Feeding Success: Thai restaurant is latest addition to Riverfront’s offerings

Feeding Success: Thai restaurant is latest addition to Riverfront’s offerings

August 15, 2011
The News Journal | Maureen Milford

WILMINGTON—Two decades ago, a daytime visit to Wilmington’s Riverfront meant a creepy tour among the ghostly remains of the Christina River’s shipbuilding days.

Weeds and crumbling industrial buildings seemed haunted by the 11,000 workers who built 200 destroyer escort vessels and tank landing ships at the site during World War II. Many people were fearful of traveling there during daylight hours; nobody ventured to that eerie wasteland after dark.

“It was scary. Even the hobos—they wouldn’t want to go back there,” said Clarence White, owner of White’s Auto Body in Wilmington’s Southbridge community. “It was a forgotten place.”

Today, 15 years and more than $250 million in public spending later, the city’s waterfront is one of the liveliest dining spots in the state and has become a nightlife destination . Indeed, some of the restaurants on Christina River ring up more sales annually than comparable eateries on the highly traveled U.S. 202, according to Rob Stenta, director of commercial leasing with Pettinaro Management LLC in Newport.

Now, another local business is set to add to the Christina’s cuisine mix. Norrawit “Wit” Milburn, 29, whose family runs Jeenwong’s Thai Cuisine in the Riverfront Market, said his family, the Jeenwongs, will be finishing up work on a 3,800-square-foot sit-downrestaurant in the Shipyard Business Center on Justison Street. The Thai street-food restaurant is expected to be open within 30 days.

“Family-owned restaurants like ours make Wilmington different from other cities,” Milburn said. “It makes the Riverfront a destination.”

Named “Ubon” in honor of the area in Thailand where Milburn’s mother’s family lives, the upscale-casual restaurant is located on the Christina waterfront just south of Timothy’s Riverfront Grill in what had been known as the Shipyard Shops. The Jeenwong family still has rice farms in the Ubon area, Milburn said. His uncle, who is a chef, is moving from Thailand to work in the Wilmington venture.

Milburn has become a familiar figure at the Riverfront Market, where his family has done business for 11 years. Jeenwong’s Thai Cuisine will remain open. All together, the Jeenwongs have been in the restaurant industry for 29 years, Milburn said.

Originally, Ubon Thai Cuisine was to open in the 300 block of N. Market St. in Wilmington. But Wilmington Economic Development Director Joe DiPinto said retrofitting the older building created serious obstacles for the family operation.

Seeing an opportunity, Stenta of Pettinaro Management offered the Shipyard center as an alternative and a deal was quickly done.

Plans call for Ubon to seat 60 people inside, 25 people outside and another 30 at the bar, Milburn said. The family has settled on a menu that will feature home-style dishes sold by street vendors in Thailand, although it will offer the traditional favorites like pad thai and Panang curry, Milburn said.

The smaller portions of street food will include such things as seafood meatball soup, beef jerky and a variety of satay. Milburn has also developed some specialty drinks. Prices will run from $8 for the smaller portions to $22 for entrees, he said.

“It will be like the actual experience of going to Thailand,” Milburn said. “We always say: Tourists go to restaurants. Locals go to street vendors.”

For the interior, the family is going for a trendy atmosphere with traditional elements. Five statues have been imported from Thailand. And since flowing water is an important element in Buddhism, Milburn is installing a 6-foot by 4-foot fountain painted in gold leaf. The bar will be white granite with birch trim. Once a quarter, Ubon plans to have traditional Thai dancing, Milburn said.

“It’ll be one more reason to come to the Riverfront,” Stenta said.

Stenta said he also hopes to have an announcement within the next few weeks about a fourth freestanding restaurant located between Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant and Big Fish Grill.

“It’s going to be a unique addition to the restaurant scene,” Stenta said.

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