If you haven’t been to To fish in Lewes for a while, you’re going to be surprised. The previously cramped bar area is now a contemporary lounge with booths, and you can no longer see people networking in the expanded banquet area. Outside, the beautifully landscaped patio features private cabanas, a cozy fire pit, and pergolas that provide shade. The renovations are at the height of the journey of the owner SoDel Concepts. “Every five years, a restaurant is ‘hit’,” said Mike Dickinson, vice president of the Rehoboth Beach-based hotel group. “Sometimes that means it’s completely redone,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a new coat of paint and new tables. It depends on what the client needs, from a business point of view and what the design world tells us. Beach restaurants have an advantage that their northern counterparts don’t: they can close during the off-season without losing a large chunk of their clientele. Thus, they can present a new face to summer visitors looking for avant-garde cuisine and a unique atmosphere.
The case for changeSoDel Concepts is in line with industry recommendations. According to the National Restaurant Association, it’s common for restaurants to renovate every five to seven years. Sooner is often better than later at the beach. At the resorts, restaurants take a beating and the wear and tear quickly becomes evident. It’s not pretty because tourists expect perfection. In the winter, Indigo in downtown Rehoboth Beach closed for nearly a month for interior and exterior painting and the installation of new carpet, tile, and a service bar. Raghu Kumar and his father opened the Indian restaurant in 2018 – it’s the first in the area – and it was time to freshen up. A building’s age can require frequent upgrades, and there’s no shortage of older restaurants on the beach. For example, Matt’s Fish Camp in Lewes is in a structure that once housed Lazy Susan’s and Tijuana Taxi – in other words, it’s been there for a while. Recent projects included new kitchen flooring. After buying One Coastal on Fenwick Island, which is also in an old building, Matthew Kern and his wife, Karen, spent a month painting the interior and redecorating before it opened in February. At Lewes, Megan Kee inherited a host of potential issues. Bramble & Brine at The Buttery is housed in a mansion dating from around 1894. As well as painting and papering, it has refinished the floors in Lewes Restaurant, remodeled the bathrooms and restored the Victorian woodwork. It should be noted that Kee rents the space from the owners of Big Fish Restaurant Group. In the hospitality world, tenants pay primarily for repairs and renovations.
Keep up with the times
Kee and Kern’s changes reflect the new owner. But even a restaurant with the same owner needs an update to stay relevant. Decoration – like fashion – goes in and goes out of fashion. Thanks to Pinterest and Instagram, this is happening more frequently and tourists are being warned. SoDel Concepts is inspired by the style of its new restaurants, especially if it is the second or third location of an existing concept. After Harvest Tide Steakhouse opened a second location in Bethany Beach, owner Danio Somoza wanted to upgrade the first in Lewes. “The Bethany locations look more elegant,” he said. He plans to add a patio to Lewes and will make some changes inside. In the future, he may rebuild the restaurant on the site. Likewise, Matt’s Fish Camp at Fenwick Island, which opened in 2021, is “trendier” than its two siblings, Dickinson acknowledged. “So you fill in the other two to keep them similar. We don’t want them to be identical, but we want them to have a similar feel. The first Matt’s Fish Camp in Bethany Beach closed for more than two weeks in the winter. “We redesigned the whole aesthetic,” Dickinson said. “There’s all new furniture, new booths, and we’ve redone the floors.” Workers also redid the HVAC in the building, which has housed Matt’s Fish Camp since 2011 and was the Seaside Grill before then.
Improve the experience
Bethany Matt’s Fish Camp has a now more functional open kitchen. For example, hanging shelves now hang from the ceiling to provide usable space below. Improvements like these reflect changes aimed at increasing efficiency. Others respond to industry trends; for example, consider the shift to outdoor dining during the pandemic. “It forced us to dedicate resources to outdoor spaces,” Dickinson agreed. “What we did at Fish On was substantial, which worked well for us.”
Bethany Blues in Lewes is improving its outdoor space in a three-phase renovation that includes a redesign of the dining area. However, one of the most notable changes is the addition of Bethany Blues Express, a quick service concept, at one end of the existing building. “All of our take-out and online orders go through this,” explained Jessica Nathan, director of operations. “There is seating for people, but it’s not a full-service experience.” He will also have a carrying case. The management team had the idea for the express item for a while, but when the pandemic hit — and takeout soared — they pushed the plan forward. At the original Bethany Blues in Bethany Beach, an expanded kitchen handles the increase in takeout without the dedicated concept or the “bells and whistles,” said Zac Warner, operations manager. The Lewes site is also getting a lounge in an underutilized back area that will offer craft bourbon in a dedicated bar. Similarly, The Fox Hole in Milton added cushioned chairs and a socializing area when it began offering brunch. “We’ve added high-speed internet so customers can come and sit down,” owner Kristen Latham said. To its concept SiP Eats & Treats Café in the Tanger Outlets, she expanded the space to add energy drinks, fruit whips and more retail. With an eye on waning surges, these operators are clearly hoping that post-pandemic customers will stop and stay — in or out.