Restaurant veteran Joe Van Horn doesn’t shy away from a battle — and he has the scars to prove it
When it comes to Delaware’s restaurant’s scene, Joe Van Horn has seen it all — the good, the bad, the risky and the ridiculous. And like the Energizer Bunny, he just keeps going. Since 2010, he’s been plugging along at Chelsea Tavern, located across from the Grand Opera House on Market Street.
Van Horn’s pub has lasted much longer than the tony 821 that occupied the space during MBNA’s heyday. Sean McNeice, the opening chef at Chelsea Tavern, credits his former partner’s smarts.
“He’s a pragmatic guy,” McNeice says. “He’s a wise-ass, too, so he’s my kind of people.” Van Horn likely has more restaurant experience than many people in New Castle County, McNeice adds.
“Joe is a survivor,” agrees Xavier Teixido, who worked with Van Horn at 1492 Hospitality Group in the 1980s. “He’s been able to survive an amazing amount of diverse experiences.”
Even the worst experience has left Van Horn with a great story to tell.
The “Delco” native is no stranger to raising eyebrows. Growing up in Prospect Park, he was the fifth of six children. Only three students came from a divorced family in his entire Catholic school: Van Horn and his two brothers.
Van Horn began washing dishes to pay for tuition at St. James Catholic High School for Boys in Chester. He continued juggling full-time restaurant jobs while attending West Chester University.
His on-the-job lessons came with some hard knocks. At one venue, Van Horn wheeled the wedding cake onto the dance floor to an explosion of guest applause. When Van Horn pulled up short, the cake kept going. The sweet splatter on the dance floor — and Van Horn — made it into the wedding album.
Then there was the time he cleared the plates around a crowded table of 12. “I’m trying to get in there, and I literally pour cold mussels marinara down a woman’s back,” he says. “She screams, and I run out of the dining room.”
The woman, who was celebrating her birthday, was wearing her birthday gift: a red silk dress. She went home and changed, and every time Van Horn entered the room, all the guests backed away from the table in jest. “They wound up requesting me for the next two years,” he said.
The fun in West Chester stopped in 1989, when Van Horn got a DUI and lost his license. His father offered the 20-year-old a place to stay in Wilmington. He also helped him get a job at a nearby restaurant: the Columbus Inn.
Initially, Van Horn waited tables in the iconic Wilmington restaurant. Because he had banquet experience, he started overseeing the second-floor private rooms. “It was the ’80s and the early ’90s, and pharmaceutical companies spent a ton of money, which meant I was making really good money,” he recalls.
Van Horn had no trouble carrying heavy trays up two flights of steps. In fact, he was known for it. “I fell on the steps once and didn’t drop a plate,” he says proudly. “Two guys from the party had to come and lift the tray so I could get up.”
At that time, the Columbus Inn was a smoker’s paradise — the line cook puffed away while watching his saucepans. Bar patrons could buy fine cigars.
“We sold about $15,000 worth of tobacco products a year,” says Van Horn, who became the restaurant’s general manager in the mid-1990s. “
So, in 2002, when Delaware prohibited smoking tobacco in most indoor public places, the Columbus Inn staff was nervous and upset. On Nov. 26, the day before the law took effect, the restaurant hosted “Smokin’ Joe’s Last Hurrah: Party to the Last Gasp!” The bartender, Bill Walker, wore a gas mask from the Korean War, and there was a cardboard cutout of then Gov. Ruth Ann Minner with a hole for a mouth so people could insert cigars and cigarettes. The eye-stinging smoke blanketed the room.
“You could barely see across the bar, and we filled every seat — upstairs, downstairs, the dining room — everywhere,” says Van Horn.
Major Philadelphia news reporters gathered in the parking lot to make reports on the activity. It did not go unnoticed. Afterward, Gov. Ruth Ann Minner sent a letter vowing that “no state employee would ever dine at the Columbus Inn again,” Van Horn said.
Moving on Main Street
Van Horn, who also managed Kid Shelleen’s Charcoal House and Saloon, was not afraid to voice his opinion. He told owner Davis Sezna to nix the liver entrée. “We buy 10 pounds, and I eat six,” he recalled telling his boss. “We’re not selling enough.”
Van Horn and Columbus Inn’s chef, David Peterson, were in talks with Sezna to open a restaurant. But the timing was never right. However, restaurateur David Dietz was ready to make a move on a property in the Galleria on Main Street in Newark. The three men became partners, and Van Horn and Peterson gutted the Newark restaurant by day and worked at the Columbus Inn at night.
On Nov. 4, at 4 p.m., Columbus Inn served the men their walking papers. It was Van Horn’s birthday, and his wife, Kerry, planned to meet him for dinner at the restaurant. They wound up at Grotto Pizza, where they exchanged anxious looks while their daughter ate. On his way home, Van Horn swung by Kid Shelleen’s; locksmiths were already changing the locks.
Van Horn worked as a server at Harry’s Savoy Grill until Shaggy’s on Main opened on May 13, 2005. It was an inauspicious date considering the space had been home to Brickyard Tavern & Grill and at least four other failed restaurants. However, the partners had given it a fresh look. The $800,000 in renovations combined multiple spaces and added a new kitchen with a steamer for seafood.
Van Horn would have been happy paying two electric bills for the separate areas, but the city demanded one system, a project that cost more than $17,000. Along with the new kitchen, the seafood restaurant boasted an accomplished chef and an impressive menu.
At the time, any Newark establishment that served alcohol for consumption on premises had to be a restaurant, and a large portion of revenue — at least 60% — had to come from food sales. Shaggy’s proximity to the campus made it a popular spot for students — and, therefore, a target for the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission’s endorsement arm.
Van Horn reduced the hours and entertainment schedule to discourage the perception that Shaggy’s was a watering hole. Sales dropped, and Shaggy’s closed on New Year’s Eve 2007.
“We weren’t doing anything that anybody else wasn’t doing,” Van Horn says now. “We were the ones that got singled out.”
He will never open a business in Newark again, he vows. ‘I have trouble dropping my daughter off at college. But I’ve made peace with it. It took me a while.”
Exploring the Riverfront
Van Horn had been the face and the voice of Shaggy’s in the press. After it closed, the chance of landing a new position looked slim, despite his storied experience. Then came an interview at Conley Ward’s, an ambitious steak house on the still-developing Wilmington Riverfront. The business had moved into the old Backstage Café, one of the first restaurants in that area, and completed a reported $1.5 million in renovations. There was a 9-foot-high glass wine room with 1,800-plus bottles, booths and a granite-topped bar.
The appeal, however, was not the steak. It was the operation’s expansive Penelope’s on the Deck overlooking the riverfront. The entire operation was later rebranded C.W. Harborside Restaurant Bar & Patio. Either way, “it was the most dysfunctional place I’ve ever worked in my life,” says Van Horn, who became general manager. “The giant outdoor nightclub had nothing but problems.”
Thanks to Shaggy’s, Van Horn had experience in crowd control and booking entertainment. On a good night, the restaurant pulled in $50,000 in sales. But it wasn’t enough to appease the financial backer. When Philadelphia-based Public House moved into 900 N. Market St. in October 2009, the chain agreed to manage C.W. Harborside. Regardless, C.W. Harborside closed in 2010. In recent years, Docklands Riverfront has run a separate hospitality business in the space.
Taking a Chance Downtown
Meanwhile, the Buccini/Pollin Group (BPG) was consuming Wilmington real estate, and new residents needed activities. The developer contacted Scott Morrison, a well-known Main Line restaurateur. While touring potential sites, Morrison dined at Mikimotos Asian Grill and met chef Sean McNeice, who had worked with Van Horn at the Columbus Inn.
Morrison liked the old 821 space on Market Street, and McNeice reached out to Van Horn. Although skeptical, Van Horn agreed to tour the site and meet Morrison, a Cornell University graduate who was “well-educated, cutting-edge — very flamboyant,” Van Horn says.
The three partners signed the lease in December 2009, but then Morrison was unavailable for 30 days. Van Horn and McNeice cleaned the space, which still had glasses on the bar, and met with vendors. When Morrison came back to the restaurant, the trio turned it into Chelsea Tavern in six weeks. They opened in March 2010.
Chelsea Tavern, a craft beer destination, was primarily the vision of McNeice, who’d overseen the Washington Street Ale House’s menu. Beer was an ingredient in many of the dishes. Van Horn was happy with a Budweiser.
Suffice it to say, all three partners were dealing with demons, and it was “a fire waiting to happen,” says Van Horn. In fall 2011, McNeice left to help open Ulysses American Gastropub in North Wilmington. Morrison turned his attention to opening Ernest & Scott Taproom in the old Public House location.
Shortly afterward, Van Horn stopped drinking and lost 60 pounds. (He keeps a photograph of his overweight self in his office to curb his appetite.) He concentrated on Chelsea Tavern until Morrison opened a Wayne restaurant and asked Van Horn to watch Ernest & Scott. The pair planned to open 3 Doors Brewing Co. on Market Street, whose social scene was expanding. Things looked promising.
Then, on Valentine’s Day 2016, Van Horn got a phone call. At age 54, Morrison had died in his sleep from a massive coronary. “It was Sunday brunch, and there was a dance competition at the Grand Opera House,” Van Horn recalls. “We were beyond mobbed. For the next eight hours, I had to work.”
Van Horn did not want Ernest & Scott, but Morrison’s estate insisted on the package deal. Later, Van Horn told Rob Buccini that he would “run,” not just walk away if they made a clean break. On Dec. 31, 2019, BPG let him out of the Ernest & Scott lease, but Van Horn wanted to honor a January commitment to a bride and groom. “I couldn’t say no to that lady, so we ended up doing taxes that year because we stayed open for 12 days,” he says.
Van Horn moved his best people at Ernest & Scott to Chelsea Tavern, including Elvis Rosales, now a partner. When the pandemic hit, the staff dwindled to Van Horn, Rosales and the chef, who worked open to close, seven days a week, filling takeout orders.
When restaurants could open, Chelsea Tavern went back to its regular hours, including Saturday and Sunday brunch.
“We stayed open until 1 a.m. every morning, and we became the only place that stayed open until 1 a.m.,” he says. “On some days, our busiest time is 10 p.m. to 1 a.m.”
In addition to serving Grand customers, the tavern is now a neighborhood gathering place for a diverse clientele. It also has a diverse staff. When Black Lives Matter protestors marched down Market Street, the team stood out front.
“We weren’t going to let people go through our windows; it wasn’t going to happen,” Van Horn says. “We had some pushback, and we had other people in the crowd saying, ‘Leave them alone. They’re a great spot.’”
He knows that Chelsea Tavern would likely make more money in a suburban setting. But like his sobriety, he’s invested too much time in the city location to let it go. However, he’s not ruling out a second Chelsea Tavern in the future.
According to Van Horn: “My wife says I thrive on stress.”