Bethany Beach, Delaware — Photo courtesy of Marla Cimini
Encompassing several scenic beach towns, including Rehoboth, Dewey, Bethany, Fenwick Island and Lewes, coastal Delaware is a pocket of laid-back tranquility that has been known to come alive during the summer months. In recent years, the restaurants, cafes, breweries and other seasonal food businesses have seen a substantial upswing in customers – and now most local establishments stay open (and remain busy) all year long.
The dining scene in coastal Delaware has been elevated into a vibrant oceanside destination with an assortment of restaurants. The food-focused businesses’ growth and transformation has inspired the Southern Delaware tourism association to trademark the area, the “Culinary Coast.”
It’s no surprise that coastal Delaware is considered stylish these days – it happens to be the location of United States President Joe Biden’s summer home. The area is also referred to as the “nation’s summer capital,” as it’s a favorite vacation destination for many Washington area residents (in addition to locals from the nearby Philadelphia and Baltimore).
The Cape May – Lewes ferry transports passengers across the scenic Delaware Bay (multiple times daily), allowing the Delaware beaches to be easily accessible from the Garden State as well. Similar to other U.S. coastal regions, during the COVID pandemic, the area became increasingly busier with year-round residents.
Southern Delaware Tourism’s communications manager, Tina Coleman, pointed out that agriculture is the number one economic driver in Sussex County, followed by tourism. She says, “Our culinary scene has [seen] an evolution over the past decade. Chefs started doing some very creative things with our local, beautiful fresh ingredients from the land and the sea. Our chefs work well with each other and there’s a lot of friendly competition in the area, which is really cool. Delaware is a small state and everyone knows each other, so there’s a real culinary community here.”
Where to eat
Crooked Hammock Brewery — Photo courtesy of Marla Cimini
Josh Grapski is the founder and managing partner of La Vida Hospitality, the parent company of several highly-regarded local restaurants with laid-back beachy vibes and inventive food options. That includes Crooked Hammock, a casual colorful brewery and restaurant with lawn games, outdoor tables and family-fun vibes; and Big Chill Beach Club, a sprawling seaside establishment that features panoramic ocean views and a menu of classic seafood dishes combined with inventive specialties.
As a chef who trained professionally at the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College in Philadelphia, Grapski also worked at top New York establishments and owned restaurants in California. He moved to coastal Delaware in 2005 and never looked back.
With a passion for the beach towns and the growing culinary scene, Grapski emphasizes that small farms, bee keepers, specialty food makers, breweries and the aquaculture community are all a part of it. He says, “Coastal Delaware’s culinary scene is a combination of several elements. We’re surrounded by farmland, so we have wonderful produce and we’re next to the ocean, which gives us fantastic seafood…a great foundation for a sophisticated food scene.”
Big Chill seafood salad — Photo courtesy of Marla Cimini
He continued, “I think of us as a real culinary oasis here. We have a community of about ten thousand people who live here year-round. It’s fantastic that this population is able to support our restaurants and markets. We love the community here because it’s a small-town feel, but there’s also a lot of culture. I became friends with most of the other restauranteurs right away, despite being the ‘new kid on the block.’ We are friendly competitors and that’s really special. We have a great work-life balance.”
In addition to the upscale and modern restaurants, these beach towns still offer a bit of everything for all palates – and fun boardwalk specialties are a still a big part of the mix – such as legendary The Ice Cream Store’s incredible number of handmade flavors and the renowned Grotto Pizza, which now has several locations throughout the area.
Coastal Delaware’s dining scene isn’t entirely new. Several local institutions, including restaurants such as The Back Porch Cafe and Blue Moon are considered iconic and must-visit establishments that have been a part of many families’ vacation traditions. Grapski explained, “We owe a lot of credit to these forefathers who opened restaurants and figured out how to make them work over the years. So many of us are thriving because they paved the way and have been successful.”
Another area hospitality company, SoDel Concepts, has also grown substantially over the years and today features a number of award-winning eateries that attract food-lovers. Their ethos is “beautiful, simple food,” and SoDel’s restaurants include the popular Matt’s Fish Camp, along with Bluecoast Seafood Grill and Raw Bar in Bethany Beach, an upscale waterfront destination that offers a wide assortment of fresh seafood specialties accompanied by lovely sunset views over the bay.
Where to get a drink
Chesapeake & Maine restaurant — Photo courtesy of Marla Cimini
Beer enthusiasts also have a reason to adore coastal Delaware, as there are about a dozen breweries in the region, including Revelation, Big Oyster, Dewey Beer Company and Thompson Island. The brewery that started it all is Dogfish Head, a pioneering establishment that opened in 1995 as the first craft brewery in the state of Delaware. (At the time, it was also the smallest commercial craft brewery in the United States).
Over the years, this tiny brewery received many accolades and honors, including a James Beard Award in 2017. Today, the company has expanded considerably, and visitors can dine at Dogfish Head Brewpub in Rehoboth Beach and enjoy an extensive menu of beer and casual, tasty offerings.
Next door is Dogfish’s upscale, nautical-themed restaurant, Chesapeake and Maine, reflecting founder Sam Calagione’s deep family connection with these destinations. This stylish restaurant features a selection of seafood sourced only from the local waters, as well as from the state of Maine (and yes, the gourmet lobster roll is a best-seller). Chesapeake and Maine is also known for their award-winning cocktail menu, showcasing innovative libations incorporating their craft beer and house-made distilled spirits.
In addition, the flagship Dogfish Head also has a nearby brewery (with a tasting room and kitchen) in Milton that attracts visitors all year long. And if you want to establish a basecamp for your foodie adventures, book a stay at the Dogfish Inn, a 16-room boutique hotel that opened in 2013 in the town of Lewes.
Dogfish beer & flight — Photo courtesy of Marla Cimini
Dogfish Head’s Director of Beer and Benevolence, Mark Carter, explained that the company is devoted to giving back to the community on a regular basis and they frequently support many local associations through their “Beer and Benevolence” program that raises funds for hundreds of area non-profit organizations.
This year’s theme is the environment and features the limited-release beer, “Binoculager,” to benefit the robust birding community, and “Pontoon Lagoon” to support the Delaware Center for Inland Bays. Carter explained, “Our final beer for 2021 will be called ‘In Tandem,’ which is a collaborative effort with Revelation Brewery to benefit Sussex County Land Trust for nature preservation and land protection. Next year, we will look at a different, yet equally important theme.”
Carter encourages visitors to explore the area and sip beer at other local establishments. He says, “The breweries here are a great economic driver for the region. You can make a vacation here of just visiting breweries because there are a lot of options. Most are within an easy driving or biking distance and they’re fun to check out because they all brew different styles of beer and offer unique vibes.”
Where to stay
Fire Pit at Blue Hen — Photo courtesy of Marla Cimini
Hyatt Place Dewey Beach: Enjoy the views at this modern hotel’s expansive sunset deck for fun, casual dining on the water.
Avenue Inn and Spa, Rehoboth Beach: Dine at the upscale Blue Hen restaurant with a farm-to-fork menu and a lovely outdoor patio and fire pit.
Dogfish Inn, Lewes: Stay at this famous brewery’s boutique hotel, located within walking distance to the beach – and everything in town.
Delaware travel tip
Great news for visitors! There is no sales tax in the state of Delaware, so if you’re visiting the area from anywhere in the mid-Atlantic region, it’s best to drive or rent an SUV (or larger-sized vehicle), so that you have extra space for beach chairs, bicycles, kayaks and other vacation necessities – or you can easily buy all your gear there.
Leave time for shopping excursions to The Tanger Outlets in Rehoboth Beach, a mall that’s home to over 100 stores and situated just a few minutes from the Delaware coastline.