By Pam George
It was the perfect Lewes evening. As the sunset sent streaks of mauve and gold across the Delaware Bay, the Delaware ferry gently backed into its berth. In the distance, you could see the Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse and breakwater.
The scenery was a summery backdrop for guests at Grain On The Rocks, which recently opened in the Cape May-Lewes Ferry Terminal.
The restaurant is the latest venture for Lee Mikles and Jim O’Donoghue, who also own Grain Craft Bar + Kitchen in Newark and Kennett Square, as well as Grain H2O, which overlooks the Summit North Marina in Bear.
Grain’s waterfront location has made it a destination right out of the gate.
“The views are spectacular, and I can’t wait to return,” said Vincenza Carriero-Russo, who attended a soft opening for friends and family the week of June 8.
That is high praise considering Carriero-Russo and her family own V&M Bistro in Brandywine Hundred.
But it also helps that Lewes is a small and welcoming town.
“There’s a huge amount of local pride,” said Mikles, who has a second home in Ocean City, Maryland. “That’s something we really want to support. It makes you feel good to be part of a town that everyone is so proud of. We love it.”
A change of pace
Compared to Grain’s previous openings, the Lewes restaurant’s debut has been relatively smooth, Mikles said. They were new to the hospitality industry when they opened the Newark location, and the Kennett and Bear sites opened within weeks of each other.
Grain is not the first restaurant to have space inside the terminal. Some things have not changed. As with other On The Rocks restaurants here, alfresco dining is still the main attraction, and the open-air bar remains.
Last year Dogfish Head Craft Brewery created an ancillary outdoor space called Off-Centered On The Rocks. It includes a food truck, firepit and seating with a view. Both Dogfish Head and Grain elected to keep the section.
“We have a good relationship with Dogfish Head — the stage in the Newark restaurant is named for them,” Mikles said. “They’ve been super supportive.”
Grain plans to cover the pergola in that area for more shade.
Most of the renovations focused on the dining room. Gone is the late 20th-century-style atrium. Now there’s an expansive bar with seating on the inside and outside.
“In the off-season, we can shut the windows, and people still have a view of the water,” Mikles said. “I think that will be in demand.”
With high ceilings, a bank of windows and light woods, the dining area is open and appealing. Musicians perform in front of the mural of a Lewes postcard, created by Liz Sexton.
Pub grub plus
Chefs Bill Wallen and daughter Jessica have crafted an ambitious menu.
Grain started life as a place for great burgers ($12-$16) and craft beers, and the sandwich list reflects those origins. But the menu also features everything from fish-and-chips ($17.50) to a salmon quinoa bowl ($18) — items that will appeal to travelers between Lewes and Cape May.
Carriero-Russo refused to share her plate of crab nachos ($11). You’ll also find crab fries ($15.5), a colossal pretzel topped with crab dip and $16.50) and crab cakes ($17.50).
Big hits on a recent visit included cheesesteak egg rolls ($11), mozzarella “chips” ($11.5), hog wings ($16.50), seared tuna ($12.50), lobster roll ($19.50) and French dip ($15). (Leave your calorie counter at home.)
Mikles and O’Donoghue have also debuted a sister concept, Lewes Coffee Co., near the terminal entrance. “It’s a good amenity for the ferry, particularly in the off-season,” Mikles said.
If the coffee shop is successful, the partners want to open other locations along the Delaware coast.
When coronavirus restrictions cease, Grain on the Rocks can accommodate 400 people. For now, the restaurant is operating at 60 percent per Phase 2 of Delaware’s reopening plan.
“The staff is committed to hospitality and safety,” noted visitor Karen Falk, the former executive director of Southern Delaware Tourism and the Rehoboth Beach Main Street program.
“It’s a great addition to the community,” said the Rehoboth Beach resident. “Great view and vibes.”
What’s more, there’s free parking and plenty of it.
The details: Grain On The Rocks, 43 Cape Henlopen Drive, 302-291-3900, Meetatgrain.com