Picture this: A 15-year-old Tyler Akin — now a high-profile Philly chef and co-founder of the Independent Restaurant Coalition — having afternoon tea with his friends in Wilmington, Delaware, at the Hotel Du Pont’s century-old Green Room. It was “a tongue-in-cheek goodbye” before Akin, a star varsity soccer player, went in for major spinal surgery. For the Wilmington native who’d been visiting the city’s finest dining destination since he was a kid in a tie and blazer for events like his grandma’s birthday, the stately space walked the line between “awe-inspiring” and “stuffy.”
Today — 22 years later — he runs the place.
The Green Room is now Le Cavalier, a decidedly unstuffy French brasserie. After living in New York City, D.C., and Philly, Akin never expected to return to his hometown, but with Wilmington on the rise, he and a cadre of chef friends have moved in — bringing with them impressive accolades and national attention.
The burgeoning dining scene didn’t happen organically, but strategically — thanks to one committed real estate developer and a local government that wants to compete with bigger cities to the north and south.
It wasn’t always this way for Delaware’s largest city. Wilmington is “a corporate mecca,” thanks to the many banks and companies that are headquartered in the tax-friendly state, says Jennifer Boes, executive director of the Greater Wilmington Convention & Visitors Bureau. About 32,000 people work in downtown Wilmington — and most of them leave at 5 p.m., creating a quiet zone after-hours and on weekends. There was a time when downtown dwellers could barely get a cup of coffee on a Sunday morning.
Downtown served as the headquarters for the storied DuPont corporation for over a century, until 2014 when the company stunned Delaware by announcing its decision to leave. As a financial center, the 2008 recession also hit Wilmington particularly hard.
Yet there’s always been hope for the city to grow. It’s right on the busiest Amtrak rail route and is located conveniently on the I-95 corridor between Washington, D.C. and New York. The city is home to the opulent Grand Opera House, an attractive riverfront, sports venues, important Underground Railroad history, and bike trails. And of course, no card-carrying Wilmingtonian fails to mention that it’s President Joe Biden’s adopted hometown.
For brothers Rob and Chris Buccini, these are all good things. Their Buccini/Pollin Group (BPG), a real estate development and management company, has invested $1.5 billion into downtown Wilmington since 2000. The native Wilmingtonians take that old “if you build it, they will come” mantra seriously.
Who recruited Tyler Akin to the Hotel Du Pont? The Buccinis. Who developed more than 50 downtown apartment and office buildings — with ground-floor retail and restaurant tenants — that now serve 15,000 people a day? BPG. Who operates DE.CO Food Hall, the Queen theater, Chase Fieldhouse, three downtown hotels, a beer garden, and on and on? You guessed it: BPG.
Rob Buccini calls restaurants and entertainment venues part of a “virtuous cycle”: Companies move to places where young people live, people move to places with restaurants and entertainment. “The better restaurants do, the more there are, the easier it is to attract new residents and companies,” he says.
When asked how today’s restaurant renaissance started, Wilmington insiders tend to name one spot: La Fia. Buccini estimates that 80 percent of the buildings on downtown’s main drag were vacant in 2013 when BPG lured celebrated Philly chef Bryan Sikora (known for his Queen Village BYOB, Django) to Wilmington’s Market Street. The celebrated 35-seat bistro found sustained success with special occasion and business diners, leading Sikora to open nearby Merchant Bar and Crow Bar. “Brian was the pioneer,” Buccini says. Today, those vacancies are down to about 5 percent.
Sikora, a James Beard Award semifinalist, appreciates Wilmington’s “boutique small-city feel, charm, and cool architecture.” It also offers “accessibility in all ways.” Building costs are cheaper than in Pennsylvania and so are liquor licenses — hundreds of thousands of dollars lower. And then there’s the city government’s contributions, including a $35,000 loan for furniture and signage.
Mayor Mike Purzycki tells Eater Philly that creating a “thriving restaurant culture” is part of Wilmington’s overall economic development plan. Through the Wilmington Economic Development Corporation, the city provides loans and “modest cash incentives to get the project across the finish line” to promising businesses. Along with La Fia, that financing has helped Cavanaugh’s, Chelsea Tavern, Merchant Bar, Stitch House, and Tonic, according to Purzycki.
Investing cash in hospitality projects attracts companies, and their employees, to his city — the “virtuous cycle” that Buccini mentioned. As Purzycki told Food & Wine: “If I don’t open up bars and restaurants, they could go to Philadelphia.”
Purzycki adds that “what’s occurred in Wilmington over the past 20 years or so regarding residential and business growth has happened without gentrification ... none of these efforts include removing people or businesses from where they live and work in order to replace them with other people or businesses. Gentrification doesn’t have to happen.”
Since the development is happening in a business district, it’s less likely to impact longtime residents the way that gentrification has in some Philadelphia neighborhoods, like Kensington and West Philly. Buccini echoes Purzycki’s message, saying, “We have bought over 100 properties in downtown Wilmington. We’ve never displaced a resident or business.”
The development “is a good thing and a bad thing” for Sandra Ben, the pastor at Praying Ground Community Church on East 22nd Street and director of the non-profit Safe United Neighborhoods, which hosts weekly food and clothing distributions. “Market Street [in downtown Wilmington] is improving a lot and the new businesses have made a difference, but it’s just on Market Street,” Ben, who has been living in Wilmington for over 40 years, says. Ben hopes that developers and the city won’t forget other parts of town, like her majority Black neighborhood where many people in her congregation rent their homes. “Right now, we’re waiting to see what’s happening.”
Longtime Philadelphia restaurateur Scott Stein and chef Antimo DiMeo opened Bardea, a modern Italian 120-seater in Wilmington, in 2018. Within a year, they’d earned James Beard Foundation recognition. Stein says the duo never would have opened in Wilmington if not for Rob and Chris Buccini. The Buccinis visited Stein and DiMeo’s Wayne BYOB, Ardé Osteria, almost weekly until the restaurateurs agreed to tour downtown Wilmington in 2016. They walked through BPG’s new and planned development — residences, office buildings, entertainment venues, and hotels.
“It was a no-brainer,” Stein says. “We fell in love with Wilmington. We couldn’t get a liquor license in Wayne. We shook hands in Rob’s car and that was it.”
Stein says he and DiMeo are “all in on Wilmington.” The restaurant is busy — often with members of the White House press corps in town with the president — and diners are traveling from all over the East Coast to try DiMeo’s food. In 2022, they’re opening a steakhouse next door — with design by Philly’s own Stokes Architecture & Design, known for ambience-rich destinations, including Parc and Suraya.
“The food scene in Wilmington punches way above its weight,” says Rick Fitzgerald, a longtime Philadelphia resident, Francophile, and food lover who moved with his wife, Marilyn, to Wilmington during the pandemic. “We just assumed we would have to journey back to Philly for great restaurant experiences.” Then, they dined at Le Cavalier. “It was a revelation! A gorgeous bar and maybe the best steak frites outside France.”
Next up was “a knock-your-socks-off terrific dinner” at Bardea, followed by visits to La Fia where “the spirit of Django is alive and well,” California vibes at Torbert Street Social, pizza at Crow Bar, “a top-shelf brunch” at Ciro Forty Acres, meatballs in peanut sauce at Eclipse Bistro, al fresco fun at Constitution Yards, a visit to “lovely” Snuff Mill for dinner, and wine shopping at Swigg.
The Wilmington newcomer is excited about the city’s future, especially the forthcoming Bardea Steak, housed in a BPG building. BPG has also partnered with Method Co., owner of Wm. Mulherin’s Sons, on a soon-to-open boutique hotel with an Italian restaurant, cafe, and rooftop lounge in a Frank Furness-designed 1800s brownstone.
When he left Wilmington as a kid, Akin says he “was dead set on working in restaurants that were in major markets and chasing the golden ring ... and being in big cities was the only way to do that.” With Le Cavalier, the chef did more than dip a toe back into his hometown waters: Two weeks after he opened it, he moved back to Delaware.
While living in a two-bedroom Kensington apartment during the pandemic, he got to thinking that “life would be better with a yard” for his two daughters. “I visited La Fia and Bardea,” he recalls. “I wouldn’t be missing out on things I value living here.”
“Rob [Buccini], Chris [Buccini], and Dave [Pollin] are driving what’s happening,” Akin says. “They had a vision for downtown Wilmington two decades ago, and slowly but surely it materialized.”
Now, Akin and BPG are working to bring the next generation of Wilmingtonians into the fold. In partnership with community center Teen Warehouse, they’re training local teenagers in hospitality and then placing them with well-paying jobs. JPMorgan Chase is funding the effort, which has already placed 22 young people and is training a new cohort now. “If we can help create [the] next generation of talent, then everybody wins,” Akin says.