For years, most people have known Wilmington, Del., only as the place they send their credit card payments. The city has been the return address for an outsize proportion of American corporations, particularly banking, thanks to business-friendly regulations. That led to an impressive big city skyline, but the areas surrounding the main business district are growing as draws. Neighborhoods that once housed things like trolley barns and mills where DuPont manufactured gunpowder are now trendy enclaves, and a 1.75-mile walkway along the Christina River on the east side has emerged as a center for food and entertainment.
You won’t find any of the namesake cars in the Trolley Square neighborhood anymore, but you will find a cluster of restaurants and nightspots that blend right into the historical residential buildings. And walking into Scrumptious (gotscrumptious.com; 1715 Delaware Ave.; 302-482-1029), it feels just like you’re walking into someone’s house and being invited to breakfast at a counter fabricated by a thoughtful DIYer with pride of ownership. The menu is inspired by the staff’s world travels, with tastes of India, Mexico and Manhattan. I’m immediately intrigued by the Hass Benny ($13), an eyebrow-raising vision of what it might look like if avocado toast, eggs Benedict and a turkey sandwich formed an unholy alliance. There’s a lot going on, but it totally works, brought together by a thin lemony aioli that serves as a viable stand-in for hollandaise. The coffee menu keeps the international theme, with stops in Cuba and Vietnam and an interesting Spanish offering ($4) that starts with espresso and gets a double-shot of dairy with condensed and steamed milks. There’s also a build-your-own frozen yogurt wall, presumably for a treat later in the day, but no one’s going to judge you if that’s your choice for breakfast.
The strip along the Christina River has become the center of Wilmington’s mixed-use renaissance, with residential, business and entertainment options neatly organized along the water. Right across from the baseball stadium and the children’s museum is Big Fish Grill on the Riverfront (bigfishriverfront.com; 720 Justison St.; 302-652-3474), part of a restaurant group that has a pretty solid stranglehold on the Delaware dining scene. Grab a seat on the covered patio, equipped with plenty of fans so even a particularly warm day is comfortable. While you’re still reading over the menus — there are two, both long, one that’s a base and the other featuring that day’s available seafood — you’ll get a basket of saltines and a complimentary scoop of fish dip to help you decide. Oysters are available raw and in a number of preparations. The house-baked oysters ($13.95 for six) are topped with nicely salty chunks of bacon and melted Gouda, imparting briny, earthy and creamy flavors in each bite. Crab also plays a recurring role on the menu, and if you want it on a sandwich, you can pick between the soft-shell and cake varieties. I went soft-shell ($15.95), paired with a slushie cocktail of rose, vodka and strawberry ($10) and watched the boats slowly drift down the river.
On the north side of the city, Ulysses Gastropub (ulyssesgastropub.com; 1716 Marsh Rd.; 302-691-3456) has a name that evokes both the 18th president and a James Joyce novel. The writer’s stream-of-consciousness style may be behind a menu that celebrates the origin of the dishes from all over the country and an ever-evolving list of beers on the 25 taps. You can start with the Kennett Square mushroom soup ($4 a cup), featuring fungus from the Pennsylvania farms that are just a half-hour away. Another inspiration from close to home is the cheesesteak repackaged as an egg roll ($9.95). It’s hard to imagine what the traditionalists in South Philly might think of the shaved sirloin and American cheese (served “wit” onion) all tucked in a wrapper and fried, but the result is totally convincing and less likely to leave a stain on your shirt. A dish that draws from outside the immediate region is the New Orleans classic jambalaya ($19.95), a mammoth bowl of shrimp, braised chicken and sausage. To further tie the dish to the Big Easy, the sausage is made of pork and alligator, but if you can take a taste and identify the gator, you have a better palate than I do. The chicken, however, is cooked in a chile sauce and will bite you in the best possible way.
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