Thursdays are Paella Night at Café Azafrán, a small restaurant tucked in a gray clapboard house behind King’s Ice Cream on Market Street in Lewes. Chef/owner Richard Steele takes his 32-inch paella pan outdoors to create a spectacular version of the Spanish rice dish, with a kitchen sink of ingredients—chorizo and chicken, clams and calamari, shrimp, mussels and scallops.
But if you can’t make it on Thursday, try Tuesday, when the restaurant offers a three-course prix-fixe menu for $23. Or Friday, when an extended happy hour (4-9 p.m.) features $7 tapas, including spicy lamb albondigas (meatballs) and baby potatoes bravas, along with $7 glasses of wine.
Clearly, this is not your usual beach restaurant.
“We’re doing something different here,” says Steele, who was introduced to Mediterranean food by his brother, who lived in Spain for three years. While Café Azafrán’s menu “definitely leans towards Spain,” Steele says, you also can find spinach gnocchi, hummus plates and ratatouille amid the romesco sauce and serrano ham—all served up on bright dishes in the restaurant’s coffee-shop casual dining area or al fresco on one of two porches.
An additional Café Azafrán will open in Rehoboth this summer.
109 Market St., Lewes
Open year-round for breakfast, lunch and dinner; casual dress.
Entrées: $14-$20; kids’ menu; reservations for dinner only.
Agave Mexican Restaurant
Eighty tequilas, all 100-percent agave. Handblown and hand-painted margarita glasses. Grilled corn spread thick with spicy mayo. Gigantic stone molcajetes (the Mexican version of a mortar and pestle) with guacamole. A lively, noisy atmosphere. That’s what you’ll find at Agave Mexican Restaurant, which owner Chris McKeown says strives to offer “authentic Mexican food, not quite upscale, casual, and made fresh every single day.”
McKeown takes his vision of authenticity seriously. He traveled to Guadalajara to study cooking, and came back with a cache of recipes as well as the handsome tin- and burlap-covered menus, the molcajetes, the margarita glasses and photographs of the region that grace the restaurant’s walls.
Don’t miss the blue-cheese-and-steak quesadillas, puffy fish tacos filled with grilled mahimahi and jicama, and Mexican classics such as pork-filled, walnut-sauced chiles en nogada.
Since opening in 2008, the restaurant has added a second-floor deck where folks can enjoy cocktails and nibbles while they wait for a table.
137 Second St., Lewes
Web site under construction.
Open year-round for dinner; casual dress.
Entrées: $12-$15; kid friendly, but no menu, boosters or high chairs; first come, first served.
There are lots of pizza places on the shore, but none better than Half Full, a 500-square-foot space with thin-crust beauties. While you can order your black olives and onions here, why not try your pie with smoked Gouda, fresh goat cheese or crumbled wild boar sausage? A well-chosen wine and beer list complements your pizza.
113 Market St., Lewes
Open year-round for dinner only; closed Sundays.
Pizzas: $11-$12 for 8-by-12-inchers.
Rehoboth Beach, Del.
Salt Air Kitchen
Salt Air Kitchen bills itself as a “Delaware beach picnic,” but when was the last time you were on a picnic that promised pan-roasted dayboat scallops or shrimp with chorizo and creamy stone-ground grits? Or butcher’s steak with rustic potato hash? Or fettuccine, with ’chovies, crumbs, chilies and capers?
Salt Air offers this and more, and you don’t even have to get sand in your shoes. Using as many ingredients as can be sourced locally, chef Nino Mancari combines fish and shellfish in a stew with tremendous depth of flavor, while a brick oven-roasted chicken tastes moist and savory.
“What we try to do is try to make it friendly and comfortable, and prepare the food in a way to make people want to pass it around the table and try everything,” says owner Jonathan Spivak. The dining and bar areas reflect that in cool gray walls with minimal decoration, save for the clothesline of bright beach towels that runs the length of one dining room.
Although Salt Air boasts one of the best happy hours in Rehoboth (appetizers are half price in the bar), it’s still kid friendly, offering a “kid fish of the day,” as well as pasta, sandwich and octopus–shaped frankfurters.
50 Wilmington Ave., Rehoboth Beach
Open year-round; casual dress.
Entrées, $16-$24; kids’ menu; no reservations.
With its clean lines and chic, minimalist décor, Confucius doesn’t look like most Chinese restaurants. “We are not a chain,” chef/owner Shawn Xiong says. “And we have a more unique menu than the typical shopping center takeout kind of thing. We got rid of common entrées like chicken wings and chow mein, and instead have a more compact menu that has a variety of different flavors and tastes and a higher concentration of seafood and fish, like salmon with black bean sauce or steamed halibut with ginger and scallions.”
The restaurant also has an eclectic, exciting wine list, based partly on suggestions from regular customers and other Rehoboth restaurateurs (who often eat here on their nights off).
Xiong is originally from China’s Hunan province, and the menu reflects that culinary influence, from chicken ginger soup to a hot pepper chicken made with several varieties of peppers and spicy enough to earn a menu warning of “HOT!”
“We may have a menu,” Xiong says, “but we ask people to use that as a reference point. We’re accommodating and flexible with our food.”
57 Wilmington Ave., Rehoboth Beach
Open year-round; casual dress.
Entrées: $15-25; no kids’ menu; reservations accepted.
Back Porch Café
“We’ve been doing the local thing for 35 years,” laughs Keith Fitzgerald, one of four partners who own Rehoboth’s rambling, blue-shingled Back Porch Café. What he means is that the emphasis has always been on local ingredients.
The venerable restaurant features an eclectic menu that boasts French and Asian influences. “[Chef/owner] Leo [Medisch] leans heavily towards organ meats,” Fitzgerald says. “Leo does sweetbreads; nobody does sweetbreads here [in Rehoboth]. We’ve had liver on the menu. We’ve had kidney.” The restaurant also offers exquisite fish, guinea hen and a wine list as fine as any in town.
If all this sounds fancy, it is, but the Back Porch still feels more elegantly casual than casually elegant. Dining tables fill the restaurant’s rustic breezeway, stained glass embellishes the dining room windows and deck tables are overhung by climbing vines and trees.
The kitchen rejects changes or substitutions from adult diners, but is far more accommodating for children. Fitzgerald says he encourages regulars to bring their kids’ food, though the restaurant certainly will make up plates for kids. And if your child likes pizza, he says, phone in an order. “If we’re not busy, we’ll go and get it for you.”
59 Rehoboth Ave., Rehoboth Beach
Open weekends May-October and daily from June-September; casual dress.
Entrées: $25-$36; no kids’ menu but accommodates children; reservations accepted.
Many of Rehoboth’s best restaurants are found on or around Rehoboth Avenue, the main route to the beach. But not Nage. Located in a shopping center on Rehoboth’s other main drag, the Coastal Highway, this chic restaurant takes to heart its motto of “creative food without the ’tude.”
Nage’s menu is full of familiar ingredients tweaked in unfamiliar ways: a burger made with house-ground prime rib on a house-baked roll with house-smoked and pickled onions (named the best burger in Delaware by The Food Network Magazine). Or tea-smoked duck breast. Or sea bass served with chickpea polenta. A $17 early-bird supper is available before 6 p.m., and chef Hari Cameron says the kitchen will happily accommodate vegetarian or vegan needs.
“Nage really strives to be a bistro where there’s something for everybody, where local meets progressive,” Cameron says.
19730 Coastal Highway, Rehoboth Beach
Open year-round; beach casual.
Entrées: $15-$34; no kids’ menu, but kitchen will create meals for children; reservations recommended.
Bethany Beach, Del.
Owner/chef (and Kensington native) Matt Haley won’t claim that Bluecoast has the best view in Bethany (with five other restaurants and a catering company under his ownership, you can’t play favorites), but it would be hard to find a better one when the sun goes down over the nearby 100 acres of wildlife that skirt the bay.
Beautiful as they are, views of nesting osprey and dynamite sunsets aren’t the only draws for guests. Bluecoast offers what Haley calls “classic East Coast cuisine.”
“We’ve always been farm-to-table, always served food indigenous to the area,” he says. That means crab cakes, Baltimore-style fried oysters, grilled tuna and flash-fried soft-shell crabs. This year, the full service fish market has been replaced with a raw bar, making the sometimes long wait for a table a little bit more bearable.
1111 Highway 1, Bethany Beach
Open round-round; casual.
Entrées: $18-$28; kids’ menu; no reservations.
“It’s simple food in some respects,” owner Marian Parrott says of Sedona’s menu, “but you can’t adulterate fresh ingredients too much. You want that shining to come through.” That means that clams casino and conch fritters still taste of the sea. But Parrott does add a certain flair to her food. Take the “Brie-L-T”: An innovative appetizer of brie, tomato jam, arugula and bacon on crusty bread, it’s a favorite choice on Tapas Tuesdays, when diners can choose three appetizers for $20.
Although the menu changes frequently (it “gets bigger as the summer comes because of what’s available,” Parrott says), expect a half-dozen or so entrées, with an emphasis on seafood, such as Fettucine Nemo (brimming with shellfish or giant 12-ounce lobster tails). Also expect a warm greeting as Parrott wants “everyone to feel comfortable.”
26 N. Pennsylvania Ave., Bethany Beach
Open in season; casual.
Entrées: $24-$39; kids accommodated; reservations accepted.
Fenwick Island, Del.
How do you survive as a restaurant in Fenwick for 20 years? “Hard work, good service and good food,” says Nantuckets owner David Twining. But there’s another reason regulars and vacationers clamor to fill the tiny parking lot: high-quality comfort food.
In the pastel dining room, folks at tables with white linens gravitate toward such longtime favorites as quahog and scallop “chowdah,” breadcrumb-topped lobster shepherd’s pie and bouillabaisse thick with mussels, clams, shrimp and scallops in a tomato-saffron broth.
And on weekend nights, the wood-paneled, high-ceilinged Tap Room is hopping with folks watching baseball on the televisions above the bar or catching up at one of the four-tops. You can order from the dining room menu here, but then you’d miss toothsome burgers, spicy Nawlins shrimp and sausage and a tenderloin panini with brie and sherried mushrooms.
Nantuckets offers specials, but you’ll always find a crab cake on the menu. “If I took it off, I’d probably be shot,” Twining says.
Route 1, Fenwick Island
Open year-round; casual dress.
Entrées: $24-$30; kids’ menu; reservations accepted.
Ocean City, Md.
Ocean City is known for being a family destination, but Liquid Assets is clearly for adults (though children are welcome). Both a packaged-goods store and a bistro with a wide-ranging menu, the place boasts one of the largest wine lists in town, offering any bottle from its well-stocked shelves for the retail price plus $10 (still a considerable savings from regular restaurant markups).
Patrons can sip and nibble at the understated bar and lounge that dominates the wine shop portion of the building. Or, they can grab a table in the dining room, which resembles a wine cave, only cleaner and warmer.
“We have a wonderful cheese program to go with wine, with 30 different cheeses to choose from, from brie to blue,” says Denver Gerhart, the restaurant’s manager. “The Smith Island crabmeat is the freshest it can be because we get it every day,” he adds, and the beef for the L.A. Burger is ground in house and topped with house-made relish. The menu also has no shortage of spicy foods, offering spicy fried shrimp with aged chorizo grits, an ahi tuna burger with kimchi and siracha aioli, and a chipotle-marinated flank steak garnished with marinated radishes.
Corner of 94th Street and Coastal Highway, Ocean City
Open year-round; smart casual dress (no bathing suits or beach attire).
Entrées, $10-$23; kids’ menu available; first come, first served.
Mary K. Zajac writes from Baltimore.