Wilmington: Summer in the City
Summertime in the city can be a magical thing, especially in a city like Wilmington. Things slow down. Ties loosen. Fridays barely qualify as a workday. Things quiet down, too. When the city empties out for vacations and the beaches, those left standing earn a little extra elbow room: Just enough to roll up your sleeves and tip back a cold one.
It’s the one time during the year to politely eschew Wilmington’s storied dining rooms and clubs. To ditch the silverware and grab the flipflops. Au revoir, cabernet. Bonjour, local beer.
After 35 years here, I’ve rostered about a million favorite foods, drinks, and vibes that define summertime in my hometown. Here are just a few.
About every 30 minutes or so you spend at Constitution Yards Beer Garden, you get jolted by a thunderous crash—something like a log cabin falling down a flight of stairs. The momentary shock gives way to applause: Another round of 2×4 Jenga is in the books.
Just two years in business, Constitution Yards has emerged as one of Wilmington’s go-to spots, a low-key and cordial place to see and be seen. While bigger, trendier cities have enjoyed the open-air beer garden concept for years, Constitution—nestled between blocks of newly constructed retail and condo space—is a revelation for Wilmington.
Structurally, it’s 30,000 square feet of reclaimed, recycled summer nostalgia reruns. There are the massive Jenga sets stationed in the repurposed shipping containers—which also serve as makeshift bars, kitchens, and bungalows (and the Garden’s walls if we’re getting technical). There are sandpits for the kids, cornhole for the bros. There’s bocce, wiffleball, and a dog park. Millennials in Coachella gear rubbing elbows with bankers in ties.
For everyone else, there’s beer—and lots of it. From light, sippable ales like Dogfish Head’s Namaste White and Seaquench, to Victory Brewery’s Summer Love, to cloudier fare like the tasty J.A.W.N. pale ale from Bucks County, Pa.’s Neshaminy Creek Brewing Company. It helps that Constitution’s bar snacks are better than they need to be. Piquant buffalo-spiced cauliflower bites will make you forget wings. Waffle fries are must-haves and crispy, roasted Brussels sprouts will make you feel proud for gobbling your veggies.
There’s no magic here. Just a few strung lights, a few picnic tables, and Van Morrison piping over some speakers. But when those lights glow on at dusk, another beer cracks, and another Jenga set tumbles—it feels just like summertime in a bottle.
A few blocks over, by the gentle gurgle of the Christina River is Harry’s Seafood Grill, one of the longtime staples of the Riverfront. For decades, the Harry’s Hospitality Group—which operates a heralded steakhouse in the suburbs and an Irish pub on the outskirts of town—has masterfully straddled the fence between Wilmington’s old guard and its new horizon. Like few others of its ilk, Harry’s balances boundary-pushing modern cuisine with traditional favorites. Citrus ahi poke for the Barclays intern; surf ‘n turf for the board chairman. But when the weather warms, there are simply few places quite as serene as Harry’s riverfront patio.
Here, the immaculate raw bar and topshelf cocktails take on new meaning. Time actually seems to slow down. Set beside the Christina Riverwalk, Tubman-Garrett Park, and a collection of intricate birdhouses made by legendary local artist Thomas F. Burke, the shady brick patio is ideal for chilling and people- or bird-watching.
Owner Xavier Teixido and his talented team of chefs know their oysters and lobsters like the Wilmington Blue Rocks know celery. Everything you crave in summer cuisine is here in spades: fresh, light, bright, raw, flavorful, colorful. Crunchy pickled veggies and celery vinaigrette enliven glistening yellowtail and bigeye tuna crudo. Fried gulf oysters pack a crunchy, briny punch. The softshell crabs inspire poetry. (If the old timers feeding ducks in the river haven’t already.)
Farther inland, in the shadow of Wilmington’s hallowed St. Anthony’s Church, you’ll find Locale BBQ Post, where chef Daniel Sheridan and crew perform some saintly magic with meat and smoke. Pork ribs and shoulder, brisket, and chicken spend hours over smoldering cherry wood until perfectly fall-apart tender. Sidle up to one of the picnic tables out front with some collard greens, hushpuppies, and a pile of Sheridan’s amazing homemade pickles. Slather a little sauce on your meat (or not), and listen to the church bells chime at noon. It’s the sort of place where elbows on the table is not only passable, but necessary, and a full roll of paper towels accompanies each table. Let’s be honest: If your hands aren't messy by the time you get through a rack of Locale’s ribs, you're not doing it right.
Wilmington’s bustling Market Street—a retail artery that cuts through center city—has myriad options for the business lunch crowd. But for something hot, fast, and delicious you can eat with your hands, few options are better than DiMeo’s Pizza, producers of quite possibly the city's best slice. From the narrow storefront, hot pies emerge from the stone oven oozing with fior di latte, soppressata, spinach, garlic, caciocavallo, san maarzano tomatoes, and so much more.
DiMeo’s backbone is the crust—made with flour milled in Napoli. It’s crispy but pliable with nicely blistered bottom. It’s light, yeasty, well-seasoned and never greasy, so put away those napkins. And if you're lucky enough to score one of a few scant patio chairs, you'll be treated to classical music floating across the street from the iconic Grand Opera House.
Yet nothing embodies pure, distilled summer more than The Downtown Farmers Market at Rodney Square. It’s essentially an open-air weekly lunchtime party where Wilmingtonians of all stripes ditch their bagged lunches in favor of food trucks galore, ice cream, sunshine, music, art, and more. Grab a rice bowl from Asian fusion pioneers Kapow, an outré sandwich from Wildwich, or a gut-busting offering from I Don’t Give A Fork, and be sure to cleanse that palate with a visit to the Cajun-Sno truck.
You might find the local-legendary Frank Sinatra impersonator Sean Reilly crooning to the masses, or DJs from a local radio station broadcasting the scene. A handful of local farmers set up shop peddling fresh corn, basil, tomatoes, watermelon—all the flavors we come to associate with this time of year. The smell of barbecue permeates the air and mixes with the gentle hum of generators. All while the mounted statue of Caesar Rodney looks on approvingly.