Thanks to a resurgent downtown — the passion project of a pair of native sons — and a red-hot dining scene, our region’s second city is building quite the buzz. What does that mean for Philly — and for Wilmington?

Maker’s Alley, an indoor/outdoor bar in downtown Wilmington that’s modeled after similar spots in Nashville. / Photography by Scott Lewis

The bar is three or even four people deep, making it tough to get through the door. Inside, millennials and boomers alike are sipping fancy cocktails and bubbly, eager to catch a glimpse of four-time James Beard Award winner Andrew Zimmern, whose Bizarre Foods show ran for a dozen years on the Travel Channel.

If you didn’t reserve a table weeks ago, you’re not getting in. Though this is mid-February, it’s the warmest night of the year — and anyway, for everyone here, the weather doesn’t matter. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Those in the dining room know it, and so does the giddy kitchen crew. They huddle up like a football team anticipating kickoff and let out a “woo” before service starts.

Zimmern flew in to raise money for the Independent Restaurant Coalition, which formed during the pandemic to lobby Washington for restaurant funding. He’s collaborating here with Bardea’s chef, Antimo DiMeo, to serve 90 guests at $275 a head. A neighboring hotel generously lent dozens of extra glasses to accommodate the night’s five wine pairings.

A big mix of people has turned out, from flannel-clad hipster types to ladies in little black dresses to empty nesters clinking champagne flutes as they’re seated. At one point, I look out the window as a white Maserati Spyder pulls up for the valet.

I’ve been a food writer in Philly for the better part of a decade. I get to go to dinners like this often. And here I am, enjoying my lightly cured Wagyu beef cheek carpaccio and surf clam with sustainable caviar — but I don’t know anybody in the room.

That’s because I’m not in Philly. I’m in Wilmington, Delaware.

I know what you’re thinking. When I mention checking out Wilmington to Philly friends, reactions have ranged from “Oh. Really?” to “Fuck no.” I get it. I’m a born-and-raised Philadelphian, and I had never been to Joe Biden’s adopted hometown before 2020.

For decades, the 17-square-mile city was known primarily as the home of DuPont, a land of banks and businesses, a tax haven … and not much else. Everyone there used to say of Wilmington that at 5 p.m., they rolled up the sidewalks.

I came for the food. When Philly chef Tyler Akin opened Le Cavalier at the historic Hotel du Pont, I hopped on I-95. When DiMeo’s Bardea landed on the 2019 James Beard Award semifinalists list (a feat it repeated this year), I took another drive to Wilmington. I became hooked. I found a downtown with spacious restaurants and bars, freshly paved roads, striking architecture, and streets as clean as Disney World. Though it’s approximately 40 minutes from crowded, trash-challenged, …….


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