Preserving the past, one Brick at a time
There are few among us who can’t name at least a couple of restaurants that were always held in reserve for special occasions. In the Washington, D.C. area, senior proms, Mothers’ Day feasts and posh wedding rehearsals weren’t complete unless they were held at the Inn at Little Washington, with its rolling hills and notable appointments. Or the long-gone Peter Pan in Urbana, Md., where multicolored peacocks strolled lavish gardens that surrounded glass-enclosed dining rooms.
And then there’s the achingly historic Brick Hotel on The Circle in Georgetown. Built in 1836, it served as a tavern, a courthouse, a post office and a hotel for well over 100 years. It was also the first location of the sadly defunct Wilmington Trust Company, until the mid-‘90s when the state of Delaware purchased the building to make room for a new courthouse.
Local Georgetowners were having none of it. A Save the Brick Hotel movement resulted in a land swap between the state and Sam Burke, an attorney who owned the land upon which the present Chancery Court sits. Everybody pretty much got what they wanted, but other than Sam’s office and a little coffee shop, nothing much happened in the building until 2004 when it was acquired by Realtor Ed Lester and his wife Lynn.
Ed felt that a suite of legal offices would be a smart move (You can’t throw a rock in Georgetown without hitting a lawyer - not that you’d want to…). But Lynn yearned, in her words, to “return it to its roots.” Needless to say, she won. Though she had no clue about running a hotel or a restaurant, she was no stranger to administration and organization. In her capacity as chief financial officer and director of administrative services for the Seaford School District, Lynn had juggled finances, payroll, groundskeeping, feeding and maintenance for 3,400 kids in six schools since 1977.
The Brick is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, so they hired a firm that specialized in restoring such properties. As owners of one of the largest personally financed historic renovations in Georgetown, the Lesters made it clear that, “This empty brick building should become a centerpiece for Georgetown and Sussex County; a destination, rather than a place where people circle around to get to the beach.”
Slogging through all that history made me hungry, so I figured it was time to ask Lynn if all this Colonial ballyhoo means that the Brick Hotel is a stodgy and expensive dinner spot where only life-changing events are commemorated.
I’m glad I was out of arm’s reach! After she regained her composure, Lynn informed me (in no uncertain terms) that her greatest challenge was fighting that very image. “This is not just a special-occasion restaurant,” she patiently explained. “Show up in jeans and a polo shirt and enjoy our burgers and chicken pot pies!” Casual seems to be the perfect attire for chowin’ down on the Brick’s crabby pretzel bread, wings, flat iron steak, wedge salad and a lot more down-to-earth goodies.
It wasn’t always that way, however. When the restaurant opened on Return Day 2008, managers Mike and Amy Spray, along with Chef Joe Sapienza and Chef Gary Papp created a menu and ambiance that was certainly fine dining. On that day, Gov. Jack Markell and then-Sen. Joe Biden’s choices included Chincoteague oyster stew (redolent of Lewes Dairy cream) and lamb shanks braised in Dogfish Head beer.
But when times change, smart restaurateurs adapt. In November ’09, Sapienza and the Sprays moved on. With some help from Gary and Lorraine Papp, Lynn assumed control of the entire operation. She and kitchen manager John Bimber (previously from Stingray) have worked hard to rebrand The Brick from stodgy and expensive to stylishly cordial and wallet-friendly. And, y’know, for somebody who had never been in this business of eating, Lynn Lester seems to be adapting just fine.