There are some things in life you just don’t see coming. Raise your hand if you envisioned the rebirth of the Columbus Inn.
When the inn was sold in 2007 the plan was to demolish part of the restaurant and put up an 11-story luxury condo. Nearby neighborhood residents howled. Then the economy crashed and in the summer of 2009 the developer threw in the towel.
Rumors of a purchase by the Capano family swirled around town before they actually bought the inn last year. By spring 2010 old customers stalked the place, stopping to peek inside during the renovation. Few were prepared for the unwrapping last June.
The venerable inn simply sparkles. Gas lanterns flicker on at dusk. An elegant black awning frames a glorious outdoor patio with chic resin and teak furniture. Stepping into the main dining room visitors find refinished oak floors, a limestone mantle that caps the fireplace and an old world stenciled ceiling above cream-colored banquettes. Diners can gaze into a glass-enclosed 1,000 bottle refrigerated wine room (formerly the coat closet. It all delivers a clean, spacious, and modern feel.
The old guard feels at right at home in the cozy lounge. It is framed by its original dark paneling where small brass nameplates remain, honoring longtime customers who have died. Comfy, custom-made deep red barstools with nail head patterns now border the legendary walnut horseshoe bar where generations of regulars swapped tales while sipping cocktails, glasses of wine or chilled draft beers.
High-top tables with their bar stools and a pair of persimmon banquettes-- all at the same height--- anchor the room. An expansive picture, painted in the kinetic style of Jackson Pollack, adorns the far wall.
“We’re sensitive to the long history of the inn and what it meant to so many people,” says general manager Rich Synder. He is a graduate of St. Andrews prep school in Middletown and formerly managed several restaurants and nightclubs in Manhattan.
“On the other hand we wanted to give it a fresh, younger feel,” Snyder continues.
Forget the Dover sole of yesteryear. On a couple of July visits executive chef Chris D’Ambro’s summer menu was taking shape. With many of his vividly flavored, handcrafted delights from his stint at Savona Bistro in Kennett Square and at Philly’s Bocca on display here, D’Ambro is delivering an impressive seasonal new American menu. Peekytoe crab arrived mounded on watermelon, with cucumber, soy and avocado. The plump brazino fillet came with fennel and tomato splashed with chicken jus and was impossible to resist. Likewise, the milk-fed veal with bluefoot mushrooms, sweetbread ragout and lively carrot salad was a masterful dish.
An unexpected surprise is the recasting of vintage cocktails spotlighting fresh and herb juices. The creative force behind the bar is mixologist Marc Yanga. A summer smash was his silky smooth Slider, concocted with Hendrick’s gin, St. Germain, cucumber, lemon and simple syrup.
“The turn-out has been great, a nice mix of young and old,” says Louis Capano III. “We’ve been as busy as we could ever have imagined.”
Perched on what was once a grassy knoll two miles west of downtown, the stone building opened its doors in 1798 as Schamlz’s Bakery. In 1712 it became a tavern. As early as 1849, it operated as the Columbus Inn, a tollgate stop on the main stagecoach route on Kennett Pike down to Wilmington's waterfront.
By the 1890s nearby Wawaset Driving Park was one of the marquee harness racing tracks on the east coast. It also hosted Buffalo Bill's Wild West show on eight occasions. Following the performances the crowd marched over to the Columbus Inn to join Buffalo Bill, Oakley and Sitting Bull for three-cent pints of beer.
In 1953 Wallace “Wally” Sezna converted the structure from a shot-and-beer-hangout into a beloved restaurant and meeting spot. During its heyday, the Columbus Inn hosted military brass, actors and sports stars. Hard-driving businessmen held court at one of the “power tables” in the corner near the fireplace. It was also a social hub, where families celebrated birthdays, anniversaries, proms and reminisced after funerals.
By 2007 the inn had lost much of its swagger, then owner David Sezna shuttered it on the evening of St. Patrick’s Day. Sezna struck a deal with Ocean Atlantic Associates to turn the historic property (the oldest continuous business in Wilmington) into luxury high-rise condominiums. But after nearly two years and a tepid buying response, the plans for the condo tower finally collapsed.
Enter Louis “Louie” Capano, Jr. and his son, Louis Capano, III. They purchased the one-acre property and building in August 2009 with a plan to revive its old charm while bringing it into the 21st century. But it was rough sledding; extensive repairs and renovations slowed the opening date, again and again.
“Nothing was easy,” admits Capano III. “Every room but the bar had its own additions. So we were dealing with different structural, electrical problems. You name it. I guess I should have anticipated the unanticipated.’”
The kitchen needed to be torn out and rebuilt. All new equipment was installed. A snazzy water filtration system now bottles the inn’s own still and sparkling water. Its La Marzocco espresso machine is the gold standard in the industry.
Chester County designer Ron Fenstermacher was tapped to bring the inn back to life. A native of West Chester, for over 35 years Fenstermacher has forged a small niche business renovating, rebuilding and furnishing high-end homes. He worked with the Capanos on several projects over the past seven years.
The inn is his first large restaurant project. Both Fenstermacher and Louis III were attracted to design elements of the Bowery Hotel and Gramercy Tavern.