THE BEACH-restaurant biz seems to have its own tides. Some years it's low -- when it's just the same old all-you-can-eat buffets, ribs joints and pubs -- and some years there's so much turnover it feels like a culinary surf's up. Rehoboth is the foodie's resort, always more restaurant-savvy, while Dewey Beach has gotten by almost entirely on bar food for decades. But this is a high-tide year, and Memorial Day should bring quite a few new spots to dabble in.
Lewes may still be one of Delmarva's quieter towns, but the restaurant scene there is becoming ever more ambitious and looking to pick off some of Rehoboth's dinner business. Fish On! (17300 N. Village Main Blvd.; 302-645-9790 or 877-871-3474), a sleek and wine-savvy restaurant from the founders and designers of Bethany's Redfin Seafood Grill, features a bold and brawny new-Mediterranean seafood menu from former Sedona chef Nino Mancari, just back from a winter tour of duty at London's back-to-earthy Restaurant St. John and Barcelona's neo-Catalan star Comerc 24. Fish On!, a trendy blend of high-tech and natural textures (stainless steel and concrete, leather and bamboo) anchors the town center at the new Villages at Five Points, a neo-traditional condo and townhouse development just off the junction of Route 1 and Route 9/Savannah Road. Open for dinner nightly and for Sunday brunch, it also has a long and moderately priced wine list.
Meanwhile, over in the historic section of Lewes, coffeehouse and lunchtime favorite Cafe Azafran (109 W. Market St. Lower; 302-644-4446) is now offering dinner with a menu that takes its already popular tapas a little further -- rapini with raisins, serrano ham and manchego cheese; asparagus, ricotta and basil gnocchi; sauteed foie gras with dried cherry preserves -- as well as a half-dozen larger plates such as swordfish with black olive tapenade and grilled lamb leg steak.
As usual in Rehoboth, you need a scorecard to keep track. Yum-Yum has been replaced by Cafe Zeus (37 Wilmington Ave.; 302-226-0400), which is more continental-minded -- scallops with crab sauce, fried ravioli -- than its Greek name might suggest. More intriguingly, perhaps, it has added the Argos Bar to its already large courtyard and hosts Sunday tea dances. Mod-Mediterranean Espuma (28 Wilmington Ave. 302-227-4199), has been bought by chef Jay Caputo, formerly of the similarly styled Tangerine in Philadelphia and given a lighter, more true-blue Med style. Meanwhile, Espuma's former owner, Kevin Reading, has a new "upscale East Coast restaurant eatery" and gourmet carryout called Nage on Route 1 next to Hickman's Meat Market (302-226-2037). The menu at Nage (the classic French term for a seafood stock) still displays Reading's fondness for Med flavors; he'll offer tuna escabeche with spicy fennel, crab galette with sweet mustard, smoked quail, Arctic char "in a brown bag," broiled rockfish with smoked oysters and Pernod spinach; plus mesquite-smoked duck, hot and sour ribs, and lamb with blood-orange marinara.
Coming to the Second Street end of Wilmington Avenue is Confucius (57 Wilmington Ave.; 302-227-3848), which is coincidentally an offshoot of a Wilmington restaurant; it will feature whole lobster in ginger sauce, Peking duck and fried sea bass along with General Tso's chicken and other old dependables. Since the old Peking Garden is being replaced by Madison's (123 Rehoboth Ave.; 302-226-0535), a family cafe offering burgers, sandwiches and seafood, Confucius will have sole claim on the Chinese-menu market. Low-carbers, note: Dos Locos, which has moved from its Baltimore Avenue site to a larger space on the other side of the dining strip (10 Wilmington Ave.; 302-227-3353), is now offering Atkins-friendly Tex-Mex.
Rehoboth now has an official Thai outpost, Seaside Thai (19 Rehoboth Ave.; 302-227-9525), an offshoot of the popular Pilin Thais in Falls Church and Vienna, plus its second full-size Japanese restaurant, Abstractions (203 Rehoboth Ave.; 302-226-0877), beneath the Sand Dollar Motel. Abstractions has a fairly long sushi list, but also offers meat and poultry dishes as well as (cooked) seafood. And over on Baltimore Avenue, the airy Aqua Grill (57 Baltimore Ave.; 302-226-9001) has a raw bar and a broad patio to match its Carib-ish menu.
Even Dewey Beach, generally heavy with surf 'n' turf and pub grub, has some new options. Justine Carpenter of Planet X has a new satellite, Venus on the Half Shell, at the foot of Dagsworthy Street (302-227-9292), which, despite the name, has a vaguely Middle Eastern look and "beach" dining on the bay, and a menu that edges into modern raw bar and seafood grill territory. MoJo's Cuban cafe offers roast lechon (pork), empanadas and Cuban sandwiches (2000 Route 1; 302-227-6877).
Bethany Beach keeps expanding, and so does the Route 26 strip toward Millville. Fat Tuna (319 Atlantic Ave./Route 26; 302-541-8200), which opened last fall only after the death of founding chef Mike Spurlock, is a quirky but audience-savvy take on Delmarva surf and turf fare: the pan-seared, mango mojo-drizzled Phat Tuna, the not-your-father's lobster-crab Cadillac Cakes and the "Las Vegas Strip" bling-blinged with Black Jack (Daniel's). Two of Spurlock's dishes still bear his name, the tortilla-crusted shrimp and "Mike's Waffle," a take-this-nacho-freaks stunner of waffle fries topped with lump crab, shrimp and cheddar jack with chipotle sauce. DiFebo daughter Isabella has opened her own restaurant, called simply Isabella's (302-539-3700, just across Route 26 from her family's longtime fave; family being family, the menu features "Grandmom's Abruzzi-style rav's," spinach lasagna and homemade gnocchi). Magnolia's (Ocean Cedar Neck Road, Ocean View, Bethany; 302-539-5671) is undergoing a huge renovation and adding a raw bar; while the Village Rotisserie Cafe (29 Atlantic Ave., Ocean View; 302-537-6157) specializes in carryout chicken. Also new: North Bethany's Seaside Grill (Route 1, 31/2 miles north of Route 26; 302-539-4415) and the Blue Crab crabhouse (Garfield Parkway next to Town Hall; 302-537-4700).
In Ocean City, where restaurateurs (and chefs) are beginning to tire of always hearing about trendy Rehoboth, the number of more food-mag-conscious, modern-American restaurants is slowly increasing. The newest addition is Jules (120th Street and the Coastal Highway in the Ocean Square Plaza; 410-524-3396) an "intimate" (read: small) surf-and-sand-colored cafe from chef Adam Sanders, whose previous stints include Sedona and Fager's Island. The menu is short, a baker's dozen items, and sticks to the traditional surf-and-turf repertoire, but with trendy twists: soy- and sake-marinated duck, balsamic- and wine-marinated lamb, blacked scallops and sesame seed-, nori- and peppercorn-crusted tuna.
The Sunset Grille off Golf Club Road in West Ocean City has a new, spiffier island-ish decor and a brighter menu (Sunset Avenue and the Bay; 410-213-8110). Liquid Assets (92nd Street and Coastal Highway; 410-524-7037), the pretty little wine-bar-inside-a-wine-store that shares a kitchen with Nebula, now offers small plates during the day as well as after hours.
Chincoteague is still best known for family-style seafood and ice cream parlors, but it does have a new gourmet deli offering Wine, Cheese & More (4103 Main St.; 757-336-2610). Considering how fresh the seafood on the island is, that's about all you need.