Opening a new restaurant is always a gamble. So, imagine what opening a new restaurant in the middle of a pandemic is like.
"It hasn't been the way we planned," said owner Tony Bomba about his first restaurant, Dorcea, an upscale American grill, that has taken over the spot of the former Domaine Hudson in Wilmington.
But Bomba is marching forward.
Dorcea, at 1314 Washington St. near Wilmington Hospital, began takeout and curbside pickup on April 9, and, Bomba says business has been steadily growing.
Gov. John Carney has restricted dine-in services at Delaware's more than 1,900 eating and drinking establishments since March 16 due to the coronavirus. It is not yet known when restaurants will be allowed to reopen as full-service operations.
While offering takeout alone by no means makes up for the on-premises sales losses, the National Restaurant Association said the proportion of consumers using off-premises food service has remained relatively constant the last several weeks
According to surveys the organization has conducted for the past seven weeks, roughly 6 in 10 adults said they ordered takeout or delivery from a restaurant for their dinner meal.
In addition, the National Restaurant Association says nearly 4 in 10 adults said they ordered takeout or delivery for lunch – a level that also remained generally steady through the coronavirus crisis.
Bomba, who worked as a bartender for 20 years at the nearby Washington Street Ale House, purchased Domaine Hudson in early December with his business partner John Ratliff, a friend for more than two decades.
Bomba's wife, Lindsay, and his brother Michael, a chef who has created the menu and worked for seven years in the kitchen at the Ale House, also are involved in the operation.
Domaine Hudson was a critically acclaimed fine-dining restaurant that had been a part of Delaware's dining scene since 2005. It was known for its expansive wine cellar and high-end, innovative dishes.
Bomba said they kept the Domaine Hudson name through the bustling 2019 holiday season. Then, the partners closed in January to remodel into a more casual eatery and give the business a new name.
They've added TVs to the 70-seat dining room and a new draft beer system. A private dining room has seating for up to 18 people.
Another Wilmington fine-dining restaurant, the Green Room at the Hotel du Pont just blocks away, also closed recently for a revamping.
The historic restaurant that has served customers since the Hotel du Pont opened in 1913 is scheduled to get a more casual concept makeover. Last month, construction was still taking place at the site.
The space was scheduled to reopen as Le Cavalier at the Green Room before Mother's Day, but that date could change due to the coronavirus.
The restaurant's Facebook page continues to feature photographed "teasers" of dishes that chef/owner Tyler Akin planned to offer.
Domaine Hudson was founded by wine lover Tom Hudson and his then-wife, Meg. It was a wine bar in the true sense of the word and at one time offered 45 wines by the glass and 425 labels by the bottle.
The kitchen has had strong and talented leadership over the years, beginning with Jason Barrowcliff, who is now in charge at Brandywine Prime in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Other chefs have included Robert Lhulier and Patrick D'Amico.
The restaurant scored big in 2012 when young chef JD Morton was a semifinalist for a James Beard Award as one of the country's rising young chefs. Former Domaine Hudson executive chef Dwain Kalup was recognized by the country's most prestigious culinary organization as one of the best chefs in the Mid-Atlantic region in 2017.
Bomba said he and his partner had initially planned to unveil Dorcea in early March, but the coronavirus pandemic changed everything.
Earlier this month, they decided "the heck with it," and quietly opened the doors and began takeout. Bomba said it is an approach that's similar to a restaurant "soft opening," which is an opening that showcases a new restaurant to a limited group of people.
Dorcea co-owner John Ratliff said opening during a pandemic "isn't ideal," but he said it is giving the partners a chance to build the restaurant's brand and develop customer loyalty and relationships. He said that since renovations were completed, "it made sense to open and not leave it sitting there idle."
Bomba said five people are working to produce the menu that, right now, is
about 35% of what Dorcea will eventually offer.
Dishes include soups, small dishes such as spicy calamari ($11), and chicken wings ($11), as well as "big plates" such as crab cakes ($25), char-grilled meatloaf ($14) and grilled salmon with gochujang sauce ($22).
Bomba says Dorcea also has an extensive selection of to-go wines, bottled and draft beers, and "old-school" cocktails.
Takeout and curbside delivery are available from 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Friday and 4 to 8 p.m. Saturday. Customers can order online. The restaurant is closed on Sunday.
Bomba says he was encouraged by customer response to Dorcea – dinners were flying out of the door last Friday – and he plans to continue takeout.
He hopes to be open as a full-service restaurant in about a month, though it will depend on when Gov. Carney removes dine-in restrictions.