Three local eateries emerged from over five hundred heartfelt submissions from diners singing the praises of their ‘absolute favorite restaurants’ to land a spot on the premiere of Check, Please! – a new prime time television show airing next week on PBS.
Producers for the new program put out a call for restaurant nominations last summer, choosing just three from the First State – Mrs. Robino’s, The House of William & Merry and Del Pez Mexican Gastropub – to be featured in the inaugural season, which kicks off Thursday, January 9th on WHYY.
The new regional show, now in its 18th season in Chicago, will feature 35 area restaurants across New Jersey, greater Philadelphia and Delaware in 2020.
You won’t see professional restaurant critics on Check, Please! Diners are the critics, and the cool thing is that their visits to local haunts are done in secret. Restaurant owners don’t know until show producers reach out to them that mystery diners have already visited their establishments.
Each episode features a candid, roundtable discussion, with local food lovers ready to dish about their favorite neighborhood places.
“The fact that we had over 500 submissions for our first season is pretty incredible,” said Check, Please! Producer Caitlin Corkery, who spoke to us while filming at Mrs. Robino’s in Wilmington’s Little Italy. “And from there we narrowed them down. We pick places that are representative overall of the region. From there we pre-interview people, we find out who is really chatty, who really likes food, and we want to show a diverse range of people dining in restaurants. We will often try to pair people who like to visit trendy restaurants with people who prefer a good home-cooked meal,” she said.
Corkery says the authenticity of the show is what makes it work and that the amateur reviewers are asked to keep it real.
Program participants are asked to visit the restaurant they are “championing” along with two others. After trying all three spots, the guests come on the show to discuss what makes a restaurant special, forgettable and everything in between.
WHYY visited all three Delaware restaurants in August to videotape background footage and interview the owners.
Mrs. Robino’s back in the television spotlight
Mrs. Robino’s owner Andrea Wakefield was caught off guard when she learned that the diners had already visited her legendary restaurant in Little Italy. “You mean they’ve already been here?” Wakefield asked Corkery. “And yes, I can tell you that each of our diners at Robino’s had a great time.” Wakefield ignited a broad smile when she learned her restaurant would likely receive three thumbs up on the show.
During her interview with Wakefield and Robin Robino Mabrey, Corkery asked what first-timers should order, where the recipes came from and what diners should ‘take away’ from their visits. TDS readers who followed our Diner’s, Drive-ins and Dives stories last year will fondly recall Guy Fieri’s visit to Robino’s, when the bleached-blond chef described the restaurant as “the real deal.”
Wakefield told Corkery that customers should feel like family when they walk through the entrance on Union Street and that the recipes passed down from her great grandmother are not written down – anywhere. “We just know visually what they’re supposed to look like and how to communicate that with the people who work here,” said Wakefield.
As a follow up to a probing question about the recipes from Corkery, Wakefield replied, “We do keep them top-secret, yes.” The diners who visited Robino’s were also asked to eat at Marrakesh Restaurant and Rex 1516 — both in Philadelphia.
Revealing that producers “really enjoyed” meeting the Robino’s nominator, Corkery said the online recommendations can make a big difference. “If they have an application that just sings, and you can really tell that they just love a place and they want to talk about it, then we’re like, ‘Oh we want to check it out, too.’”
Local food blogger nominates The House of William & Merry
“We are blessed to have some very good regulars here, and writer Matt Sullivan is one of them,” said Merry Catanuto, co-owner of The House of William & Merry. “He’s been around the food scene for many years, but he’s followed us since the beginning,” she said.
Catanuto’s husband, co-owner and head chef Bill Hoffman said he wasn’t surprised Sullivan’s depth of food writing experience – he currently writes for Out & About Magazine – helped convince producers to pay their Hockessin restaurant a visit. “When we found out it was Matt, we were like, ‘Oh, we’ve got to do this.”
Corkery says Sullivan’s pitch was filled with wonderful anecdotes. He set the stage by saying he said he was sitting at the bar, and he talked about the innovation in their cuisine and the owners doing some really unusual things in the kitchen in their farmhouse in Hockessin,” said Corkery.
Inspired by some of the many restaurants Catanuto visited or worked at during the seven years she lived in California, she says The House of William & Merry is relaxed fine dining — “not in the East coast, white tablecloth” vein. Their menu is “very seasonal, local, but focused on the best quality we can find, even if it isn’t local.”
The menu changes seasonally depending on which fresh, local items are available. And entrees, which might include Day Boat fish, wild game from Texas, Octopus and Foie Gras, Roasted Pacific Sturgeon or House Grilled Duck Ramen, range from $30 to $45. “We like serving things other restaurants around here aren’t serving, and we encourage our customers to try new things,” says Hoffman.
Raised in Bear and Newark, Hoffman says his “upper echelon” price points are driven by a focus on quality and reliance from local growers. “We source only animals that are humanely raised and fish that are wild in-line caught. It comes at a cost when you source everything from farms and animals that are raised that way,” he said.
“They look at food very differently in California. It’s not a formal experience,” says Catanuto. “So there was a transition time when we first got here getting people to understand that we want you to be relaxed and feel comfortable. Whether you want to be dressed in a tuxedo or sweatpants it doesn’t matter to us. We’re just keeping it fun and are really hyper-focused on the food and doing things the right way – and as much from scratch as we can,” she said.
“This region has some of the best restaurants in the world and many of them are tucked into neighborhoods where only the locals know how good they are,” says Check, Please! host Palmisano. “On our show, you’ll see local food lovers chatting about what makes a restaurant special, forgettable and everything in between.”
Check, Please! host Kae Lani Palmisano has traveled the world extensively to research the history and origins of food. The South Jersey native has also covered the Philadelphia food scene for the James Beard Award-winning publication Roads & Kingdoms.
The air dates featuring the three Wilmington-area restaurants are:
Del Pez – Thursday, Feb. 20
House of William & Merry – Thursday, Feb. 27
Mrs. Robino’s – Thursday, Apr. 9
Corkery says she hopes Delaware viewers who tune in are inspired to offer up their suggestions. “We’re limited on Delaware restaurants. So we would love to find out more. We want to be representative of the entire viewing population,” said Corkery.