Despite opening during a pandemic, Dorcea is finding its footing with local diners
If you think meatloaf is a pedestrian dish unworthy of a hip, new restaurant, think again. It’s one of the star attractions at Dorcea, the Midtown Brandywine restaurant that opened on April 9.
Of course, this is not your mom’s meatloaf. Chef Michael Bomba char-grills thick slices until they sport a pretty diamond pattern then paints them with a spicy tomato glaze. He fans them over a pillow of garlicky mashed potatoes with a side of fresh vegetables.
“My kids love it,” says John Ratliff, who owns the restaurant with Tony Bomba, Michael’s brother. So does frequent diner Janice Westman, who also likes the jumbo lump crab cake.
Dorcea is located at 1314 Washington St. in Wilmington. Sound familiar? That’s because it is Domaine Hudson’s old digs. But Dorcea has its own identity, and it has managed to build a loyal following despite debuting during a pandemic.
A Culinary Combination
The Bombas are the hospitality veterans of the operation. Tony Bomba was 16 when he got a job as a busboy at Pier 13 in Pennsville, N.J. While studying accounting at the University of Delaware, he became a server and then a bartender. He moved to Wilmington after graduation.
Michael was 8 when he began making omelets. “He knew right away that he wanted to be a cook,” his brother says. “He went to culinary school, and he’s been a chef ever since.”
Ratliff, who also attended the University of Delaware, is the strategist. In 1996, he founded Appletree Answers, an answering service and call center, in his two-bedroom apartment. Ratliff sold Appletree in 2012 and founded align5, a management consulting company. He is also managing partner of align5 advisors, an independent investment bank.
Tony Bomba and Ratliff met more than three decades ago on a golf excursion organized by mutual friends. On the trip to Ocean City, Md., they discovered that that at one point they’d lived just a block from each other.
“I used to walk my dogs and see his wife with a baby stroller walking their dog. We said hello, but we never met,” says Bomba, whose voice still bears the distinctive cadence of his native South Jersey. “John and I hit it off, and we’ve been friends ever since.”
The Bomba brothers and Ratliff often chatted at the Washington Street Ale House, where Tony had worked since the late 1990s. Michael oversaw the kitchen; Tony was the well-known face behind the bar.
Ratliff appreciated both Michael’s food and his friend’s rapport with his customers. “He said: ‘We should all open a restaurant,’” Bomba recalls.
The brothers, who had dreamed of owning a restaurant since they were young, were on board.
The Perfect Space
The friends bandied about ideas for about three years before they began looking for a location. They wanted an existing restaurant. “The restaurant structure is incredibly expensive to build from scratch,” Ratliff notes.
They identified four sites, but the ideal location—Domaine Hudson—was ironically just steps away from the Ale House.
Over the years, the slender building has been home to several restaurants, including a Mexican eatery. However, Domaine Hudson was an enduring occupant. The wine bar and fine-dining destination opened in 2005 and survived a change in ownership in 2011 when Beth and Mike Ross purchased it from founders Tom and Meg Hudson.
By 2019, the Rosses were looking to sell. The partners took possession in December of that year and continued as Domaine Hudson during the busy holiday season. On New Year’s Day, they closed for renovations.
The footprint remains mostly the same. However, the owners took down the walls that cordoned off a dining room from the bar. TVs effectively banish any lingering specter of the old fine-dining resident.
After two months of work, the restaurant was ready to go in March. But on March 16, Gov. John Carney limited restaurants to takeout in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus. “We saw COVID come in, and we pumped the brakes,” Bomba said. “By mid-April, we decided to open for takeout.”
When Delaware allowed dine-service in June, Dorcea was up and running at reduced capacity per state regulations.
Welcome to Wilmington, Dorcea
Don’t bother asking the owners about the name’s origin. “There is a backstory,” Bomba acknowledges. “If you come to the restaurant—and look around at the artwork—there are hints. There are also hints on the drink menu. We want people to figure it out on their own.”
(It’s not hard. Plug some of the house cocktails into Google, and you’ll find what they have in common.)
Bomba is equally cautious about categorizing the food. “We do a very broad menu: seafood, pasta, chicken, appetizers.” However, he agrees to call the cuisine “upscale casual.”
Fans have their favorites. Gayle Dillman loves the jumbo lump crab cakes. Christopher Baittinger says the wings are “amazing.” And he should know—he’s a chef.
Michael Bomba isn’t shy with the spice. The Korean salmon is prepared with gochujang sauce, the chicken in the alfredo is blackened and firecracker shrimp come with sriracha aioli. Take the heat off with a draft beer, including a custom brew made by Stitch House Brewery.
Or, you can sip a glass of fine wine: Dorcea received the remainder of Domaine Hudson’s wine collection with the sale.
Cooking through obstacles
The pandemic and state restrictions on restaurants have not presented the only challenges for Dorcea. The restaurant had counted on business from the surrounding offices, but many people are now working from home. What’s more, there are few business travelers in the nearby hotels. “We need everybody to come back to work,” Bomba says.
Hospital staff have been supportive, as have the surrounding residents. (ChristianaCare allows Dorcea diners to park in the lot at 13th and Washington streets after 5 p.m.)
In the future, Bomba would like to see the area become a nightlife destination like Trolley Square. “I want people to go to the Ale House for a drink, then come to Dorcea for an appetizer and then go dance at Tonic,” he says.
The ever-practical Ratcliff would like to open other eateries to create economies of scale. “The plan was to have multiple locations, and I still think that’s the plan,” he says. “Obviously, it’s on hold.”
For now, the partners are happy to have found the right space in the right location to call their own.
“To be able to have quality and consistency with all that’s happened in the last few months tells a great story,” Ratliff says.
— Dorcea, 1314 Washington St., Wilm.; 302-691-7447; Dorcea.com