Delaware’s Historic Odessa welcomes first business

When you visit Odessa, it’s like you’re stepping back in time as you tour the historic village’s 18th and 19th century architecture homes. The town has remained largely untouched, until now.

Cantwell’s Tavern is set to open in a couple of weeks, some time during the week of Dec. 12. Inside the 188-year-old Brick Hotel, located on a National Historic Landmark site, the pub is the only commercial business in Odessa’s historic district. A district that, until recently, prohibited any type of commercial business, including restaurants.

“The Historic Odessa Foundation worked very closely with Mayor and Council in Odessa to have the Historic Houses of Odessa rezoned as a historic estate district, which allows us to operate a percentage of our properties for commercial business,” said the non-profit’s Executive Director, Debbie Buckson.

The HOF was established in 2005 to save and preserve the Historic Houses of Odessa, its collection and 30-acre site. Financial sustainability, Buckson says, played a large part in the group’s decision to rezone the area, opening up the Brick Hotel to Cantwell’s Tavern.

“Museums like this, historic sites like this are closing all across the country. I mean, these are very difficult economic times for museums. And museums are having to look for ways to reinvent themselves,” said Buckson.

“How much money can you get from people paying a couple dollars to go do a tour? So by turning a building like this into a restaurant, well now it’s got a whole new life,” said Bob Ashby, owner of Cantwell’s Tavern. “You’ve retained the building, and as much of the architecture so it’s still historically accurate, and you’ve also created a venue for people to come and see.”

A living museum that brings the Brick Hotel back to its tavern roots, with some 21st century amenities.

“It was built for this use almost 200 years ago and we’re hoping that taking it back to its original intent and purpose will make it a successful experience for our visitors and for our community,” Buckson said, adding all of the woodworking and architecture are original to the building, and that the tavern’s been furnished and painted in the flavor of the period. 

“The first thing you have, is you have the historic building… I mean, this is a beautiful building so you’re automatically a destination place,” said Ashby. “And when I talk to people that maybe have never done anything in Odessa, they all know that it’s a historic part of Delaware. And when I tell them that it’s a historic building that I’ll be operating a restaurant in, immediately that gives them another reason to come.”

Bob Ashby has 34 years of experience in the restaurant business. Owner of Dear Park Tavern on University of Delaware’s campus and three other pubs, Ashby says his latest venture will offer upscale, casual dining, with some period food offerings, like snapper soup and Appoquinimink cakes, which Ashby describes as a half biscuit, half cracker.

Five percent of the tavern’s proceeds will benefit the HOF and go towards its operating, maintenance and historic preservation budget. 

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal