For a taste of the ocean without being in the water . . .
Seafood Shack. You’re not a Rehoboth regular if you don’t know about the Shack.
Turns out the shack isn’t such a shack anymore, thanks to an off-season’s worth of upgrades—indoor seating, table service, and a back patio that’s perfect for kicking back with a $3.75 margarita.
The heart of the menu is the po’ boy, with 14 varieties—from tuna to clam strip—all served on a crusty sub roll ($5.95 to $7.95). For people who can’t decide, there’s the Peacemaker—a crab cake, two crispy oysters, and two fried shrimp. We gravitate to the oyster po’ boy, its fat, briny bivalves encased in a thin, greaseless crust; ask for the chipotle-stoked remoulade instead of mayo.
Soft-shells used to be the po’ boy of choice. On a recent visit they were smaller and less meaty than in years past, but there’s still a wonderful honesty to this sandwich, the soft-shells (shipped in weekly from Crisfield, Maryland) sauteed in butter and a pinch of Old Bay and served two to an order for $11.50.
Seafood Shack, 42½ Baltimore Ave., Rehoboth; 302-227-5881. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
When you’re craving a real Italian sub . . .
DiFebo’s. With a boardwalk crammed with hoagie possibilities, it might seem odd to drive to this Italian pasta-and-chops house filled with trellises and tablecloths. But many Bethany beachgoers remember the restaurant’s humbler origins as a sandwich shop.
Luckily, you still can get those same deli subs to go. There’s slow-roasted pork loin laden with garlic and oil, fresh mozzarella with basil and roasted peppers, and a Philly-style spicy sausage sandwich. Our favorite is the classic Italian hoagie—a crusty torpedo roll stuffed with tissue-thin shavings of black-peppered ham, Genoa salami, cappicola, and provolone, then loaded with hot and sweet peppers and finished with Italian herbs, vinegar, and oil. You can linger over a Peroni at the bar and nibble on club crackers and port-wine spread while you wait.
DiFebo’s, 789 Garfield Pkwy., Bethany; 302-539-4550; difebos.com. Carryout menu $7 to $14. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
For real hoagies and real thin-crust pizza . . .
Louie’s Pizza. Aficionados know to order by the slice at this boardwalk pizza parlor adjacent to Dolle’s taffy shop. Why? The thin slices ($1.60) are partially baked, then baked again when you place your order, resulting in a crispy wedge. Pepperoni shows off Louie’s best, the coins of sausage curling up and pooling wonderfully with spicy grease. Mop it up with a napkin and dig in.
And don’t miss the overstuffed Italian hoagies ($6.25), made with D’Amorosio rolls layered with thin-sliced onion and shredded lettuce, drizzled with oil and vinegar, and sprinkled with oregano. They’re as good as you’ll get outside of Philly.
Louie’s Pizza, 11 Rehoboth Ave., Rehoboth Beach; 302-227-6002. Open 11 am to midnight daily.
If you want to eat barefoot . . .
Bluecoast. This market/cafe conjures such a beachy vibe that no one will raise an eyebrow if you show up in a sarong, glistening with Coppertone. Eat at one of the handful of tables or spirit the pristine seafood back to your umbrella.
The menu lacks a few items borrowed from Bluecoast’s upscale dinner-only dining room next door. A baked crab cake plump with sweet backfin is all a crab cake should be. House-made accoutrements—a cornmeal-dusted kaiser roll, tartar sauce with a whiff of Old Bay, and Old Bay-dusted potato chips—take the plate over the top. There are also perfectly steamed clams and crab claws and spicy peel-and-eat shrimp. Choose any of these with a side of the terrific coleslaw, made fresh to order.
Even the requisite Asian-fusion offerings work. Triangular shrimp dumplings boast gossamer wrappers, and chili-flecked shrimp lollipops get a rich ponzu mayo for swiping.
There’s a classic lobster bake Fridays through Sundays, and the market also sells seafood to cook at home. Feeling lazy? They’ll do the marinating and steaming for you, so you can catch the sunset on the beach and still have a “home-cooked” meal.
Bluecoast, 1111 Hwy. 1, North Bethany; 302-539-7111; bluecoastseafoodgrill.com. Market menu $3 to $12, crab claws $18 a pound, lobster bake $24. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner.
When you want fresh fish but don’t want the fry . . .
Cultured Pearl. Chef Kiyomi Yamanaka has decamped from Bethesda’s Matuba to join the kitchen of this bamboo-bound lair, now in its 14th year. The result is the best cooking we’ve tasted from this longtime favorite.
Begin with the oshinko mori, a generous plate of house-pickled vegetables that includes cucumber, eggplant, and carrots, the latter with an intriguing, peppery bite. The standout among the first half of the menu is a dozen littleneck clams steamed in white wine, garlic, and cilantro; ask for extras of the crusty bread to soak up the marvelous brine.
The sushi has never been better—cool, glistening, and well carved. Although tuna and salmon are disappointing, they’re disappointing at most sushi places these days. Look instead for what’s on the specials menu—the live scallop is glisteningly fresh and plump—and focus on overlooked items like surf clam, baby octopus, salmon roe, and mackerel. The sake list totals more than a dozen; any of the premium varieties will make a fine companion to the sushi.
Desserts lean more toward sticky-sweet Americana than clean Asian elegance, but that doesn’t mean you should skip them: Both the strawberry shortcake, made with a giant biscuit, and a fountain glass of mango ice cream with apple soda and whipped cream are among the best desserts in town.
Though jam-packed during the first week of the season, the kitchen handled the crowds with poise, and the waitstaff was chatty, efficient, and solicitous.
Cultured Pearl, 19 Wilmington Ave., Rehoboth Beach; 302-227-8493; culturedpearl.us. Entrees $15 to $36. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
When you’re in the mood for favas, ramps, and morels . . .
Back Porch Cafe. If Rehoboth ever had an Alice Waters moment, it was in 1974, when two Delaware schoolteachers and a furniture salesman looking for a life change arrived in a town full of nautical-themed crabhouses and opened the Back Porch Cafe.
The sage-shingled house, bordered by bikini shops and dollar stores, became Rehoboth’s first upscale American dining room. Instead of fried clams and Maryland-crab soup, diners clamored for the chef’s bouillabaisse and sherried trifle. It changed the way the area ate, and it paved the way for spots like Chez la Mer and Blue Moon, which opened soon after.
These days, amid the swirl of sleek fusion bistros, you’d fear the Back Porch might seem like a relic. But a table on the cozy back deck lit with candles and stars might be the most serene spot on the Atlantic. And chef Leo Medisch, who worked his way up through the kitchen’s ranks over 30 years, keeps his menu fresh with season-minded ingredients. You get the sense that a carton of shucked favas brings him more glee than a glistening lobe of foie gras.
Which explains why morels are the star in a melange of English peas and asparagus that quietly shows off a cut of roasted black cod. Ramps and fennel perk up perfectly crisped, cornmeal-dusted soft-shell crabs better than the bland blood-orange aioli. But a too-tart rhubarb compote and a bundle of pea tendrils can’t save a trendy appetizer, a vanilla-poached lobster. One bite of the limp little tail makes you think it died from sugar shock.
The kitchen shows a sure hand with meats. Everything’s in balance with a beautifully grilled hanger steak dappled with peppercorns and paired with leeks vinaigrette and salt-roasted fingerling potatoes with Roquefort. The heft of a grilled prime rib of pork is offset by an elegant saute of favas and butternut squash and a dollop of fragrant onion-sage marmalade.
There’s one dessert worth saving room for: a whole pear sprinkled with streusel, baked upright, and set next to a luscious pool of hazelnut sabayon.
Back Porch Cafe, 59 Rehoboth Ave., Rehoboth; 302-227-3674; backporchcafe.com. Entrees $27 to $36. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
When you’re looking for a big-city meal . . .
Espuma. Rehoboth is a fusion-happy town—you can’t help but wonder if all the chefs studied at the same mad-scientist school of food recombination. Sliced duck with yogurt-covered wasabi peas and edible flowers?
Chef Jay Caputo isn’t one of these restless mixers—except for coming out of the kitchen to mingle with diners in the noisy, color-filled dining room. There are interesting ideas aplenty on his plates—a gazpacho made from watermelon—but cleverness never detracts from his intention to communicate a few ideas clearly and distinctly. There’s a sturdiness and simplicity that begins to seem radical in context.
His scallops are fearlessly caramelized—it takes nerve to leave them on high heat that long. But they remain translucent in the center, and the sweetness of their shimmering brown caps is amplified by a light corn broth and corn-and-arugula salad. Three Day Pork—a pork shoulder marinated for a day, cooked for 12 hours, and allowed to rest in its cooking liquid another full day—has a lusciousness associated more with a pig roast than with fine dining; if only the kitchen could curb its instincts to oversalt. Similarly, a note of sweetness in the dressing of the egg-and-bacon salad (a reimagining of frisee with lardons) is all that keeps it from being a must-order.
Caputo handles desserts with imagination. Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate, centered around a warm chocolate cake, concentrates on tiny touches—a sprinkle of salt in the milk-chocolate ice cream, a spike of dried chili pepper in Mexican hot chocolate. A brown-butter blueberry cake with almond gelato is another variation of cake and ice cream, and of contrasting textures: The gelato, sitting on a sprinkle of toasted almonds, and the compote of blueberry jam and orange marmalade bring a lush creaminess to every bite of cake.
Service seldom delivers the niceties of fine dining—when entrees top $30, you expect the table to be wiped clean between courses—but the staff is amiable and professional and, when it’s not rushed, charming and helpful.
Espuma, 28 Wilmington Ave., Rehoboth Beach; 302-227-4199, espumarestaurant.com. Entrees $22 to $39. Open Tuesday through Sunday for dinner.