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Change in the air

Mid-life is no crisis for Mr. Henry’s

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Mr. Henry's, gay news, Washington Blade
Mr. Henry's, gay news, Washington Blade

Mr. Henry’s, a Capitol Hill mainstay, has dealt with the changing neighborhood in a variety of ways. Despite higher prices, much of the menu still works. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

On any given day, you can walk into Mr. Henry’s on Capitol Hill and see a dolled-up drag queen, a Howard University poetry professor and a young mom bouncing a baby on her knee, all sitting at the bar chatting with bartender Cheryl about her daughter’s wedding while munching on Old Bay-dusted buffalo wings and cheesy patty melts.

Forever compared to “Cheers,” Mr. Henry’s (601 Pennsylvania Ave., S.E.) has been much more than that, for nearly five decades, for many, a place that is convivial but not saccharin, where you can come in and be exactly whom you are and no one will raise an eyebrow.

However, the times they are a-changin,’ even at Mr. Henry’s (mrhenrysrestaurant.com) as it faces the inevitable challenges of mid-life: beloved bartender Rudi Appl, who worked his last shift in early summer to celebrate his 80th birthday, died in July after a lengthy illness, and longtime manager Alvin Ross retired just a month later. And then the new menu appeared, sending ripples of uneasiness across Capitol Hill, a once seedy but tight-knit community now home to Rose’s Luxury, named 2014‘s Best New Restaurant by Bon Appetit, and where the old-time dives like Sherrill’s, Lil’ Pub and Hawk ‘n’ Dove have either been run out of town or renovated to a shadow of their former selves.

Change, however, does not necessarily have to be bad, and Mr. Henry’s has made changes before — some fondly remember when Tuesdays were all-you-can-eat spaghetti night, and when former manager Alvin delightedly introduced hot dogs to the menu. Hot dogs are conspicuously absent from the new regime, while “sage aioli” and “red onion jam” are suddenly in vogue. These are the changes that strike fear into the hearts of those seeking honest pub food, in a world where even Mr. Henry’s charges $24 for a plate of crab cakes. Pricing is clearly an issue on the new menu, either a reflection of trying to beef up the bottom line or in response to recent demographics that suggest an influx of wealthier locals — prices are up across the board, including a plate of cheese nachos with guacamole that clocked in at a hefty $12.50. And if you love the Rudi roll, the glorious deep-fried dinner roll named for Mr. Henry’s late bartender, be sure to ask for it, because it doesn’t come automatically with your cup of soup or side salad anymore.

Luckily, the well-proportioned burgers — still a tasty mainstay at Mr. Henry’s — are largely unchanged, despite the fancy new condiments and the fact that the former all-purpose veggie burger has been swapped out for a black bean burger (with their distinct flavor, black bean burgers tend to taste best only with certain types of toppings, like pepperjack cheese and avocado, while a simple grain-based burger works with everything). If you like roasted red peppers, you’re in luck, because there appears to be an explosion of the little darlings on the new menu, popping up in hummus, bruschetta and grilled cheese (more on that later). Patrons won’t be disappointed by the fried clams and fish and chips, or the various weeknight specials, like Monday half-priced burger night or the Friday night fried chicken dinner, which still provide generous portions and a packed house.

But, back to the grilled cheese. Sometimes you just want a classic grilled cheese sandwich, and Mr. Henry’s had a good one — gooey American cheese melted to perfection inside a crisp golden crust of white bread, with creamy coleslaw and those crunchy house potato chips on the side. The new version, Roasted Pepper Grilled Cheese, billed as goat cheese, provolone, spinach, roasted red peppers and pesto on sourdough bread, arrived, inexplicably, on rye bread, toasted outside but cold in the center and with the provolone barely melted along the edges. It’s a small thing, but indicative of the vagaries of change: some things don’t need to be tampered with while others can be improved with tinkering. The new menu at Mr. Henry’s has a solid foundation created from almost 50 years of such tinkering, and will undoubtedly continue to explore, and discard, new ideas along the way. Just bring back the old grilled cheese, please.

Kristen Hartke is managing editor of Edible DC and writes about cocktails at goodbooze.wordpress.com.

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Dining

RAMMYs honors restaurant industry professionals

A busy summer for D.C.’s dining scene

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D.C.’s Summer Restaurant Week runs from Monday, Aug. 12, through Sunday, Aug. 18.

Representing the ever-growing, increasingly recognized restaurant industry in Washington, D.C., the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington (RAMW) held its first-ever RAMMYs Honors Event on June 18 in the lower level of the Watergate Hotel. Restaurant and hospitality industry professionals, leaders, and community members gathered to celebrate RAMMY special distinctions. 

The event took place as an extension of the traditional RAMMY Awards Gala, which honors “the exceptional ability and accomplishments” of the region’s restaurants and foodservice community. The 42nd Annual RAMMY Awards Gala will take place on Sunday, July 21, at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

The RAMMYs Honors event kicked off with a cocktail hour, and was hosted by author, seasoned democratic strategist, and co-host of MSNBC’s The Weekend, Symone Sanders Townsend.

While there were several awards presented, this inaugural event only held onto one announcement until the event itself: the RAMMYS Joan Hisaoka Allied Member of the Year Winner, presented to an associate member who best exemplifies commitment to and support of RAMW. This year, the Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School won, a school supporting adult immigrants that includes a culinary arts program.

Other honors that evening included the Duke Zeibert Capital Achievement Award Winner, which was given to Greater Washington Partnership CEO Kathy E. Hollinger “for her excellence and community leadership, increasing the profile and success of the metropolitan Washington foodservice community.” Prior to joining the Partnership, Hollinger was president and CEO of RAMW. Hollinger sat for a wide-ranging interview on stage with Sanders Townsend, who is married to Shawn Townsend current president and CEO of the RAMW. 

Finally, the 2024 Honorary Milestone RAMMY Award recipients were also honored, celebrating a significant number of years serving locals and visitors in Metropolitan Washington: The Dubliner (50 years), Black’s Bar & Kitchen (25 years), Equinox on 19th (25 years), KAZ Sushi Bistro (25 years), Marcel’s (25 years), and Passage to India (25 years).

As the restaurant industry grows in the city, for the first-time, the RAMMYS Honors event allowed for a unique opportunity to highlight a range of special distinctions determined by RAMW’s executive committee. Instead of being public-facing, the Honors were dedicated to industry professionals, to give extra attention and the spotlight to those that often get overlooked at the main RAMMYs Gala. These awards were chosen by RAMW’s executive committee whereas the other awards, given at The RAMMYS, are chosen by both the public and an anonymous panel of judges.

Summer, traditionally a slower time for the restaurant industry, means that RAMW is pulling out the stops for diners to try out new and favorite spots across the area.

First, finalists for Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington’s 2024 Wine Program of the Year will take part in promotions planned for the second week of July. From Monday, July 8, through Sunday, July 14, the region’s top wine programs will showcase their outstanding varietals and pours. The 2024 Wine Program of the Year Finalists include: Apero (Dupont Circle), Era (Mt. Ranier), Irregardless (H Street), Lulu’s Wine Garden (Shaw), and St. Anselm (Union Market). Each will have discounts, tasting parties, special blends, flights, and other ways to savor the area’s top wines.

Finally, the season also sees the return of Summer Restaurant Week, celebrating the region’s restaurant industry from Monday, Aug. 12, through Sunday, Aug. 18. Participating restaurants will offer multi-course brunch and lunch menus with updated tiered pricing for $25 or $35 per person, and multi-course dinner menus for $40, $55, or $65 per person for on-premises dining. Many restaurants will also offer cocktail, wine, and non-alcoholic pairings.

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Dining

Behind the bar with Moon Rabbit’s Thi Nguyen

Cocktails work in harmony with thoughtfully executed Vietnamese dishes

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Moon Rabbit’s Thi Nguyen

Thi Nguyen’s hands move purposely behind the bar, her all-business, cobalt blue nails gleaming under the warm lighting of recently relocated – and highly celebrated – Moon Rabbit. A dash of simple syrup infused with pandan – a shrub native to Southeast Asia with vanilla-scented leaves – moves deftly in her hands to lightly spice a cocktail that will soon receive another kick from ginger bitters.

Nguyen, Moon Rabbit’s celebrated bar manager, cannot be accused of holding back flavors from her drinks. Nor can she hold back her identity and her journey. Her journey from Saigon to Maryland to California and finally to D.C., but also her journey as a proudly out lesbian, unafraid to bring her whole self to all her pours.

Boundaries, borders, conventions: these matter little to Nguyen, who left several homes to finally find herself where she’s most comfortable, and where she acts as a leader and mentor for others to do the same. Just as she doesn’t hide her identity, she also doesn’t hide that her cocktails complement Moon Rabbit’s vibrant, contemporary Vietnamese cuisine. Owner/chef Kevin Tien pays tribute to his heritage as a first-generation Asian American, using Moon Rabbit as a platform for expressing his love for Vietnamese culture and food through a determinedly modern lens.

Her cocktails, then, work in harmony with thoughtfully executed dishes like chewy rice cakes under a tofu crumble and cured egg, deconstructed crab Rangoon, and wagyu-stuffed perilla leaves brightened by fermented honey.

Sitting with the chefs and acclaimed owner Kevin Tien, “we begin by exploring cookbooks together,” in a collaborative process, “to find inspiration and potential flavor combinations. It involves a lot of research and development, trial and error, experimentation, and technique.”

“And while this sometimes leads to failures, it ultimately helps us discover the perfect pairings.”

Her menu arrives without flavor hesitations. Cocktail names are given in both English and Vietnamese (as are the dishes), a signal that she is asking diners and drinkers to join her and trust her as unapologetic about her Vietnamese craft. 

The Hết Nước Chấm (Out of Dipping Sauce) drink is composed of vodka, passionfruit liqueur, a squeeze of lemon, and a simple syrup based on nước chấm– also known as fish sauce. While nodding to the popularity of the savory martini, this cocktail also reflects the ubiquity of fish sauce on the Moon Rabbit menu and across Southeast Asia.

Other ingredients? Sesame oil, coconut milk, palm syrup, and chrysanthemum all show up in various drinks, alcoholic or otherwise. She also creates cocktails that highlight and celebrate gay icons, drawing inspiration not just from the menu and research but also LGBTQ history and culture.

This pride in her work is reflected in the pride in her identity.

“Being part of the LGBTQ community has taught me the importance of authenticity, resilience, and inclusivity. I am unapologetic about who I am and show up at work proud of my identity, which helps create a space where others feel comfortable and supported.”

Tien, Nguyen, and his staff are highly intentional in staffing. “This commitment to inclusivity is reflected in our hiring practices; we intentionally build a diverse bar team that includes members of the LGBTQ community,” she says.

Just like her physical journey, arriving in this place of leadership and comfort took a circuitous path. In the face of microaggressions and ignorance, comments and assumptions, lack of understanding and respect, she has been able to “strengthen my resolve to create an inclusive and supportive environment.” She ensures that she’s active in events that raise funds for LGBTQ non-profits around the DMV area, including SYMAL, CCI Health Services, and KhushDC.

 “I hope to encourage other LGBTQ individuals to pursue careers in hospitality and to advocate for greater inclusivity and acceptance in their own workplaces.”

Moon Rabbit, formerly located at the InterContinental Hotel on the Wharf, closed with a shock last year (its closure took place among a unionization drive by the hotel’s staff that the hotel had opposed). Debuting in its new location in Penn Quarter in January, Moon Rabbit quickly retook its place as a top dining destination: the restaurant was recently added to the Michelin guide. In June, Nguyen herself was named one of the best new bartenders in 2024 by Punch magazine. As Pride month closes out, Nguyen remains as dedicated to her craft – and her advocacy – as ever.

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My Rehoboth Beach culinary tour

Myriad answers to the age-old question: ‘What’s the best restaurant in town?’

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(Photo by Ethan Bean)

I’ve had the privilege of indulging in Rehoboth’s evolving culinary scene for decades — from dining on Chez La Mer’s rooftop to sipping cocktails at the Blue Moon bar before the roof was installed.

The last 30 years have brought almost unthinkable change to the once seasonal small town getaway. New town homes that overlook Route 1 are going for more than $1 million. There’s not much off-season at all these days with food festivals and other events that draw tourists year round. Indeed, hotel occupancy rates for October’s Sea Witch Festival exceed those for July Fourth weekend. 

The upside to all this growth and change? Rehoboth’s culinary scene has exploded with high-quality restaurants and bars proliferating in town and thriving up and down Route 1 from Lewes to Fenwick Island and even Ocean City. In fact, the chef at Fenwick’s One Coastal was just nominated for a prestigious James Beard Award. Matthew Kern will be the first-ever Delaware chef in James Beard Awards’ history to be named a finalist in any culinary category, according to the Delaware News Journal. He will be among five chefs competing for the title of best chef in the Mid-Atlantic region. The awards are announced June 10.

As a part-time Rehoboth resident, I frequently field questions from visitors wondering: “What’s the best restaurant in town?” That usually leads to a prolonged text exchange with me offering endless choices in various categories. In an effort to answer that age-old question in a more organized fashion, I offer this roundup of my favorite haunts in the Rehoboth area in a range of styles and budgets. (And please note: These are just my opinions based on lots of experience. Inclusions/omissions are not intended to slight anyone. These things are subjective so it’s OK if you don’t like my picks.)

HIGH-END DINING

Rehoboth offers a handful of options for a truly high-end experience. For a traditional steakhouse, there’s Houston White Co. (315 Rehoboth Ave.), where an eight-ounce filet runs about $45 and a USDA Prime Porterhouse is $85. Side dishes are priced separately and shared, ranging from a $6 baked potato to $11 onion rings. The setting is probably the most formal in town. A small bar in front is always busy and staffed by friendly, knowledgeable mixologists. 

Eden (23 Baltimore Ave.) has a beach chic vibe and the menu is probably the most reliable in town. The ahi tuna — my go to — is perfectly seared and delicious rare. There’s an extensive wine list and the bar is always lively with entertaining staff. The upstairs dining room is ideal for a large party or special event. 

By far the best new restaurant to open in recent years is Drift (42 1/2 Baltimore Ave.). If you’re looking for an upscale, special occasion seafood indulgence, this is the spot. The lobster French toast gets all the press, but the entire seafood menu is as good as any in D.C., from local oysters to the crispy Atlantic swordfish schnitzel. The coveted bar seats go fast and there are only a handful of them at the unique bar that opens to the outside so go early. And this isn’t the place for a large party; the kitchen is small so take a date here if you really want to impress. The outdoor patio is lovely in good weather but the interior is beautifully decorated so that’s the better bet.

Since 1981, the Blue Moon (35 Baltimore Ave.) has been at the forefront of Rehoboth’s restaurant and bar scene, constantly evolving and working to feed and entertain us all. The restaurant is consistently rated among the best in town. It’s intimate and charming and some of the wait staff have been here for many years making it feel like a homecoming when you arrive. The Sunday brunch remains among the best in town, complete with white tablecloths and welcome scones. In the off-season, you can’t beat Tasting Tuesdays, a three-course dinner with wine pairings for $49. Many of us miss the old days of the Moon as a sometimes-raucous bar and dance club, but happy hour is back with half-price cocktails and appetizers, Monday-Friday, 4-6 p.m. So go for a drink and stay for dinner and enjoy crab cakes, lobster risotto, duck breast, and more.

Ah, the Back Porch (59 Rehoboth Ave.) — a true pioneer in establishing Rehoboth as a culinary destination. So many naive tourists walk past the Back Porch because it’s set back from the street, down an alleyway. But those who make the stroll are rewarded with French-inspired food and a convivial bar that’s vaguely reminiscent of Key West. It’s not fancy and fussy; it’s worn and welcoming with an elevated menu and a spacious two-story outdoor dining room. Rehoboth is inexplicably lacking in outdoor dining spots; there aren’t nearly enough al fresco options for a beach town. If you’re on a budget, give it a try for lunch or brunch. The menu doesn’t seem to change, but that’s OK when the food is this good. A true locals place, there’s always a friendly face at the bar and everyone misses bartender Bee Neild who retired last year after nearly 50 years. The Back Porch is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year; let’s raise a glass to the next 50.  

La Fable (26 Baltimore Ave.) is owned by Megan Kee, a beloved restaurateur in town with an impressive track record (she also owns Houston White and Bramble & Brine in Lewes; more on that later). Kee’s unmistakable style — pairing antique furniture and tableware with modern flourishes — can be seen everywhere from the piano-turned-bar to the mismatched vintage china. She pulled off a remarkable feat, turning the rather unappealing basement setting at La Fable into an authentic and charming French bistro. You’ll find all the French favorites here, from escargot to boeuf bourguignon to steak frites. The space is small so make a reservation. 

I offer these high-end options with two caveats/pet peeves. When paying in excess of $45 for an entree, I do not expect to sit on a plastic chair. Also, I do not appreciate overly familiar service just because the waiter is “gay too!” At those prices, a comfortable chair and formal service should be the norm.

MID-PRICED DINING

The high-end scene may be small but there are a plethora of quality mid-priced restaurants that beckon. 

My favorite in this category is the always-reliable Henlopen Oyster House (50 Wilmington Ave.) with its wide selection of fresh raw oysters and equally impressive draft beer list. Henlopen does the high-low thing so well, for example pairing an indulgent dozen Wellfleet oysters with a pint of cask beer. There are lobster rolls, salads, the best steamed shrimp in town, and much more on the menu. It’s a popular place, usually with a line forming before it opens. So go early and be patient — it’s always worth the wait (they don’t take reservations). No matter how packed the bar gets, the two Amys always offer the best service with a welcoming smile. This is my go-to when asked for seafood recommendations in Rehoboth.

As I mentioned, there are too few places for quality outdoor dining/drinks in Rehoboth Beach. You’ll find a handful of touristy hotel restaurants on the boardwalk along with the requisite fast food and Grotto’s pizza joints but there just aren’t enough places for an elevated bite. Above the Dunes (101 S. Boardwalk, 2nd floor) has the best view in town; sit at the bar and try one of their grain bowls. One of the best outdoor spots is the rooftop at JAM (210 2nd St.). The space has seen multiple concepts come and go in recent years, including the aforementioned classic Chez La Mer, Papa Grande’s, the disappointing Unwined, and before that the much-missed Azzurro. But JAM took over the space last year after relocating from Baltimore Avenue and offers the same quality food (burger specials and the salmon salad are highlights) but with a view. Grab a seat on the second floor outdoor deck and enjoy the breeze.

JAM’s rooftop is one of the few places to enjoy a great meal al fresco in Rehoboth Beach. (Washington Blade photo by Daniel Truitt)

Across the street from JAM is the charming and underappreciated Aroma Mediterranean Cuisine (208 2nd St.). If you like hummus with homemade pita, falafel, kebobs, koftes, and more from the Med, then this is your spot. Try the hummus flight with three samples, including sundried tomato. Delicious.

A Rehoboth stalwart, Café Azafran (18 Baltimore Ave.) never disappoints with its small plates, dinner specials, and, of course, bustling bar featuring Washington Blade three-time Best Rehoboth Bartender winner Holly Lane, who sings (sometimes in French) while pouring drinks. Take a group of friends and order an array of small dishes to share, like the shrimp a la plancha, stuffed arancini, and ratatouille Provencal. There’s no better way to embrace family style dining. 

One of the biggest and happiest surprises in Rehoboth’s dining scene came the night I reluctantly walked into Michy’s (19287 Miller Rd. on Route 1). Reluctantly because the restaurant sits unassuming in a strip mall off Route 1 surrounded by supermarkets and nail salons. You couldn’t find a more unexpected location for one of the area’s best restaurants. But don’t let the location deter you; inside, the décor is warm and eclectic with a small bar and lively dining room. There’s a top-notch menu, including short ribs, sea scallops, and a spicy horseradish crusted salmon, but the daily specials are the stars here so be sure to order whatever special the chef is offering. There’s always a local fish option with a creative preparation. 

AFFORDABLE DINING

Let’s face it: When you’re at the beach, you don’t always want inventive and elevated. Sometimes you just want to wander into a place in your bathing suit and still find a good meal at a fair price. 

For that moment, there’s nothing better than the Starboard (2009 Rt. 1), just down the highway from Rehoboth in Dewey Beach. The Bloody Mary bar is legendary and now comes with a dedicated “sommelier” to assist in choosing from dozens of mixes, hot sauces, pickled vegetables, and more. But the real standout here is the crush — orange, grapefruit, watermelon, lemon, and more — cranked out by the busiest and best bartenders in the area (especially Doug and Shelley). The food is consistent and satisfying, if heavy on the portion size. The crab cakes, burgers, and salads are a good bet. If you’re nursing a hangover, the breakfast skillets will ease your pain. You can design your own omelet or choose from many of their egg creations. Pro tip: Share an entrée as the portions are huge. This used to be dominated by college kids enjoying summer break, but a more mature crowd, including the gays, have discovered Starboard’s many charms, which include a DJ and live bands all weekend.

Back in Rehoboth, the gay-owned Goolee’s Grille (11 S. 1st St.) offers some of the best breakfast dishes in town, including chipped beef, waffles, sandwiches, and more with a mimosa or Bloody to wash it down. There are occasional drag brunches and watch for the popular Greek night dinner specials. If the lines are too long in town for breakfast, venture across the highway to the new Eggcellent (19730 Coastal Highway), a locally owned restaurant that is open seven days 7 a.m.-3 p.m., meaning no dinner. So the focus is breakfast all the time with omelets, avocado toast, pancakes, and more. Don’t let the strip mall vibe fool you; the interior is gorgeous. 

Need a break from pizza and crab cakes? Grab a table on the second floor deck at Mariachi Restaurant (14 Wilmington Ave.) and enjoy some of the best Mexican and Spanish fare in town. You’ll likely be met at the door by Yolanda, the tireless owner who greets locals with a gregarious hug before bringing pitchers of irresistible margaritas to your table. The vast menu offers traditional pollo asado and carne asada along with paellas and assorted seafood dishes. The chips are plentiful and the salsas perfectly spiced. Mariachi opened in 2006 and won over locals by staying open during the off-season so the crowd is always a spirited mix of tourists and residents. 

HONORABLE MENTIONS

For the ideal rustic beach bar, complete with sand, the ever-popular Purple Parrot Biergarten (134 Rehoboth Ave.) beckons. The food is standard bar fare but go for the vibe — beers and cocktails outside served from a bar with a flower-covered roof and bartenders in bathing suits. Aqua Bar & Grill (57 Baltimore Ave.) offers outdoor dining and drinks as well and is always packed with gay revelers all summer long.    

Looking for something new? Check out the Libation Room in the back of Summer House (228 Rehoboth Ave.), a restaurant with a dark, speakeasy vibe or the brand new outdoor garden arranged around a gurgling fountain.

If you’re not counting carbs and are looking for a satisfying lunch to take to the beach, pick up a hulking sandwich at Frank & Louie’s (58 Baltimore Ave.) or the iconic chicken salad at Lori’s Café (39 Baltimore Ave.).

OUTTA TOWN

If you’re an old pro and have already exhausted Rehoboth’s many dining options, venture up or down Route 1 for something different. Ocean City isn’t known as a fine dining destination, but things are changing. Check out Liquid Assets (9301 Coastal Highway) and don’t be deterred by the entrance in a strip mall through the liquor store. The restaurant’s high-end menu includes Maryland crab, blackened rockfish, steamed local oysters, along with steaks and even vegan options. Browse the extensive wine list or, better yet, wander around the shop and pick a bottle from the shelves. Not far away is Ocean View/Millville with its own growing roster of appealing restaurants. One of the best is Melissa’s (35507 Atlantic Ave.), with a small menu featuring a fish of the day, seafood pasta, and shrimp or lobster fried rice. Back north in Lewes is a gem of a new discovery. Located behind Bramble & Brine (102 2nd St., Lewes, the former Buttery) is the Pink Pony, a bar and restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner that pays homage to one of Rehoboth’s first gay bars of the same name. Owner Megan Kee can often be found on her laptop at the bar and seems to know everyone who walks through the door. It’s welcoming, friendly, and the décor a real throwback. Check it out.

Our independent restaurateurs and their dedicated staff need support, so skip the chains and enjoy the diverse array of Rehoboth-area restaurants this summer.

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