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 revered inn sparkles. Gas lanterns flicker on at dusk. An elegant black awning frames a chic patio. Inside, oak floors, a limestone fireplace, and a glass-enclosed 1,000-bottle refrigerated wine room—formerly the coat closet—deliver a clean, spacious, and modern feel.
But former patrons feel at right at home in the cozy lounge where small brass nameplates remain in the original dark paneling, honoring longtime customers now deceased. Comfy, deep red barstools with nailhead patterns now border the legendary walnut horseshoe bar where generations of regulars swapped tales while sipping cocktails or draft beers.
“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.”
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 branzino fillet came with fennel and tomato splashed with chicken jus and was irresistable. Likewise, the milk-fed veal with bluefoot mushrooms, sweetbread ragout, and lively carrot salad.
The recasting of vintage cocktails spotlighting fresh and herb juices is an unexpected surprise. The creative force behind the bar is mixologist Richard Knapp. His silky smooth Slider, concocted with Hendrick’s gin, St. Germain, cucumber, lemon, and simple syrup, was a summer smash.
“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 1812 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 those performances the crowd marched over to the Columbus Inn to join Buffalo Bill, Annie 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 much-loved 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 and anniversaries, and reminisced after funerals.
By 2007 the inn had lost much of its swagger, and 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 the condo tower. But after nearly two years and a tepid buying response, the plans 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. 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. The West Chester native has, for over 35 years, been forging a small niche business renovating, rebuilding, and furnishing high-end homes. He’s 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 in Manhattan.
“Louis is my client and he’s 33 years old, so he wants a much lighter feel, higher ceilings, fresh, not old-fashioned,” says Fenstermacher. “He asked me to visit bars and restaurants in New York City to do a lot of research. He doesn’t settle on anything. Louis looks and looks until he’s happy.”
The man behind the new Columbus Inn hopes to turn it once again into one of the city’s most desirable dining and socializing spots. Louis Capano III has fond memories of the inn: “As a kid my dad didn’t cook so we would be here all the time; I knew all the waiters and waitresses.
“With the new inn our goal is to create an atmosphere where the old guard feels comfortable, plus establish an energy and vibe for the young crowd—make it a fun place to be. Years ago that’s how it felt to me, like a second living room.”