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Downtown Dover welcomes new restaurants

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Downtown Dover is set to see a spat of new restaurants this year as officials eye a post-pandemic revitalization. | DBT PHOTO BY KATIE TABELING

DOVER Hope Lopez is no stranger to Dover. In 2011, she and business partner Heidy Cantoran opened El Azteca Mexican Restaurant on North Dupont Highway. Three years later, they opened a second location in Longacre Village in nearby Camden. 

More recently, however, the partners have been focusing on downtown Dover. In 2023, they plan to relocate their first restaurant to a new building on North State Street near Silver Lake. 

“Since Dover was our first opportunity, we thought it was only right to find a special place for it to call home,” said Lopez, who also has El Azteca restaurants in Rehoboth and Middletown. “So, what’s better than by a lake?”

The owners of El Azteca restaurant are planning a new concept to take over the former Governor’s Café. | DBT PHOTO BY KATIE TABELING

The partners are also opening a new concept in the former Governor’s Café in spring or summer. “Just in time to enjoy the porch,” Lopez said.

The circa-1857 mansion was briefly home to Tavern on Kings, which punted the café’s casual sandwich concept in favor of elevated cuisine. It closed within a month, citing sky-high  prices and staff shortages. 

Lopez is undaunted. “We are willing to take the risk to make a difference,” she said. “I really do believe in this, and we will make a difference to the downtown area.”

The partners aren’t the only entrepreneurs interested in downtown Dover. Carlos Estrada, whose family owns La Hacienda near Dover Air Force Base, is opening a second Dover location at the corner of Loockerman and Bradford streets. There are also plans for a chicken-and-seafood spot, owned by The Caribbean Cuisine proprietors, and another coffee shop.

Diane Laird hopes that more are coming. 

“We need to get multiple restaurants here,” said Laird, executive director of the Downtown Dover Partnership, a volunteer organization focused on downtown revitalization.

By foot or car

In a non-pandemic era, downtown areas can offer steady foot traffic. Dover’s downtown includes the edge of the Wesley campus, now part of Delaware State University, the Bayhealth hospital campus and government buildings.

The La Hacienda group plan to open a new restaurant in the former 33 West. | DBT PHOTO BY KATIE TABELING

The new downtown Dover La Hacienda has a smaller footprint than the Estradas’ locations near the airbase and Milford. As a result, it will emphasize takeout and delivery.  

“When 33 West was open, they had very high walk-in traffic from the downtown offices. And now people feel more comfortable ordering food to go,” said Estrada, who runs the La Hacienda group with his dad, Amando, and his brother, Cesar. “We’re looking to have a strong lunch and nice dinner.” 

Lopez, however, did not pursue the Governor’s Café for its foot traffic; she fell in love with the building. The Kings Highway address is a little farther from the action, and like many downtowns, Dover faces the perception of a parking problem. The Downtown Partnership, however, has a comprehensive parking plan for future implementation. 

Expanding opportunities

The partnership has also initiated the community-engagement phase of its strategic master plan, which hopefully will help open the doors for more restaurants interested in coming to the downtown district. That will mean improving the city’s underground infrastructure so that ambitious operators can convert regular buildings, such as an office or retail shop, into a restaurant.

Presently, new city restaurants are moving into places with existing kitchens and waste systems. For example, El Azteca near Silver Lake is being built on property that once had a house.

Vacancies in downtown Dover can go quickly. For instance, Rebel Cove snatched up the lease when 33 West’s space became available. La Hacienda let no time lapse after Rebel Cove couldn’t make a go of it. The former Governor’s Café didn’t remain vacant for long. 

Lopez and her partner have yet to make changes, and they’re somewhat limited; the Leason House is on the National Register of Historic Places. But they will do something to distinguish the new restaurant. 

“When people walk in there, they won’t think they are walking into the Governor’s Café,” she vows.

“We want to elevate comfort food with a global perspective using modern culinary techniques,” said Lopez, who grew up helping run the family’s Virginia restaurant. “We want to give Dover a fine-dining experience but with casual dining prices. It’s going to be fun.”

She’s confident in her abilities. After all, her parents created a successful restaurant, although they lacked secondary education and spoke little English. 

“I know that failure is not an option. I have all the tools that they did not have,” Lopez said. “If they can do it, I can do it.”

She and Cantoran are just getting started. “We’re very excited to be downtown, and we’re going to do amazing things in the future,” she said. “Stay tuned.”

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