David Leo Banks takes control of a Riverfront dining destination

If you haven’t been to the Wilmington Riverfront in some time, you might be in for a surprise. The sign for Harry’s Seafood Grill, one of the first businesses to take a chance on the area’s redevelopment, is missing. Gone are the block letters and the rectangle bisected by a surf-like curve. In its place is a swooping font that reads “Banks.” Underneath, in a straightforward type, are the words “Seafood Kitchen.”

New restaurant? Yes, and no. The red brick location is the same. The concept is the same, and even the executive chef is the same. But now the said chef, David Leo Banks, is the sole owner, and as with the new logo, he’s showcasing an inventive streak grounded in classic traditions.

Banks, a frequent guest on Comcast’s The Chef’s Kitchen, is no stranger to the hospitality business in Delaware. He helped open Harry’s Savoy Grill in North Wilmington in 1988, and he partnered with Xavier Teixido, the owner of Harry’s Savoy Grill, to open Harry’s Seafood Grill in 2003. He’s represented Harry’s Hospitality Group at hundreds of food-related events.

But now Banks has a chance to shine in the limelight of his own making. The name of the restaurant is a start. Banks, however, is simply leveraging his brand equity. “I’ve been doing this for a while, and I’ve gotten good press,” he says. “It’s not as much about ego as it is common sense.”

Friend and colleague Ed Hennessy might agree. “Dave is first a ‘chef’ among all his titles, which include businessman and culinary community fundraiser,” says Hennessy, instructional director of the culinary program at Delaware Technical Community College. “He has earned the professional credentials and the business success.” 

A Firm Foundation

The youngest of five children, Banks grew up in the Newark area. At age 12, he started making omelets using a specialty pan that folded to create the perfect half-moon. At 16, he became a dishwasher at Schaefer’s Canal House. From there, he moved to the Hotel du Pont, where he worked in the kitchen beside Dan Butler and Tom Hannum, who also became well-known area chefs and restaurateurs.

In the 1970s, fine dining was dominated by classically trained European chefs with intimidating demeanors and an intolerance for errors. At the hotel, Executive Chef Hubert Winkler, who had worked in Austria and Switzerland, was no different. He was matched by Maria Russak, the breakfast cook in the Green Room.

“It was a good foundation—the way it should be,” says Hannum, who is now executive chef and an owner of Buckley’s Tavern. “We learned to do things the proper way.”

Banks, who was a wild child at Newark High School, said the chefs’ stern stance was “good for me.” Evidently, it also inspired him. In 1979, he headed to the Culinary Institute of America, where Butler was already a student.

Building a Career

Banks prepares a scallop dish.

After graduation, he returned to Delaware, where he worked at Ristorante Carruci, Bellevue in the Park and the Kitty Knight House—all legendary restaurants in the 1980s. In 1988, he got a job with 1492 Hospitality Group, which owned the Columbus Inn and opened Harry’s Savoy Grill. When Teixido left the company in 1993, he kept Harry’s Savoy, and Banks stayed with Teixido.

The men shared a strong work ethic, a respect for classic techniques, and a dare-to-be-different attitude. It didn’t matter that Harry’s Savoy was known for prime rib, steaks, martinis, and, at the time, cigars. They wanted to serve rare tuna only seared on the edges and wild salmon flown in from the Northwest—long before such items peppered area menus.

In 2010, Teixido, Banks, and Kelly O’Hanlon partnered to purchase Kid Shelleen’s Charcoal House & Saloon, which Teixido had helped open when he was with 1492. Banks served as the executive chef for all the restaurants, as well as the banquet facility that adjoins Harry’s Savoy Grill.

To say the least, he was busy. Restaurants have long and erratic hours. But Banks, who has three children, says the hospitality industry was not the reason for the demise of his first marriage. “Many people in many industries get divorced,” he notes. “I’d never blame it on the industry. Nor would I blame an addiction on the industry. You have to take personal accountability for everything.”

In some ways, Banks has made a fresh start. He married Jessica Donnelly in 2016. Last year, it was time to take his career in a new direction. After nearly 30 years together, Banks and Teixido decided to break up the partnership. Banks left both Harry’s Savoy Grill and Kid Shelleen’s and became the sole owner of the Harry’s Seafood Grill property.

Banks Seafood Kitchen is Born

Some might wonder why Banks did not make the leap earlier. He says he believed in the Harry’s brand and liked the people with whom he worked. In the fall of 2017, the timing was right, and the financing was available.

He appreciated the seafood concept and the riverfront location. He also liked the décor and the menu. With the help of his wife, a designer, he’s made small changes, such as the addition of photographs of shells by Jim Graham. From a distance, they look like glossy oil paintings.

Except for the sign and new appointments, regulars might not realize that anything has changed. Much of the staff has stayed on, and many favorite dishes remain. Banks is proud that under his tenure, Harry’s Seafood Grill was among the first restaurants in the area to offer soft-shell crabs as soon as they’re available. They were on his menu as early as mid-March.

He has, however, enhanced the menu. “I’m a creative guy,” he says. He’s devoted particular attention to the “ceviche and specialties” section, which has been a big seller since Harry’s Seafood Grill opened. “It was a way to get creative raw seafood dishes into the dynamic,” Banks says. He did not want to do sushi rolls because in 2003, there was a sushi spot in the Riverfront Market. Plus, “if I can’t make good sushi rolls then I’m foolish to try. They can be the best thing you ever had or the most god-awful thing you ever ate,” he says.

But he did know more than a thing or two about raw or marinated fish, including ceviche—popular in Peru and other Latin American countries—sashimi, and, more recently, poke, a Hawaiian dish of cubed fish dressed with a soy-laced sauce. On a recent visit, there were 10 items under the ceviche category. “Ceviche is the perfect vehicle for fresh, exciting flavors,” he says.

Since tuna is now so popular, he’s bumped up the type and the variety of preparations. He’s also introduced a Hawaiian fish, kajiki.

The new logo includes a notary-like circular stamp with the words “Raw Bar” in the center, and there are between 9 and 12 different oysters on any given day. (The half-priced oyster special is still available at the bar on Tuesdays and Thursdays.) Since Banks took over the restaurant, sales of the raw bar items are up 15 percent, he says.

He has also beefed up a non-seafood sandwich selection that includes brisket on a smoked rosemary bun with slaw and fresh jalapenos and a bahn mi Kobe beef hot dog with pickled vegetables, cilantro, and sriracha aioli.

“I love a good bar sandwich that you hold in your hands, and when you take a bite, juices run down onto the plate—give me a napkin and it will keep me going,” he says.

In addition to the Harry’s Seafood Grill site, the deal included Harry’s Fish Market + Grill in the adjoining Riverfront Market, which Banks has transformed into Banks Seafood Kitchen, Burgers and BBQ.

Diverse Diners

Banks estimates that about 20 percent of the people who have walked in the door since he took over believe they’re in a totally new restaurant. Banks says that’s because more than a few have never been to the location before. “They want to check us out, and that’s great.”

Ahi tuna timbale is a Banks’ specialty.

Happy hours continue to attract many of the workers and residents around the area. Seeking to boost traffic after the traditional dinner hour, which is earlier than when Banks first started in the industry, he’s offering a selection of seafood snacks and half-priced drafts from 8:30 p.m. until closing.

Located near the train station, the restaurant is also a hot spot for businesspeople and travelers. Storing luggage for customers while they dine is a common practice.

Banks hopes the construction of residences nearby will bring more retailers to the area. He’s encouraged by the increase in activity and construction since Harry’s Seafood Grill first opened but would still like to see more foot traffic.

He’s willing to give it time. As Banks’ career proves, good things come to those who wait.

Pam George
Pam George has been writing about the Delaware dining scene for more than 15 years. She also writes on travel, health, business and history. In addition to Delaware newspapers and magazines, she’s been published in Men’s Health, Fortune, USA Today and US Airways Magazine. She’s the author of “Shipwrecks of the Delaware Coast: Tales of Pirates, Squalls and Treasure,” “Landmarks & Legacies: Exploring Historic Delaware,” and “First State Plates: Iconic Delaware Restaurants and Recipes.” She lives in Wilmington and Lewes.