Broadening The Palate

Venerable Jessop’s Tavern has company as Historic New Castle’s restaurant scene grows

Bartender Benny Lopez serves up a cold one. Jessop’s has won awards for its worldwide Belgian beer selection. Photo by Butch Comegys

Founded before the Revolutionary War, Historic New Castle combines the comforts of modern life in a colonial setting steeped in history.

The charm and beauty of this 1650s colonial-era river town is highlighted in the careful preservation of cobblestone streets, 17th- and 18th-century brick buildings and stately residential homes and gardens.

Delaware Street is where most of the town’s retail and restaurant fare can be found, and until recently there haven’t been many options for those looking for more upscale dining after exploring this idyllic place. Jessop’s Tavern and Colonial Restaurant has been the staple, operating since 1996 in a building nearly 350 years old.

Jessop’s colonial décor recaptures the building’s storied past and the feeling of what it would have been like in a colonial tavern. Its theme is reinforced by the staff’s period attire and the colonial music that plays in the background.

The menu is also influenced by those who first settled here — the Dutch, English, Swedish and Belgian.

A winner of several Delaware awards for its food and world-wide Belgian beers, Jessop’s dishes include the New Sweden meatloaf with vodka cream and lingonberry preserves, its award-winning fish and chips, and the shepherd’s pie, a 2.5-pound meal with layers of seasoned beef, root vegetables, and house-made mashed potatoes and rich beef gravy. 

“The shepherd’s pie remains our most unique and popular item,” says owner Justin Day, whose mother and father opened Jessop’s a quarter-century ago. “We want to provide foods and drinks that [customers] would not be able to get anywhere in Delaware and in some cases nowhere else in the country.”

Open seven days a week, Jessop’s offers food and alcohol take-out. Customers can also order lunch or dinner all day. During the height of Covid-19, Day combined both menus to give customers the option of ordering every item.

“Take out really got us through,” he says. “Customers couldn’t come in and sit down, but they could still order their favorite meal, beer, or cocktail.”

Yes, Jessop’s is a full liquor store as well. Day explains that the business has a grandfathered dual liquor license, a rarity in Delaware.

“We offer gift packs, growlers, and all bottles to go, and some wine and liquor,” says Day, who adds that Jessop’s carries more than 250 Belgian beers and has 30 beers on tap.

Local patron Erick Hoxter says Jessop’s amazing staff, cool colonial ambiance, and large selection of Belgian beer makes it one of the best places to play chess.

“It’s tough to imagine a time where I wouldn’t have a beer while pushing pawns,” Hoxter says.

Prior to Covid, Hoxter and other members of New Castle Chess Club met at Jessop’s Tuesday nights. For four consecutive years, they met to play, have dinner, drinks, and to catch up on each other’s lives. They hope to reunite soon.

Day says the restaurant’s success stems from loyal customers like Hoxter as well as the creative collaboration between him and chef Lee Ward and sous chef Raul Alday. He adds that he’s also learned how to handle challenges and learn from past mistakes.

“Stick to your guns and do what you set out to do,” Day says. “Take a deep breath and don’t panic, how you react makes a difference.”

What’s a new challenge for Jessop’s today? The restaurant is having a hard time finding a host/hostess along with two popular menu items — duck and pretzel rolls.

Zollies Jazz Cucina

A block from Jessop’s sits the recently opened Zollies Jazz Cucina. A significant contrast from Jessop’s colonial theme, Zollies offers Southern American and Caribbean fusion cuisine. Inside, freshly painted cream-and-soft-blue walls give the place a relaxing feel. Its new bar made of wood and iron sits against exposed brick walls.

“When we visited [the location], I really liked it and so did my partner Suzette Singh, said co-owner Marc-Antony Williams, a restaurant industry veteran who previously owned and operated Celebrations in Wilmington. “She was sold the minute we walked through the door. We looked at 10 different sites and settled here. We love it here.”

Café New Castle previously operated where Zollies now resides. Built in the late 18th or early 19th century, the building has housed several businesses. According to New Castle Historic Society executive director Mike Connolly, the longest running one was a butcher shop named Tobin’s Meat Market during the 1920s.

“We love it here,” says Zollies owners Marc-Antony Williams and Suzette Singh. Photo by Butch Comegys

Besides meat dishes, Zollies brunch includes Caribbean stewed mussels, jerked or curried chicken, vegan curry, low-country shrimp with red rice or grits, southern fried smelts, and grilled chicken and avocado.

Zollies also has expanded the restaurant’s back patio and to accommodate those who arrive by bike (Historic New Castle is just five miles from the Wilmington Riverfront via the Markell Trail), cyclists will have the use of bike racks and grab-and–go or sit-and-dine meal packages.

“The meal package would be a light one offering electrolyte replacement along with some carbs and protein,” Williams says.

The restaurant is currently open for brunch only – Friday-Sunday from 11-3. Once the liquor license is approved, Zollies will serve dinner as well.

With a smile, Williams says brunch is working out just fine since he’s not one to open for early-morning coffee. “If I can’t deal with myself in the morning, I can’t deal with anyone else.”

Zollies is named after Williams’ grandmother Zolly, and for his love of live music and being in the kitchen. His culinary influence stems from his North Carolina roots as well as his travels in the Caribbean, Mexico, and Florida.

Williams says his love of cooking comes from his grandmother, his mother Ethel May, and Rehoboth Beach restaurateur John Orlando. At home, his large family ate, laughed, and cooked together, he adds.

“Every chef wants people to like their food, but more than anything I want people to come together through my food,” says Williams. “I want to be that restaurant where people come to feel good, to meet up with each other, to meet new people, or just to have a drink alone after a long day. I want to be that place for people.”

Booth House Tavern

The patio at historic Booth House Tavern. Photo courtesy Joe Hoddinott Photography

Cheryl Carey, of New Castle, has been to Zollies for Sunday brunch and welcomes its addition to the town’s dining scene.

Carey is an innkeeper and administrator at the David Finney Inn, a three-story, 338-years-old building located between Jessop’s and Zollies at 222 Delaware Street. On the third floor, the inn offers two Airbnbs with modern amenities. Carey says that guests come from all over the country, adding that she’s already booked for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Booth House Tavern, which opened in Nov. 2020, is conveniently located on the building’s first floor. There is also a café on the first floor that offers cyclists, locals, and Airbnb guests coffee, pastries, and grab-and-go sandwiches.

Booth House’s cuisine is the creation of chef Samuel K. Wall, a graduate of the culinary program at Johnson & Wales University says Mia deMarteleire, Booth House’s director of operations and hospitality.

On the menu expect to find rack of lamb (rosemary mustard crusted lollipop with port wine reduction and choice of potato and vegetable), sea bass (pan-seared with poblano sauce over roasted yellow pepper grits) and filet mignon (with shallot horseradish butter, choice of potato and vegetable).

For the freshest of herbs, tomatoes, and edible flowers, Wall grows microgreens in a hydroponic area near the kitchen. Produce is purchased from local farms. And if things stay on schedule, an on-site brewery — HammerGod Brewing Company — will be open this month.

Booth House offers outdoor dining near the rock fountain or inside at one of its wine-barrel tables. The building’s second floor has private dining rooms that can be booked for special events.

Named after attorney David Finney who bought the inn in 1757, the building is located directly across the street from the New Castle Courthouse. Here, in 1776, Delaware declared its independence from Great Britain.

The Booth family purchased the building in 1794. Chief Justice James Booth Jr. was born here. Throughout the centuries, a slew of businesses and owners have occupied the property. Now, current property owner Richard Marcozzi II, a resident of New Castle, is reviving the Booth House Tavern name.