Hope springs eternal in the traditionally tough restaurant business. Witness the slew of new eateries cropping up in New Castle County, from Trolley Square in Wilmington to Four Corners in Smyrna. Some have undergone major makeovers, while others have simply changed their name and approach. Here’s a tour of what’s new and improved on the restaurant scene.

Merchant on Market

Since opening their doors in the summer of 2013, Bryan Sikora and wife Andrea Loconti have experienced continued success at La Fia Bakery + Market + Bistro. But when it came to having a bar where patrons could hang out until late in the evening, the 5th and Market location just didn’t have the space.

Enter Merchant Bar, La Fia’s sister bar and restaurant, located just across the street. Loconti says their new venture was made possible when their landlord took possession of the building at 426 N. Market and invited them to rent the space.

“We’ve been looking for more space to accommodate a bar crowd almost since the beginning at La Fia,” says Loconti. “When this opportunity arose, we jumped on it. Now our La Fia crowd can spill across the street to Merchant.”

She also says Merchant Bar will keep its doors open until 11 p.m. on weeknights and 1 a.m. on weekends—late closings that can be hard to find on Market Street. Merchant will focus on classic cocktails with a contemporary twist, and lots of specialty smoked meats and housemade sausages.

“Bryan is very skilled at making sausage, so we will be grinding our own meats and making our own casings, as well as baking our own breads, of course,” says Loconti. “Our cocktails will feature recipes we’ve developed for the Old Fashioned, Sazerac and sloe gin fizz, and all our liquor will be call and premium brands.”

The menu currently features a Bar Snacks section, with $6 small plates like marinated olives with hummus and red and gold pickled beets, while the Breads & Buns section features a house-smoked Chicago Dog ($12). The smoked hot dog is topped with pickles, cucumbers, tomatoes, onion, mustard and spicy peppers.

Loconti says their smoker will be used to create a number of dishes in hopes of catering to a younger crowd later in the evening. Merchant Bar is open Tuesday through Saturday, starting at 4 p.m., and will have live music and DJs on the weekends.

A Touch of Creole Comes to Union Street

Fans of the upstairs bar at the old Pan Tai, 837 N. Union St., can finally return to their old haunt, now called North Quarter Creole. That group of fans includes co-owners Mike Goodwin and Brady Harris, who used to hang out quite a bit at the bar overlooking Union.

“I used to love this location when it was Pan Tai, and the former owners had a good business going here for years,” says Goodwin, former chef and owner of CP Goodwin’s on Kirkwood Highway. “I really thought the neighborhood was starving for someone to take it over; we’re local and we care about the building, the customers, and the product we put out.”

Since opening in November, Goodwin and Harris say the neighborhood has welcomed the addition of another restaurant destination on Union Street, especially since their cuisine—a crossover of southern and Creole—presents something new to the strip.

“Some of the recipes I learned from my grandmother, cooking in her kitchen as a kid, but we also wanted to include a bit of our Irish heritage in the place as well,” says Goodwin. “We visited New Orleans and found an Irish district of bars there, so we decided to run with it.”

The lunch and dinner menus include Cajun/Creole standards like gumbo, muffuletta and etouffee, while at the bar Irish whiskey fans can find a great selection of Jameson’s line of aged whiskeys for sipping. North Quarter Creole is open seven days a week, beginning at 11:30 a.m. for lunch.

Big Fish Restaurant Group Gets Even Bigger

Once just a single restaurant in Rehoboth Beach, Big Fish has expanded to Glen Mills, Pa., and the Wilmington Riverfront. This year, brothers Eric and Norman Sugrue look to venture into Trolley Square, as well as expand on the Riverfront.

This month, the restaurateurs will open the Trolley Square Oyster House in the former Satsuma Asian fusion restaurant, which closed in January. Eric Sugrue says they will focus on what has earned them success to the tune of nearly 10 restaurants in the Mid-Atlantic over the years: quality seafood.

“Simple seafood, really good crab cakes, lots of sandwiches and salads, that’s our plan for the menu at Trolley Square Oyster House,” says Sugrue. “Oh, and oysters, naturally. We’ll have a rotation of five to seven oysters on at all times, from various parts of the country, as well as a lot of different raw bar items.”

While Satsuma was still open for business, rumors had circulated that Sikar Lounge, a cigar bar just a block away on North DuPont Street, would eventually inhabit the second floor of the building. Sugrue dispels those rumors, however, saying that the Trolley Square Oyster House will include both floors, as well as the outdoor bar.

Aesthetically speaking, the restaurant group has made a lot of changes, including a new paint scheme of different shades of blue and natural wood colors, as well as new floors and fixtures. No walls have been torn down, but a raw bar will replace the old sushi bar from Satsuma.

On the Riverfront, many visitors may have seen a sign for “Taco Grande” in the vacant lot between Big Fish and Iron Hill. Sugrue says a general contractor will be hired once plans are finished for what will be a casual Tex-Mex restaurant.

“We hope to get things started in terms of construction in the next two months, and then hopefully open in November,” says Sugrue. “The place will be smaller than Big Fish, but will still feature an outside bar and seating, and an open-air kitchen. And of course, margaritas will be a big part of what we do with the bar, both inside and out.”

Chef Patrick Bradley serving up a steak at Tonic Bar & Grille.

Chef Patrick Bradley serving up a steak at Tonic Bar & Grille. (Photo by Joe del Tufo)

Tonic Takes over at Deep Blue

After 17 years in business, Chef Dan Butler knew it was time for a change. So he brought on a silent partner and went to work on what is now a bustling little downtown joint called Tonic Bar & Grille. Stop in for happy hour most nights or acoustic music on the weekends at the old Deep Blue location, 111 W. 11th St.

So far, says Butler, “It’s been phenomenal. It’s rewarding when you do the hard work and create something new, and the buzz is created, and then it’s validated.” Butler also owns and runs Piccolina Toscana in Trolley Square and Brandywine Prime in Chadds Ford, Pa. “Our goal now is to be consistent with all our guests, so that they know what to expect when they come here.”

What guests can expect is a menu that’s not quite steakhouse, but features a good selection of prime beef and chops, as well as some holdovers from the beloved Deep Blue. According to Butler, one of his primary challenges over the years at Deep Blue was that diners thought it was a seafood-only restaurant.

“I don’t want to get pigeon-holed into the idea of being a ‘steakhouse’ and what that represents, because we really have put together a menu that appeals to all tastes,” he says. “We’ve even kept the tuna tartare appetizer and five-spice tuna entree for diehard Deep Blue fans.”

The dining room now features more subdued tones like shades of grays and browns, and has a more intimate atmosphere, with areas separated by dividers. Quiet spaces and dining areas for private parties and corporate dinners are now available. At the bar, the crowd is a bit livelier, and 15 TVs air big sporting events.

Happy hour is Monday through Friday from 4-7 p.m., and features $2 Miller Lite and Yuengling drafts, and a $6 bar food menu. Be sure to check out the revamped cocktail list, featuring the Dante’s Inferno ($10), made with vodka, muddled mint, blood orange puree, Hellfire bitters, lime juice, simple syrup and a splash of seltzer.

What’s Old is New Again at Salute Bistro & Bar

The old Limoncello Restaurant on Ogletown-Stanton Road in Newark is back in the former owner’s hands, and under a new name. Anthony Causi, who has more than 30 years in the Delaware restaurant industry, returns with co-owner Dave Patel, to head up Salute Bistro & Bar. As in the past, the focus is homemade Italian in a family-friendly atmosphere.

“Before we opened on January 7th, we remodeled the place, built a bar, changed the name, and put a lot of the original menu back in place, with a few changes,” says Causi. “It feels good to be back here, and I think a lot of familiar faces feel the same.”
Italian specialties, like sautéed broccoli rabe and sausage ($9), panzanella ($10) and brick oven pizzas ($10-$14) litter the menu. Happy hour takes place Monday through Friday, featuring $5 martinis and appetizers and $1 off all beers.

Metro in Middletown

Middletown added another gastropub to its growing restaurant landscape in mid-December when the Metro Pub & Grille opened just off Main Street at the Peachtree Station retail center. Designed to resemble the town’s old train station, complete with an industrial look with A-frame supports and warm, earthy tones, the new eatery features fresh and local menu items and craft beer on tap.

Longtime Wilmington diners will recognize a familiar face in the Metro Pub & Grill’s kitchen, where Executive Chef Patrick D’Amico, formerly of Harry’s Savoy Grille and Hotel du Pont’s Green Room, has taken the helm. D’Amico left Harry’s last year to join RM Hospitality Group, which includes Richard Clark, of Clark Construction, and Andrew Cofield, the pub’s general manager.

“Our goal here is to feature dishes that are always in season, keeping things fresh and local, both in the kitchen and behind the bar,” Cofield says. “Our signature cocktails will focus on bourbon, which is still big, and gin, which is on the rise. We also plan on implementing some different flavors in our house-made bitters, which will complement the seasonally changing menu.”

A 20-tap draft system and 50 wines by the glass and bottle will be catered to pair signature dishes like the wild boar Sloppy Joe ($13), dark rum-painted pork belly ($9.50), and venison chili ($8.50). There will be a rotating brunch menu on Sundays, and a Brooklyn Beer Dinner is in the works, according to Cofield. For a full look at the menu, go to metropubandgrill.com.

Smyrna Goes Upscale with a Brewpub

As the self-proclaimed “first casual upscale restaurant” in town, The Inn at Duck Creek brings farm-to-table and linen serviettes to the restored historical landmark at the Four Corners intersection of Smyrna. After months of renovations to the buildings at Main and Commerce streets (originally erected in the early 1700s), The Inn opened on Dec. 30.

Co-owner Howard Johnson spent years in the quick-service industry (think Subway and Dunkin’ Donuts) before partnering with Donna Ignasz, a finance and banking specialist for PNC. Johnson says the major challenge during the restoration process was dropping a restaurant and bar into a historical building while maintaining its charm and integrity.

“We had a choice to either tear down these buildings before they crumbled, or carefully restore things,” says Johnson. “With the help of [property owner] Edward Ide and i3a, an engineering and construction firm here in town, we were able to do the latter, and I think we will be rewarded for that effort in the long run.”

Set among four buildings at 2, 4, 6 and 8 Main Street, the Inn at Duck Creek boasts four dining rooms and a fifth private room on the third floor of the main building, as well as a 24-seat tavern and several fireplaces. At the bar, the shout-out to local craft is evident.

“We’re featuring the best that Smyrna has to offer at the bar, including spirits from Painted Stave, beers from Blue Earl, and wines from Harvest Ridge, which is in nearby Marydel,” says Johnson, who believes the inn will only help Smyrna’s continuing renaissance.

Just outside of town, along South DuPont Highway, Brick Works Brewings & Eats will be open this month. Specializing in housemade beers, handcrafted cocktails and locally sourced foods, Brick Works pays homage to Smyrna’s brick industry.

The brewpub, a first in Smyrna, is the brainchild of Eric Williams and Ryan Maloney, of Mispillion River Brewing, and Kevin Reading and Laura Burton, of Abbott’s Grill, both located in Milford. The group chose to head north for this dining destination, according to spokesperson Lauren Bigelow, “because of the burgeoning population and culture of the city.”

With brewers and chefs at their fingertips, monthly beer dinners are on tap at Brick Works, beginning April 21 at 6 p.m. Tickets are currently available at Fabbottsgrillde.com.

Rob Kalesse
After spending eight years as a reporter and editor with Spark Magazine, Rob entered the freelance writing and editing market in 2013. Since then, the University of Delaware journalism graduate has enjoyed writing for Out & About, focusing primarily on the food and craft beer scene. On Friday nights, you can find him tending bar in Trolley Square at Kelly’s Logan House, where he also books local bands. Rob enjoys playing golf and softball, and lives in Union Park Gardens with his wife, Cristina, a history teacher at Alexis I. duPont High School, and their puggle, Daisy.