Chez la Mer: Rehoboth history with a French accent
Oh, Murlene! What a great cook you are! You should open a restaurant!” And with those words begins the often unavoidable downslide into stress, disappointment, financial woes, bankruptcy, possible divorce and perpetual bewilderment. Being a good cook doesn’t necessarily mean you can run a restaurant.
There’s at least one exception to every rule, and the most notable is none other than Nancy Wayson, formerly Nancy Wolfe, founder and proprietor of the famed Chez la Mer in Rehoboth Beach.
Nancy was a foodie long before it was fashionable to be a foodie. At the Washington, D.C. congressional office where she worked in the late ‘60s, she and her coworkers used office birthdays as an excuse to venture out on the town to try out the latest chefs. She planned those outings carefully, often enlisting the advice of then-Washington Star restaurant critic John Rosson.
Nancy was fascinated by the cuisine of southern France, and loved to whip up her legendary bouillabaisse and pâté for family and friends. When she moved to Rehoboth Beach in 1975, they urged her to share her skills with the world. Blissfully unaware of the dire warnings cited above, she pushed forward, eventually narrowing her choices down to the Martin farmhouse, a residence on Coastal Highway that eventually became Garden Gourmet, and a beach cottage at the corner of Second and Wilmington that had housed everything from the Collins General Store to a kite shop, a residence and an Italian eatery. She chose downtown.
“The cottage had good bones, and the stucco interior whispered, ‘South of France,’” Nancy tells me. She renovated the building and added the section that contains the bar, part of the kitchen and the treehouse roof deck. It wasn’t until after corporations had been formed, menus had been printed and signs had been manufactured that she discovered the French grammar gaffe that was to live forever in Rehoboth Beach history. Chez la Mer actually translates to “at sea.” She intended it to mean “house by the sea,” properly expressed as “Maison de la Mer.” Nobody cared. Chez la Mer was busy from the day it opened to the day it closed.
In June 1980, Nancy joined the brave group of fine-dining pioneers such as Back Porch Café and the Camel’s Hump, braving ghost-town winters to bring upscale restauranting to the beach. In spite of her talents in the kitchen, she laughs as she tells me that she never cooked again after the restaurant opened. “I hired chefs,” she says. She even worked as a line cook – taking orders from those chefs – so she could keep tabs on her cherished dishes. Even today, the memories of her bouillabaisse, country-style pâté, crab imperial and veal are venerated in hushed tones by those who know the difference.
I regularly get emails whining that a restaurant either (1) wouldn’t take reservations or (2) took reservations, but couldn’t fulfill them on time because earlier diners overstayed their welcome. Nancy came up with a clever compromise: She accepted reservations, but politely warned each and every party that (1) they were expected to show up on time, and (2) their stay was limited, in deference to another reservation later on. She treated it as an informal contract, and interestingly enough, 99 percent of her guests respected that contract. Of course, there were always the self-entitled few who rudely resented her polite reminder that another party was waiting (and that they had agreed to this). But her many regulars appreciated her regard for their comfort and the efforts she made to ensure their orders arrived in a timely manner so they could enjoy a leisurely dinner.
“It was sometimes very, very difficult,” Nancy told me. “But it was a matter of professionalism and respect.” When I asked her just how difficult it was to maintain this arrangement, she smiled and replied softly, “That’s why I got out of the business.”
And so goes The Business of Eating. If it were easy, everybody would be doing it.