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In Trendy Locale, Sea Changes Ahead

Friday, May 19, 2006

If looks could chill, the average temperature at Rehoboth Beach would never top 70, even in August. This is the body-conscious beach, inside and out: fashionable, food-savvy, buffed, fluffed, tanned, rested and ready -- at least, that's the locals. Summer imports can be more problematic, more Van Heusen than Tommy Hilfiger, less Big Dog than Big & Tall. The tweenie girls parade their sacral tattoos, and the waaaay out-of-towners, the Russian students with summer jobs, practice their English and puzzle over the sexual coding of earrings and piercings. And then there are the bonneted Mennonite lasses and bearded Hasidim who make surprise appearances on the beach in top-to-toe black, reminders of Rehoboth's origins as a religious (Methodist) summer retreat.

Which is to say that though Rehoboth remains the trendy resort, its essential cool is in danger of being diluted, and a kind of backlash, or perhaps just boredom, is already forming against the astro-Zen-fusion, catch-all style that long dominated both its restaurant and home accessories cliques. Several of its once-busiest restaurants have been sold or are for sale (some have been on the market long enough to have cut their asking prices substantially); the quirkier, cutting-edge furnishings galleries are fighting off a wave of cutesier, frillier boutiques; and the competition among deep-pocketed home buyers for horizon space is chipping away at the values of the modest year-round homes. Like Dewey Beach and Fenwick Island, Rehoboth Beach may be on the verge of a major personality change.

At least there's still one sign of la dolce vita: a Vespa dealer.

FRIDAY

7:30 p.m. Cocktails on the patio at Blue Moon (35 Baltimore Ave.; 302-227-6515) is a tradition, and not only for the in-crowd but for the in-friendly (as the pins at nearby Lambda Rising describe it, "Straight but not narrow"). The bar staff is first-rate, the mix of workaday and casual wear almost "YMCA"-worthy and the gossip irresistible. Then, as you walk across the main drag, you can hum along to the live music wafting from the bandstand at the foot of Rehoboth Avenue.

9 p.m. Anywhere you sit at Espuma (28 Wilmington Ave.; 302-227-4199), including the bar, the food is great (roast monkfish "loin" with lobster, fennel, olives and spinach puree; homemade white bean ravioli), and at the bar you get great conversation. But with a little forethought, you can reserve the chef's tasting table and let Jay Caputo have his way with you ($85 for six courses, $130 with wine).

11:30 p.m. The fairy tale fantasyland of the twin cottages that make up LaLa Land (22 Wilmington Ave; 302-227-3887) is well known, but the back bar is a better last-rounds hangout, and much lighter on the architectural whimsy. On the other hand, if your personal fantasies run to the Bangkok bordello look, slink into 59 Lake (59 Lake Ave.; 302-226-5900) and drape yourself over a sofa.

SATURDAY

8 a.m. Get a mini-tour of Rehoboth history -- the older, smaller family homes and even older tent-based cottages, the mid-size old beach boarding houses, the larger modern erections and the classic resort amusements -- by jogging the circuit from the oceanfront out Rehoboth Avenue to Christian Street, past Silver Lake on Bayard Avenue and back over to the boardwalk; down the boardwalk onto Grenoble Street and Lake View to First Street and back to town center. You'll pass arcade amusements, fudge and caramel popcorn, beachwear and cheap sunglasses, McMansions, pseudo-Victorian and real Queen Annes, and get an idea why this town somehow holds on to its takes-a-village soul.

9 a.m. Espresso and a smoked salmon bagel-- you earned them -- at Lori's Oy-Vey Cafe (39 Baltimore Ave.; 302-226-3066). Besides, you're going to need your strength.

10 a.m. Shopping is more than a passion in Rehoboth, it's a mission -- no surprise, considering the combination of big-name brands and Delaware's no-sales-tax smarts. The best plan is to hit the outlet malls on Route 1 in the morning, while you're (reasonably) fresh -- you will, of course, have perused online the layout of the half-dozen malls and 200 or so stores before leaving home -- and save the chic in-town accessory stores for the cool of the pre-cocktail afternoon. But even with the most organized of schedules, and practiced of teams, expect to spend a good three hours loading up on bargains. (Did you know that Chico's has a $2.99 rack?) Three of the malls are Tanger Outlets, so start there ( http://www.tangeroutlet.com/ ; 866-665-8682).

1:30 p.m. Grab some fish and chips from the window at Go Fish! (24 Rehoboth Ave.; 302-226-1044) or a veggie lover's wheat tortilla from Beach Pack Wraps (160 Rehoboth Ave.; 302-226-7801) and head for the beach. If you don't have a towel with you, remember that the old-fashioned boardwalk benches flip from front to back, so you can even your tan sitting up.

4:30 p.m. Take a break to beautify your home while fortifying your soul for the evening. The Bootlegger (46 Baltimore Ave.; 302-226-3007) is a magnet for pointy-toe foot fetishists and, at least for those with a sense of humor, leads logically to the cowpunky retro Boss Lady lunch boxes ($18-$25) at Tempest Fugit (48 Baltimore Ave.; 302-227-1228). While you're there, check out the handmade paper, meant for wrapping but nice enough for collage-style wallpaper or Martha-envies-me snapshot displays. Elegant Slumming Home (33 Baltimore Ave.; 302-227-5551) combines the off-beat and the exquisite -- and, to do its name justice, the elaborately nonessential. For the kitchen witch in your cafe, check out the gargantuan cooking utensils at Abizak's (208 Rehoboth Ave.; 302-227-6595); the whisk is big enough to ride like a broom.

6:30 p.m. Sushi bars may sound meaty to vegetarians, but the sweet potato tempura and chilled tofu with jalapeño sauce at the brand-new Japonica may lead a new generation to discover saketinis (23 Rehoboth Ave.; 302-227-3116). The name's a sort of pun: The camellia flower, which seems such a Southern glory (and which blooms beautifully in Rehoboth) actually originated in Japan and is known formally as Camellia japonica.

8 p.m. The Dogfish Head brewpub (320 Rehoboth Ave.; 302-226-2739) rarely imposes a cover for its local and regional live music. Get the bartender to set you up with a tasting from the brewery's dozen or so various taps -- the mini-brewery inside the restaurant makes some of the company's most off-beat beers -- and cut the damage with a wood-grilled pizza. Finish with the espresso bock, and you'll be ready to rally.

10:30 p.m. Step next door. The restaurant may be brand-new, but the impressive hand-carved oak and mahogany bar at Finbar (318 Rehoboth Ave.; 302-227-1873) -- named after the furniture maker himself, not his creation -- goes back to 1873 (hence the phone number) and the prints around the walls nearly as old. If you're tired of suds, here's plenty of Irish whiskeys to go around.

Midnight By now you and your voice should be well lubricated, so join the karaoke junkies at the Purple Parrot & Bird Cage Bar (134 Rehoboth Ave.; 302-226-1139). Let your bird fly free.

SUNDAY

11:30 a.m. If there's one thing New Orleans vets know, it's hangover cures. Follow their example, and chase your bloody mary with a plate of raw oysters at the new but already old-friendly Fins Fish House & Raw Bar (243 Rehoboth Ave.; 302-226-3467). The slate usually lists a half-dozen types of oysters; order a sampler with liberty and extra Tabasco for all.

12:30 p.m. Brunch at the Back Porch Cafe (59 Rehoboth Ave.; 302-227-3674) is one of the nicest al fresco choices around, what with its two decks and a breezeway full of tables. If you're lucky, they may be serving fresh shad roe, but almost anything goes well with good sparkling wine: "J" by the glass for $9 or Taittinger by the half for $33.

On the way home The beach resorts are full of barbecue joints, but nothing beats the real charcoal-grilled chicken at the Kiwanis stand on Route 113 just east of Delaware Tech (near Georgetown) and on 404 at Route 36 past Bridgeville.

Side Track

If you and your SO are fleeing a particularly stressful week, consider a spa treatment. Rehoboth, the body-conscious beach resort, has a half-dozen spas, including the large one at the Bellmoor Inn (6 Christian St.; 302-227-5800 or 800-425-2355). The couples massage there will run you $180 for 50 minutes of bliss.

Staff Writer Eve Zibart is more wild pony than wetsuit, but she can't resist a haunted house.

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