Ryan Cormier - Delaware Online
Think of it as a baby Dave & Buster's.
A fun-filled recreation hall named Wilma's will bring a pinball arcade and duckpin bowling to Wilmington's downtown this fall, replacing Ernest & Scott Taproom.
The project is by Wilmington-based developers The Buccini/Pollin Group, who revealed it in advance exclusively to Delaware Online/The News Journal. A public announcement about the 5,700-square-foot space is expected later Wednesday.
"Boisterous games & dangerously good times," teases soon-to-be-used graphics announcing the new offering.
It comes on the heels of a string of high-profile Buccini/Pollin downtown moves, including DECO food hall, Maker's Alley beer garden and this spring's redesign and renaming of Hotel du Pont's Green Room.
Artistic renderings of the recreation hall were not released because the design is still being finalized.
"It's a tough thing to design into an existing space, so we're working through a lot of design options right now," said Sarah Lamb, vice president of design and marketing for The Buccini/Pollin Group.
And while Wilma's will not be a Dave & Buster's, the recreation hall will have a strong food and beverage component, just like the popular national chain.
Many of the details of Wilma's kitchen and bar offerings are still being decided as well, Lamb said.
Wilma's will be only the second food and beverage operation run by The Buccini/Pollin Group without a restaurant partner, following the opening of nearby Maker's Alley beer garden four months ago.
The name Wilma's is a play on the nickname "Wilmo" that some use for Wilmington. And, yes, there will be a red-haired character named Wilma used in the branding of the recreation hall, already appearing in "coming soon" graphics.
"She's the dangerous girl who likes to do her own thing, kind of like [Betty] Rizzo in 'Grease,'" Lamb says. "She's going to help set the tone for the space."
Ernest & Scott will close Friday
The conversion from restaurant to recreation hall will begin after Ernest & Scott closes for good on Friday, Jan. 10 at 902 N. Market St.
Gift cards and Groupon vouchers for the 8-year-old eatery will be honored for the next 90 days at its sister restaurant Chelsea Tavern, located a few steps away at 821 N. Market St.
Both restaurants are owned and operated by Open Doors Hospitality Group, led by Joe Van Horn. The longtime Delaware restaurateur purchased both locations following the 2016 death of former owner Scott Morrison, who suffered a heart attack.
Regular events hosted by Ernest & Scott, such as its annual Cinco de Mayo block party and seasonal cigar dinners, will now be held at Chelsea Tavern, which is celebrating its 10-year anniversary in 2020.
However, Gable Music Ventures' weekly "Wilmo Wednesday" musical showcase, which was on hiatus until February, is now without a home. Its organizers, Gable Music Ventures, say they hope to restart the five-year series by the end of the year.
In terms of Ernest & Scott staff, Van Horn said he alerted them on Jan. 2 about the closure.
"I didn't want to leave a sign on the door. I owe them more than that," he said. "It hurts and there were some tears, but I think everybody saw the writing on the wall with the way the business has been going the last couple of months. I think it's for the best."
Van Horn said he agreed to purchase Ernest & Scott with Chelsea Tavern as a package deal after Morrison's death and had been thinking of an exit plan for Ernest & Scott, especially after the space began having air conditioning problems.
When he met with Buccini/Pollin Group officials, they asked him what he wanted to do.
"I told them, 'It's not about what I want to do, but more so what Market Street needs.' And it needs more things to do," Van Horn said. "It was kind of one of those things where we looked at each other and said, 'Why didn't this happen sooner?'"
Size may be just right
Wilma's will be housed street level in the former Delaware Trust Building, owned by The Buccini/Pollin Group.
Built in 1921, it has been home to restaurants for a decade.
The Philadelphia-based Public House chain took over the space with 30-foot ceilings in 2009, replacing the Great Room of The Residences at Rodney Square. After lasting only two years, Morrison opened Ernest & Scott Taproom with its beer theme in January 2012.
While both restaurants tried their best with the cavernous space, neither found success.
"I was never a fan of the space — I knew the obstacles of a huge place with great, big open areas," Van Horn says. "It's great when you have 700 people, but they suck on a Tuesday afternoon."
And while there's maybe too much room for a traditional restaurant in the old bank, it's also not quite big enough for a proper bowling alley.
That's why Buccini/Pollin Group turned to duckpin bowling, which takes up a bit less space and is also growing in popularity, especially in Northeast urban centers. Duckpin bowling uses a ball about the size of a grapefruit with no finger holes to knock down shorter, smaller and lighter pins.
"It will be a little more curated to make sure that the recreational components go together with the food-and-beverage programming and branding that we created, which is a retro kind of gymnasium or rec room feel," Lamb said.
The developers are looking at using every bit of space and are toying with possibly making the second-floor mezzanine in the rear of the space a karaoke lounge, she said.
Finally, a downtown entertainment center
When it opens, Wilma's will be the only duckpin bowling center and only all-ages arcade in the city. The bar/arcade 1984 across town is only for ages 21 and older.
Wilma's will build on the family-centered entertainment offerings that have grown in the city's downtown and Riverfront areas in recent years, including Riverwalk Mini Golf, Riverfront Rink, Constitution Yards Beer Garden, 76ers Fieldhouse, Jack A. Markell Trail and Penn Cinema Riverfront + IMAX.
It all surrounds Delaware Children's Museum on the Riverfront, the state's first and only kid-centric museum, which opened 10 years ago in the former Kahunaville. (Ironically, Kahunaville was the city's last large-scale arcade when it closed in 2006 after 11 years.)
Buccini/Pollin Group has wanted to open a recreational space in downtown for about five years, Lamb said, adding, "But it requires a bigger footprint than most of the Market Street scale spaces."
With the Mid-Town Park Garage's 511 spots only a block away from Ernest & Scott, the developers hope Wilma's will not only draw locals, but families from out of town.
"We're looking for this to be a very fun, vibrant and cool version of an urban bowling option," Lamb says. "We really hope it becomes a destination."