Wilmington's newest dining destination has flung open its doors. On a breezy corner of the DuPont Building, a sign declares the newcomer's name: DE.CO, short for Delaware Collective, a technical-sounding abbreviation for a place with real human energy and heart.
The swarms of hopeful lunch-goers appear excited about the arrival of something we all surely craved: A downtown food court with contemporary-but-casual cuisine, served with a pinch of local flavor and food-festival chaos.
In a town that often speaks of unity in aspirational terms, the feeling of collaboration is ingrained here: Seven little kitchens, led by energized chef-owners, have embraced a spirit of collegial regard and mutual support.
It's one-for-all, all-for-one, even when nature calls: DE.CO's "restrooms for all" offer an openness that may strike some as perfectly progressive - or awkward in such a buttoned-down, business-minded town.
It's wise to arrive early and save the more-serious lunches for a more-sedate venue. At one end of the L-shaped court, next to the sofas-and-loungers looking out on Orange Street, there is crunchy artisanal pizza; on the other end, sharply crafted sushi from former Mikimoto's legend Al Chu. In between, you catch whiffs of smoke-licked all-American BBQ, lush fried chicken and eager-to-please Indian street food.
Amid those far-flung flavors, harmony prevails, ruffled at times by break-wasting waits, but reinforced by the realization that this is Wilmington's first see-and-be-seen gathering place since the Market Street Mall vanished.
It's a place where Southern-accented chicken-and-waffles can peacefully coexist with Vietnamese subs and noodle soups; where bubble-charred pizzas somehow align with super-fruit smoothies and grain bowls. Should selections grow monotonous over time, a pop-up stall promises an ever-changing fresh face (at the moment, Locale BBQ Post and its deep, smoky pork and brisket).
Still, those squeezed into sleek picnic tables (or, awkwardly, scrunched into kid-sized window seats) may justly wonder: Has the eclectic dÃ©cor missed the hipster mark and landed a hair too close to a mall food court vibe?
So far, any chinks in the faÃ§ade seem minor: Too few trash cans, a clumsy cafÃ© setup, hard-to-find menus. It's perhaps a bit rambunctious here for deeper conversations, but seems ready-made for laid-back get-together and app-aided pickup and delivery.
Already, a few must-try treats are emerging: The banh mi "subs" at Phubs arrive on perfect French rolls, stuffed with moist meat and crunchy pickled veggies ($7.24-$13.84). The robustly seasoned chicken tenders at Connie's Chicken & Waffles were completely upstaged by the crunchy-moist fried shrimp, flecked with just enough cornmeal crunch ($10). Scratch-made ingredients and exacting execution give the fruit bowls and smoothies of Stripp'd a vivacious appeal ($11-$12).
Yet even as we enjoy, we fret: There's plenty of satisfaction in the light, fresh chicken kebab bowl ($13.50) at The Verandah, but the potato-stuffed samosas ($5) seem a tad heavy to preclude post-lunch food comas. The pho noodle soup at Phubs ($6.09-$10.27) boasts a nicely herbal depth, but maybe not quite enough oomph to beat out its local pho-competitors or its meatier brothers. Pizzeria Bardea's "Spicy Pig" model ($10) is deeply flavored, happily offset with hints of honey and chive, and nicely lashed by the brick oven's fire, even if its bottom has somehow emerged from the ordeal limp and soggy.
Such disappointments are mild enough to preserve our heartfelt hope for this good-hearted place, if only because we have yearned so long for an experience that captures Wilmington's true potential as a lively, fun forward-leaning city.
DE.CO is the kind of treasure that could in time help define this town, and its ambitions, in ways that no skyscraper or condo block ever could. It's the kind of place that makes you feel it was all worth the wait-even if you were never quite sure that this is what you were waiting for.