Best Driving Vacations: Welcome to the Culinary Coast
Travel beyond the boardwalk to discover Rehoboth Beach and the surrounding towns, a dining mecca with an abundance of homegrown, artisanal products.
Rehoboth Beach, DE | 515 miles away | 8.5-hour drive
On a typical sun-splashed Saturday, the boardwalk in Rehoboth Beach is humming. Couples sit on white benches with cones of Kohrs Bros. Frozen Custard. There is a line for Thrasher’s French Fries, which only come with vinegar—ketchup is verboten. The ocean breeze carries the happy squeals of children at Funland amusement park.
On Rehoboth Avenue, it’s common to rub elbows with politicians. After all, this Delaware getaway is “The Nation’s Summer Capital,” a slogan that has new meaning with the election of President Joe Biden, who has a second home here. Just off the avenue, visitors have traditionally snapped photos of the giant Dolle’s sign over the boardwalk. Though the landmark is scheduled to come down when the saltwater taffy store moves a few doors over, many things about this charming beach town remain picturesque as a postcard.
Nearly a nine-hour road trip from Columbus, Rehoboth Beach was founded in 1873 as a Methodist camp meeting retreat. By 1881, the meetings were over, but tourism had a firm footing. With fewer high-rises, Rehoboth is quieter than nearby Ocean City, Maryland, but this LGBTQ-friendly town is far from dull. There are drag shows at the Blue Moon—an upscale restaurant with a lounge—and musicals at Clear Space Theatre. National headliners perform at the Bottle & Cork in nearby Dewey Beach, known as a party town, and at the Freeman Stage, an outdoor venue near Fenwick Island on Delaware’s southern tip.
The beachside bustle may be quieter this year, but it’s worth the trip for the food alone. The stretch from Lewes, just north of Rehoboth, to Fenwick Island is known as the “Culinary Coast.” With breweries, wineries and James Beard Award honorees, Delaware’s resort towns have become year-round destinations for travelers seeking distinctive dining.
Where to Stay
A downtown Rehoboth rental or hotel offers easy access to the beach, boardwalk, shops and restaurants. The oceanfront Boardwalk Plaza boasts a charming 19th-century vibe. Linger over brunch in Victoria’s restaurant, which is tiered for views of the boardwalk and beach.
The Bellmoor Inn & Spa’s older section overlooks lush gardens. The hotel’s main section, built in 1999, recently underwent an overhaul, and the new owner is adding a lobby bar and restaurant. After its own renovations, Avenue Inn & Spa shares a building with The Blue Hen, a semifinalist for a James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant. Try the lobster toast or fried chicken.
The 52-room Hotel Rehoboth is farther from the ocean but offers seasonal shuttle service. Lupo Italian Kitchen, which has an all-Italian wine list, is in the same building. Cultured Pearl, an Asian restaurant with a rooftop deck and carp-filled canals, sits across the street.
Lots of Libations
Those more interested in suds than the sea should head to Lewes for the 16-room Dogfish Head Inn, a two-story motel under the Dogfish Head Craft Brewery umbrella. Founder Sam Calagione, a James Beard Award winner, opened Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats in Rehoboth in 1995 with a 10-gallon system that made 0.3 barrels per batch. In 2019, the company merged with the Boston Beer Co., which makes Samuel Adams Boston Lager, but it has kept its “off-centered” identity.
Dogfish Head’s Rehoboth Beach restaurant still has a small brewing system, now producing experimental beers. The staff worked with Fifer Orchards to create a beer made with apple cider doughnuts, and with Rapa Scrapple to make Beer for Breakfast. (A Delaware staple, scrapple is mush typically made with pork trimmings, cornmeal, flour and spices.) The brewpub’s next-door sibling, Chesapeake & Maine, has an innovative, acclaimed cocktail program. Just don’t ask for Tito’s; the restaurant only offers Dogfish Head beer and spirits.
For true beer nerds, head to nearby Milton to tour the sprawling Dogfish Head brewery. Order a flight in the tasting room and play bocce ball in the shadow of the Steampunk Treehouse, which was created for the Burning Man festival in Nevada and shipped to Delaware.
Dogfish Head’s success spawned a beer-centric industry that complements tourism. In Lewes, for instance, Big Oyster Brewery and Crooked Hammock Brewery are near Cape Henlopen State Park, which offers bay and ocean beaches, hiking trails and camping. You’ll also find Crooked Hammock’s products at its sister restaurant, Big Chill Beach Club, an alfresco eatery atop the concession stand in Delaware State Seashore Park. At night, view the neon blue-lighted bridge over the Indian River Inlet.
Revelation Craft Brewing Co. is off the Junction and Breakwater Trail, a rails-to-trails path that links Lewes and Rehoboth. On state Route 1, stop at Thompson Island Brewing Co. in Rehoboth, then travel to Dewey Beer Co. in Dewey Beach.
Southern Delaware wineries include Nassau Valley Vineyards, owned by chanteuse Peggy Raley-Ward, who organizes Rehoboth’s True Blue Jazz Festival. Former Dogfish Head brewer Jon Talkington owns Brimming Horn Meadery, which specializes in honey wine. Step into the building and you’ll feel as though you’re in an episode of the History channel’s Vikings. Brimming Horn is near the newly opened Georgetown-Lewes Trail, which also runs by Beach Time Distilling. Farther south, Salted Vines Vineyard & Winery is a pleasant drive from Rehoboth that will take you inland and close to the Great Cypress Swamp.
Surf and Turf
Drive west of Route 1 and you’ll undoubtedly spot long, narrow chicken houses. Cecile Steele started the booming poultry industry in 1923 when she received 500 chicks instead of 50. The enterprising Steele raised the birds for meat instead of eggs. Her former home is now the restaurant Café on 26, and a replica of her chicken house is on the Ocean View Historical Society campus close by.
Many commercial farms support the poultry industry, but there are also smaller operations like Good Earth Market & Organic Farm near Bethany Beach. Owner Susan Ryan has partnered with chef Nino Mancari to create a restaurant in the grocery store that highlights local produce, artisan cheeses, high-quality meats and veggie options.
Agritourism is hot, and some of Delmarva Discovery Tours’ most popular excursions involve farm trips. At Hopkins Farm Creamery, visitors can eat ice cream under the cows’ placid gaze.
The producer-only Historic Lewes Farmers Market, one of the largest of more than 10 along the coast, is on Saturday mornings. The Rehoboth Beach Farmers Market is on Tuesdays in Grove Park, which is next to the Rehoboth Beach Museum. Veteran vendors include Milton-based Backyard Jams & Jellies, whose beach plum jelly is a local favorite. Old World Breads is another regular. If you miss owner Keith Irwin at the market, visit his Lewes bakery next to Beach Time Distilling to kill two birds with one stone. The chicken pot pies are memorable.
At the Rehoboth market, you may meet Paul Cullen, a former bassist with the rock band Bad Company, who now sells five different kinds of house-made sausage, Paul’s Rockin’ & Rollin’ Olive Oil and Paul’s Rockin’ Tuscan Bean Hummus. He owns Paul’s Kitchen & Cullen-ary Co. outside of Lewes, a local hangout for weekend brunch and a meeting ground for gastronomic entrepreneurs and artisans.
Delaware’s waterways also influence area cuisine, and oysters are the star at Henlopen City Oyster House in downtown Rehoboth. Other options include Starboard Raw in Dewey Beach and many of SoDel Concepts’ 12 coastal restaurants.
Judging by the number of crab houses along the coast, blue crabs are as beloved in Delaware as in Maryland. Highlights include The Surfing Crab in Lewes, Claws Seafood House and The Crab House in Rehoboth, and Fenwick Crab House in Fenwick Island.
And you can’t toss a claw in Delaware without hitting a crab cake. Many insist that Woody’s Dewey Beach has the best. Owner Jimmy O’Conor has perfected a recipe that includes buttermilk, and customers flock to get them on a bun or platter.
From Farm to Beachside Table
Not surprisingly, area chefs are inspired by the abundance of produce, meat and seafood. On the menu at Heirloom in Lewes, you may spot broccoli rabe from Totem Farms in Milton or tender carrots from Baywater Farms in Salisbury, Maryland. Chef Matthew Kern, a two-time James Beard semifinalist, plates some of the prettiest dishes around.
Hari Cameron, also a James Beard semifinalist, is a longtime advocate of local ingredients. He and his brother Orion now produce delicious and often fanciful house-made pasta at Grandpa Mac, their restaurant in Rehoboth.
At Houston White Co., Sussex County native Megan Kee brings a farm-to-table touch to the steakhouse concept. Oysters are from Rehoboth Bay, which is experiencing a rebirth in aquafarming, and her jumbo lump crab cakes come from a century-old recipe. Kee also owns La Fable, a French restaurant, and Dalmata, an Italian concept, which are also in Rehoboth.
The thriving dining scene owes its fame to the Back Porch Café, whose arrival in 1974 altered the culinary landscape. Then an upstart, the café popularized outdoor dining and made-from-scratch food that spotlights seasonal ingredients. Longtime employees Dmitry Shubich and Aksana Voranova purchased the Back Porch in 2020, but little has changed. Bee Neild, who joined the team in the 1970s, remains the bartender, and chef Tim McNitt has been in the kitchen since 1997.
Save room for a wacky concoction at The Ice Cream Store, owned by Chip Hearn, who also started the Peppers hot sauce business in Lewes. Try Sharkenstein, a blend of strawberry and peach ice cream with strawberry pieces and blueberry swirl. The flavor was an official ice cream of the Rehoboth Beach Sea Witch Festival, a yearly October event.
The ice cream stand is steps from the boardwalk, so take your cone to the sand. In between bites, remember to savor the sun and sea.
The First State’s First Town
Lewes and Rehoboth merge on the beach of Cape Henlopen State Park, but most Rehoboth vacationers make the quick drive up Route 1. Lewes, pronounced “Lew-is,” is known for its history, with roots that go back to 1631.
Initially settled by the Dutch, much of its walkable downtown area is a national historic district. For background, visit the Zwaanendael Museum, a replica of the Hoorn town hall in the Netherlands, or the Lewes History Museum in the Margaret H. Rollins Community Center.
The leafy Lewes Historical Society complex has nine main structures. Tour a blacksmith shop that dates to the 1790s and the circa 1785 Burton-Ingram House, nationally recognized for its Federal-style architecture.
Lewes has boutiques and antique stores, not arcades and a boardwalk. However, a stroll on Lewes Beach is a must for the view of the twin lighthouses—the East End and the Harbor of Refuge.
The author of “First State Plates: Iconic Delaware Restaurants & Recipes,” Pam George is a Delaware-based food and travel writer who divides her time between Wilmington and Lewes.