The intimate dining room with just 13 tables, each covered in linen cloths with matching napkins, is ready for the night's dinner service. The warm afternoon sun filters through the lace curtains of a large picture window looking out over Seaford’s High Street. Paper lanterns with cherry blossoms hang from the ceilings, fresh-cut roses are scattered throughout. There's a pounding noise in the background: it's Chino Pedemonte in the kitchen preparing the veal featured on tonight's menu.
He changes the menu pretty frequently, his wife Karen Pedemonte explains. It keeps him from getting bored.
Stepping through the unassuming front door of Bon Appetit is sort of like stepping into another world altogether. In a city heavily populated with chain restaurants, pizza joints, and diners, it's a bit of an anomaly, a fine dining experience in an area where such restaurants are few and far between. Some might call it a hidden gem but for the locals, it's a place they've been visiting with friends and family since 1991. For owners Chino and Karen, it's the place they've poured their heart and soul into for the last 30 years.
That length of time is an eternity in the restaurant business, a notoriously fickle industry. While the statistics on failure rates are bit all over the map, they can be quite high.
“It’s no secret that that starting a restaurant and keeping the doors open is fraught with complications,” Foodindustry.com notes.
Bon Appetit has clearly beaten the odds. Under the leadership of Karen and Chino, the restaurant hasn't just survived, but thrived. Their small team of 10 delivers results that speak for themselves. You don't stay in business this long if you're not doing something right.
How Chino and Karen ended up in Seaford could be described as kismet. Chino immigrated from Peru to New York City in the 70s as a 19-year old. He started as a dishwasher and worked his way up, peeling potatoes and making hamburger patties. He was eventually trained in the French cooking style. He worked as a chef for 20 years, and that's when he met Karen, a native New Yorker and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, who worked at the same restaurant he did.
After getting married, they wanted a place they could call their own — and afford. Karen's parents had recently moved to St. Michaels, so the Eastern Shore was already on their radar. Then fortune smiled upon them in the form of Fred Tidwell, the original owner of Bon Appetit. After a yearlong run, he decided the restaurant business wasn't for him and was ready to sell. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Despite its moniker and the Parisian-inspired decor (all tastefully done by Karen), Bon Appetit doesn't limit itself to a French-only menu. Yes, you can enjoy the roast duck and escargot, poached clams, and an impressive wine list. But you may also find Peruvian empanadas, softshell crabs in the summer, wienerschnitzel in October, or a particularly delicious sounding Irish orange crush for St. Patrick's Day. For Chino, it's all about seasonal variety, blending cuisines from different cultures and using only fresh ingredients. The menu changes frequently, and everything is made from scratch.
The food was just one of the reasons Bon Appetit was able to survive when everything shut down in March 2020.
"We had the advantage of being a well-established business," said Karen. “And we were fortunate enough to be able to pay our staff for the duration of the lockdown. They are like family."
Not that it was without its challenges. Their menu didn't lend itself to takeout like so many other places did. And for people like the Pedemontes, who were accustomed to being in the restaurant working every day, the unexpected downtime was difficult to accept. So to stay engaged with their customers (and keep their own boredom at bay), they began making daily posts on their Facebook page and website. They showed what they were cooking from home and provided instructions so viewers could join in on the experience.
When it finally came time to reopen, they kept their menu small, and Karen focused her energy on making the dining room as inviting as possible. Throughout the restrictions, she continued to change the decor: Bright bunches of balloons in the warmer months, amber-colored lanterns in the Fall, lots of red for Christmas, and pinks and roses for Valentine's Day. As restrictions eased, the menu grew, but the seasonal changeup in decoration continued.
More recently, they went through an extensive transformation and shut down for three and a half weeks while the landlord made improvements to the building: He updated the HVAC system, replaced the ceiling, added crown molding, and laid new floors. It was also a chance for them to swap the men's and women's restrooms, giving the ladies the larger of the two facilities. (As it should be, some might argue.)
Nowadays, they are back to full capacity and, on average, serve dinner to 30 guests during the week and around 50 guests on the weekends.
"We don't turn over most of the tables," Karen remarked. In true European dining fashion, Bon Appetit is meant to provide a relaxed experience, a place to enjoy a meal and linger over dessert without feeling like you're being rushed out the door.
Not surprisingly, they have a very loyal customer base; many come in at least once a week, while others regularly celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, or other special occasions under their roof. Advertising is a thing of the past, and word of mouth is all that's needed to keep their reservation line busy — and they do recommend a reservation.
When asked the secret to their success, Karen credited it to consistency. Every Tuesday through Saturday, you'll find the Pedemontes at the restaurant to personally prepare for the night's dinner service. From the sauces to the soups to the flowers on the tables, every detail matters to ensure their guests enjoy the food and service they have come to expect.