant operators build a base with residents in surrounding communities.
Breaking New Ground
In 1988, when Harry’s Savoy Grill opened, there were independently owned restaurants in North Wilmington —there just weren’t many of them. It was easy to exhaust the options. For cutting-edge cuisine, foodies had to go to Wilmington or, if they were willing to travel, Philadelphia.
Harry’s Savoy Grill brought the trends du jour to Brandywine Hundred, including the return of prime rib, good wines by the glass and icy martinis. The city-style dining coincided with the birth of the Food Network, the popularity of celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse, and the ability to search for recipes on the web. Diners developed high expectations. But with few exceptions, interest in North Wilmington was primarily limited to the chains, which in the 1990s started popping up along Concord Pike (Route 202).
Culinaria broke new ground when Pam Grabowski and Ezio Reynaud opened it in 1999 in Branmar Plaza. The urban décor was contemporary yet approachable, and the food was upscale yet affordable. Consider soft-shell crab on a Thai salad, escargot and salmon with a mound of buttery mashed potatoes and dill-cucumber salad.
There was nothing quite like it—until 2003, when Corner Bistro entered the scene in a Talleyville shopping center featuring entrees under $20 and a unique atmosphere that co-owner Mickey Donatello tweaked until it did, indeed, resemble a European bistro. Both Culinaria and Corner Bistro have withstood the test of time, as has Mexican Post, which opened in a shopping center on Naamans Road in 2001.
Where Everyone Knows Your Name
Mexican Post is across from the Brandywine Town Center and near the state line. General Manager Tony George says the location attracts shoppers from Pennsylvania looking for a bite after tax-free shopping. Like George, many restaurateurs in Brandywine Hundred know that to succeed, they must cater to the communities or businesses in the immediate vicinity—whether they’re in Delaware or Pennsylvania.
“The North Wilmington area is really based on neighborhoods,” agrees Mike Stiglitz, owner of Two Stones Pub, which is also close to the state line. “We have regulars that come all the time from the neighborhoods around us. It’s a lot more pocketed than you would expect.”
Kate Applebaum, who with husband Don owns Cajun Kate’s on Philadelphia Pike, would agree. “We get foot traffic from the Bellefonte area,” she says. “We try to be a part of that community.”
Ulysses, a gastropub that opened in 2011 in the Shoppes of Graylyn, is just a short drive from office parks near I-95. Many workers come to Ulysses for a pint after teambuilding exercises at an escape room in the same shopping center. At night and on weekends, area residents make up the customer base.
The new El Camino’s attractive and expansive bar is attracting young professionals living in the center’s apartments. But North Wilmington restaurants also are interested in the families moving into the surrounding split-levels, ranch homes and colonials that their grandparents’ generation built in the 1950s and ‘60s.
George of Mexican Post stresses the restaurant’s kid-friendly policy, which is also a hallmark of Kid Shelleen’s. When Teixido, O’Hanlon and then partner David Leo Banks bought Kid’s in 2010, they focused on providing something for everyone—cocktails and wines by the glass for adults and a menu for children, Teixido says.
Birds Of A Feather
Kid Shelleen’s will be located in what’s becoming a dining hub. In addition to Culinaria, El Diablo is also in Branmar. Ulysses and Vincenza & Margherita Bistro are in neighboring shopping centers. Goat Kitchen & Bar is within walking distance in yet another shopping center, which will soon welcome a second location for Bellefonte Brewing Co.
Neil Shea, the brewery’s CEO, says the nearly 6,000-squarefoot space offers more visibility and therefore the potential for more traffic than the current site in an industrial park on Old Capital Trail. “We’re also closer to residential areas,” he notes.
An August opening is planned for the brewery, which is working with Goat to create a special menu. By the time it opens, customers may opt to pick up food to go at the Café Sitaly to-go shop on Marsh Road. (The original, full-service restaurant is near the intersection of Marsh and Naamans roads.)
Along with Ulysses, Two Stones Pub and Stanley’s Tavern, which is known for craft beer, the brewery will create a destination for beer-lovers. Each business has a niche, Shea says. At Bellefonte Brewing, for instance, customers can see how beer is made. Stanley’s is a sports bar.
Near I-95, Independence Mallis home to Takumi, a Japanese and Chinese restaurant, Rasa Sayang, a Malaysian restaurant, and Swigg, a boutique wine and spirits store. (The Melting Pot, a chain, is also in the center.) By the end of summer, De La Coeur Boulangerie will open a North Wilmington location here, after closing its Talleyville site last year.
The same safety-in-numbers approach is one reason why the Applebaums chose Philadelphia Pike, which also has a Wawa, Rita’s Water Ice, Dunkin’ (formerly Dunkin’ Donuts) and Mazzella’s Italian Restaurant.
“We said: ‘These places get a lot of draws, so let’s be in an area that is recognized,’” Applebaum says. “People will see us when they’re going to places that get a lot of business.”
The couple also selected their site because the landlord does not dictate their hours like the management in many retail centers. “This is our restaurant, and we want to control our hours,” says Applebaum.
If you’re wondering why so many independent North Wilmington restaurants are in shopping centers, it’s due to availability. Commercial space is tight, and new construction is rare. To secure a spot in The Concord for El Camino Mexican Kitchen and Taverna, Carl and Lisa Georigi of Platinum Dining Group signed a letter of intent in 2015.
Finding a place that’s just the right the size is a task, says Applebaum. Her location has many pluses, but there’s only room for counter service and no storage space for beer or wine. The restaurant currently does not serve either.
Teixido searched a long time for a site for the second Kid Shelleen’s. “The WSFS Bank space is smaller than we want, but there may be some opportunity for growth down the road,” he says.
“It will give us a good foothold.”
The site also accommodates outdoor dining in the old drivethru lane, which is next to an open plot. Al fresco dining is hard to find in North Wilmington.
With the opening of new restaurants, established operators have some concerns about the pie slices becoming slimmer. Many are less worried about losing customers than they are employees. “There are more restaurants looking for people than there are employees,” says Steven Lucey, who owns Ulysses with his brother, Michael. “The restaurant industry seems like it’s always hiring.”
Bumping up workers’ salary to compete can become costprohibitive when it cuts into profit, and North Wilmington diners will only pay so much for a meal, says Donatello of Corner Bistro. It took 10 years before he raised the price of some entrees above $20.
The average check also has gone up at Culinaria, but the menu, for the most part, has stayed the same, despite a change of ownership. Donatello understands why some operators would stick to the tried-and-true. “You can’t be average,” he says of the cuisine for Brandywine Hundred residents. “But you can’t go too far outside the lines.”
Donatello, who grew up in North Wilmington, briefly had a pizza restaurant in Pike Creek but found that area mystifying. Communities and shopping areas are so spread out there, he says. Now he’s sticking to what he knows, and customers in North Wilmington, he says, often do the same. “They settle into going to the restaurants where they’re comfortable.”
Some Mexican Post customers visit three or four times a week, George says. That’s also true at Ulysses. Will that change as new restaurants open? Maybe. Donatello, for one, plans to stick to his mission. “I wanted to have a little, affordable place where people can come, and it’s good food. And that,” he says, “is what we’re doing.”
3100 Naamans Rd., Wilmington
478-3939 | mexicanpostdelaware.com
EL CAMINO MEXICAN KITCHEN
The Concord 3559 Silverside Rd., Wilmington
543-4245 | elcaminokitchen.com
3604 Silverside Rd., Wilmington
477-1778 | mybistro.com
TWO STONES PUB
2502 Foulk Rd., Wilmington
2038 Foulk Rd., Wilmington
475-1887 | stanleys-tavern.com
HARRY’S SAVOY GRILL
2020 Naamans Rd., Wilmington
475-3000 | harryshospitalitygroup.com
1710 Naamans Rd., Wilmington
475-1120 | cafesitaly.com
GOAT KITCHEN & BAR
Plaza III 1845 Marsh Rd., Wilmington
746-7847 | goatkitchenandbar.com
BELLEFONTE BREWING CO.
Coming to Plaza III 1845 Marsh Rd., Wilmington
KID SHELLEEN’S CHARCOAL HOUSE & SALOON
Opening in Branmar Plaza in 2020 1812 Marsh Rd., Wilmington
Branmar Plaza 1812 Marsh Rd., Wilmington
Branmar Plaza 1812 Marsh Rd., Wilmington
439-4648 | eldiabloburritos.com
Shoppes of Graylyn 1716 Marsh Rd. Wilmington
691-3456 | ulyssesgastropub.com
VINCENZA & MARGHERITA BISTRO
1717 Marsh Road, Wilmington
479-7999 | vmbistro.com
722 Philadelphia Pike, Wilmington
416-5108 | cajunkates.com
MAZZELLA’S ITALIAN RESTAURANT
729 Philadelphia Pike, Wilmington
762-8722 | mazzellas.net
Independence Mall 1601 Concord Pike, Wilmington
658-8887 | besttakumi.com
Independence Mall 1601 Concord Pike #73, Wilmington
543-5286 | rasasayangusa.com
Independence Mall 1601 Concord Pike, Wilmington
42-SWIGG | swiggwine.com
DE LA COEUR BOULANGERIE
Coming to Independence Mall