By Pam George
Special to Delaware Business Times
When Harry’s Savoy Grill opened in November 1988, North Wilmington was a fine-dining desert. Harry’s not only plugged a niche, but it also bucked the trends. Instead of New American and fusion dishes, Harry’s specialized in juicy cuts of red meat and martinis, which at that time were associated with older generations. Jeans weren’t allowed in the dining room, and ketchup came in a china bowl.
Thirty years later, Harry’s Savoy is still known for prime rib and steaks. However, the restaurant has adapted with the times. The dress code — and the condiment containers — have relaxed. Diners today can get both tuna and tenderloin served rare.
Many credit owner Xavier Teixido for the restaurant’s endurance. “He is multidimensional — which is critical for longevity in this business,” said Carl Georigi, who with his wife, Lisa, owns Wilmington-based Platinum Dining Group. “He understands the food component and the guest experience, and he is a smart, deliberate businessman.”
Carrie Leishman, president and CEO of the Delaware Restaurant Association, agreed. “Xavier embodies everything that is right and wonderful about hospitality,” she said. In the process, he’s inspired many restaurant owners and chefs.
Doug Ruley and Kevin Davies are two of them. Many strive to live up to Teixido’s standards for food and service, said Ruley, a chef and vice president of culinary operations for SoDel Concepts. Kevin Davies, a founder of Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant, said his experience working with Teixido was invaluable.
“Xavier is a consummate restaurateur who possesses great knowledge, passion and experience for food, beverage and service,” Davies said. “Those qualities and skills never go out of style in our business, so his success and longevity are no surprise.”
Breaking new ground with old favorites
Harry’s Savoy Grill is in a building that has housed restaurants since at least 1938, the year the Cedar Inn encouraged patrons to “dine, dance and drink amid rustic surroundings.” It’s also been the King’s Inn, the Smuggler’s Inn and the Old Admiral’s Inn.
Initially, Harry’s Savoy Grill was owned by 1492 Hospitality Group, which in 1988 also had the Columbus Inn and Kid Shelleen’s in Wilmington, Klondike Kate’s in Newark and The Granary in Maryland.
Teixido, who oversaw the restaurants for 1492, in 1988 was a seasoned restaurant veteran. He’d worked at The Frog in Philadelphia, where he once chastised an unknown kitchen worker for creating a sloppy plate. That worker was the owner, Steve Poses, who promoted Teixido for his dedication to perfection. Teixido was also employed at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, where he relished the management role.
From the start, he was the face of Harry’s. He told News Journal writer Al Mascitti that Harry’s Savoy would “bring back the elegant part of the ’50s.” There were rosy slabs of prime rib, white linens and a wine list that went beyond listing “red” and “white.” The hospitality group dropped the Admiral’s Inn’s famous salad bar and upped the prices. At last, Brandywine Hundred had a fine-dining destination.
When Teixido left 1492 in 1993 — the same year he was president of the Delaware Restaurant Association — he purchased Harry’s Savoy Grill. Chef David Leo Banks, who opened Harry’s, opted to stay with Teixido. They announced plans to relax the service, add more seafood and become a “really nice neighborhood restaurant.”
Where everyone knows your name
Harry’s became a go-to spot for special occasions. However, it was also a locals’ hangout, particularly when cigars came into favor in the 1990s. Delaware’s smoking ban dented the business. Sales of brandy and Scotch plummeted as stogie-smokers crossed the state line to puff, Teixido recalled.
There was enough business to offset the loss. Linda DiSabatino and husband Mark once came up to three times a week, including Saturdays. They were such regulars that she had to call only when she wasn’t coming.
DiSabatino said the employees were always welcoming. Theresa Vallier Thomas, who worked at Harry’s for five years, isn’t surprised. “It took every single person — every single day — to make it work well, and work well it still does,” she said. “Much as a maestro who keeps the orchestra in time and tune, Xavier’s original vision continues as a result of his dedication to quality, perfection and the community.”
It is essential to exceed expectations, Teixido said. DiSabatino witnessed the effort firsthand. When Harry’s ran out of a particular wine, the manager drove to the liquor store to buy a bottle, she said. When her husband wanted more moderately priced wines on the menu, Harry’s created a “DiSabatino Corner” on the list.
Overcoming obstacles, changing with the times
It takes many employees to run the 165-seat restaurant. Hiring new talent has always presented challenges. In 1988, applicants may have lacked restaurant experience, but most had life skills, Teixido said. Now training must address both. Fortunately, some employees have been with Harry’s for 25 years.
Teixido added a 10,000-square-foot ballroom in 1998. But the event business can be fickle. The space does count on a few regulars, such as rotary clubs. “My rotary clubs — Brandywine-Naamans and the Brandywine Hundred — meet there for lunch and breakfast meetings respectively,” said Laurie Bick. “The Brandywine Hundred Club made Xavier an honorary member.”
The ballroom wasn’t the only change. In 2007, Harry’s underwent a nearly $1 million renovation that included new carpet, cherry-red chairs and linen-less tables. Gone are the playing cards that once dangled from the ceiling — the vestiges of a magician act during brunch. “People still talk about them,” Teixido said.
The bar area, known as the Grill, once had a wall separating tables from the bar. Today there are communal high-top tables in the space. “We kept trying to adapt to the way that people eat today,” Teixido said. “You want people to feel they can come in without a reservation.”
The prime rib station remains a focus, but Harry’s came of age with The Food Network, which debuted in 1993. Diners developed an adventurous appetite and Harry’s catered to it.
“They keep classic favorites but add new items to change with the times, and there are great specials,” said longtime customer Kathy Trakas.
Menu additions are within reason. “You have to show people you know what’s going on, but we’re never going to be an Asian restaurant,” Teixido said. “You have to figureout who you are, and sometimes the trends won’t go your way.”
People want quality and freshness, Teixido said. They want line-caught fish and seasonal produce. Even so, on a Saturday night, up to 40 percent of the guests will modify a menu item to suit a diet preference or food intolerance. Harry’s obliges.
Many longtime diners point to the restaurant’s consistency. “You can recommend it without fear,” noted diner Ed Dwornik. “Everything is done right.”
For nearly 30 years, that was because David Leo Banks oversaw the kitchen. In 2017, he left Harry’s Hospitality Group and became the sole owner of Harry’s Seafood Grill, the restaurant he and Teixido started in 2003.
Michael Heaps, who is now the executive chef, has worked for restaurant groups and event facilities. “He’s really good and, importantly, he’s good with the team,” Teixido said. “He’s young, so he’s on the same wavelength with the people he’s recruiting.”
Despite taking time to travel, Teixido does not plan to leave Harry’s Savoy anytime soon. “I still feel like I’ve got some good years in me here,” he said. “We just want to play to our strengths, give the guest what they want and be part of our community.”