This story was originally published in May 2022.
Fancy a beer or a glass of wine with buddies?
The Mercury’s got you.
Craving a cup of tea, perhaps a blend named for area sites?
The Mercury’s got you.
Seeking a light lunch or dinner that’s vegetarian, but you’d never know it was?
The Mercury’s got you.
Looking for a nice patio to dine or drink in the sun?
The Mercury Cafe and Teahouse in Historic New Castle has got you covered.
The dining scene newcomer, which opened in December but has been closed for the last week because of COVID-19, expects to reopen Thursday, in time for the return of A Day in Old New Castle on Saturday.
Already a local haunt in its warren-like 1682 building across from the old New Castle County Courthouse Museum, The Mercury is run by husband and husband Aaron Vederman and Dwayne Foster.
Foster long has made a career in the hospitality industry, starting when he was 15. Vederman, a neuropsychologist by day, has immersed himself in the world of tea after becoming fascinated by it in grad school.
The pair met in 2007 in Detroit, Michigan, and as the relationship bloomed, so did their desire to reshape their lives.
“I’ve always wanted to open my own bar and restaurant,” Foster said. “Aaron was like, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we could open a place that did a bar and with tea, and we could have two bars together?”
After moving to Portland, Oregon, and living there nine years, Vederman began to feel the pull to come home to Delaware, where his parents and other family members live.
On a visit home in 2019, he and Foster drove through Historic New Castle while they were killing a little time on the way to the Philadelphia International Airport.
“We were just sort of exploring, knowing that we were probably going to leave Portland at some point,” Vederman said.
Foster had never seen old New Castle.
On the drive, they spotted the building at 206 Delaware St. for sale. It had been a cafe.
“It just ticked all the boxes,” Vederman said. “The ability to move closer to my family. The ability to open up a bar-restaurant and live above it. A really cool, historic town. So we just sort of began the process.”
By April 2020, they moved in. The living quarters didn’t have a kitchen and they focused first on making the living space workable, installing a kitchen on the floor above the cafe.
As the COVID-19 lockdown continued to rage, Foster worked a little here and there as a server or a bartender and Vederman did some virtual work.
That left Foster with a lot of free time, and he decided to take on the build out of the cafe himself, with the help of Vederman, family and friends. They hired plumbers or electricians for infrastructure work, but did the remodeling themselves.
“We had time, and it saved us a bunch of money in the end,” Foster said. “We didn’t have to take loans or take on investors or partners or anything like that. So we just took our time.”
That meant the Mercury opened later than they meant for it to, but when it did open Dec. 11, more people were getting out, even with the rise in Omicron cases.
People found it almost immediately and as the weather has warmed, the number of customers has risen, too. Visitors will find the patio, teahouse and tiny bar area buzzing.
Many guests recognize each other or start conversations across the room. When Vederman talks to customers seated at tables as he works, diners listen and ask questions. Locals often chime in when tourists ask questions, and those can spark long conversations.
“This happened yesterday, when some tourists were here and they were really, really interested in history,” Foster said. “A local just sat next to them and talked to them for like half an hour and gave them a history lesson. There’s a lot of connections that get made here.”
From the time of his first bartending job, he had wanted to own a neighborhood place where everyone gathers as a community hub.
“Aaron and I have worked really hard to create something like that, and I think we’re on our way,” Foster said. “It’s really, really kind of been cool.”
Patrons can enter through the staircase on Delaware Street, or walk around to the side entrance, which is between the back dining room and the bar.
From the front, guests will find themselves in the teahouse, which includes a small bar and can seat 14.
Walking toward the back, guests will find a small dining room, then the bar, then the back dining room and finally the entrance to the patio.
None of the rooms are huge. Vederman said that as soon as they opened, they began getting calls from people who wanted to host baby or wedding showers there for 15 people or more. They always say no.
“We’re such a small space with not very big rooms,” Vederman said. “We’re limited in many ways.”
At the same time, he said, they would not want to issue a blanket no and are open to being asked about events.
Foster focuses on the food and alcohol. He worked with their friend, Tara, to create the menu.
The menu features a variety of snacks, salads, bowls and sandwiches. They include a Tomato Basil Soup ($5); Cheese Plate ($12); Mezze Plate with whipped feta ($12); Cilantro Lime Salad with mixed greens and avocado ($11); Blue Hen Bowl with quinoa, mixed greens, chickpeas and more ($12); Classic Grilled Cheese ($11); Merc Melt ($12), Pulled-Oat “Pork” Sandwich ($12) and Burger ($12).
Deserts change daily regularly.
The entire menu is vegetarian and can be made vegan, but Foster said they don’t beat people over the head with it.
“We just kind of let them figure it out for themselves, and sometimes they don’t even know,” he said. “They just order something off the menu and they’re like, ‘Wait, I liked it.’ It’s kind of cool when you can surprise people.”
The Merc Melt, for example, is made with vegan pastrami and the Burger is made with an Impossible Burger patty. They have been serving an egg salad sandwich that’s also vegan.
“We do try to have something for everybody, but on our own terms,” Foster said.
The food on offer also is limited by the size of their kitchen. They have an electric pizza oven, panini press, soup warmer and microwave. Sometimes, they start something in the microwave and finish it in the oven.
A larger kitchen would mean having to add a lot of infrastructure such as a sprinkler system, as well as losing space for guests.
“So it’s trial and error, and just trying to figure it out, which is kind of fun,” Foster said.
The restaurant and bar is open Wednesday through Saturday from noon to 8 p.m. and on Sunday from noon to 6 p.m.
The tea house is only open on Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m., because Vederman has a full-time neuroscience research job that he does virtually upstairs.
They tried opening at 11 a.m. and offering some breakfast items, but in the end, they decided as they got busier that they and most of the people who work there are not morning people.
The trade off is that they decided to stay open a little later, “because people in town were beating down the doors at 7 p.m. to get cocktails and early dinner,” Foster said.
Those cocktails, all $12, include familiars such as an Old Fashioned, Daiquiri and Bloody Mary, but also the Corpse Reviver No. 2 (gin, italicus bergamot liqueur, orange liqueur, lemon and absinthe); the Paper Plane (bourbon, aperol, Amaro Nonino, lemon) and the Merc-urita (Blanco Tequila, passionfruit, habanero infused simple syrup, lime juice and orange liqueur).
Vederman got interested in tea when he was a grad student in New York City in 2004. He was a huge coffee drinker, but it was starting to cause stomach problems, so he decided to try tea.
“One time when I was in New York’s Chinatown, I bought a canister of tea and at the time, I didn’t really even know what it was,” Vederman said. “It turned out to be oolong tea, and I really enjoyed it. Then I just became curious about different kinds of tea. Why do they taste differently. Why do they look differently? Why do they smell different? How do you prepare them?
“That just started my many year journey to learn about tea and I’m — of course — still learning. It’s a vast subject.”
Tea can be bought by the personal pot in The Mercury or in bulk. Vederman stocks a selection of green, black and oolong teas, along with a variety of blends which he creates, all named for prominent houses or buildings in town.
Those include the Dutch House Blend of black tea and spices, similar to chai; the Amstel House Blend of Ceylon and Assam black teas; the Read House Blend of Darjeeling and Assam blend; and the Arsenal Blend (a black tea blend with cardamon).
Vederman and Foster chose to name their restaurant and bar The Mercury because mercury is a symbol of someone who cosmopolitan and travels the world. It also represents trade, commerce and activity in many cultures.
The teahouse is not meant to evoke a single time or culture, especially because many cultures drink it, he said.
They believe that one of the things that guests like is that The Mercury is not a cookie-cutter kind of eatery or bar.
“I mean, there’s no set interior decorating. We’re just having fun and we created a modern cafe with touches of Colonial things,” Vederman said.
Guests won’t find the same thing popping up around town.
“I think people actually appreciate that,” he said.
Betsy Price is a Wilmington freelance writer who has 40 years of experience, including 15 at The News Journal in Delaware.
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