The number embossed on the door of Doyle’s restaurant in Selbyville reads “5092.” It is a number that tells the very beginning of a story that now spans 65 years and is firmly planted in the area’s history — a history that includes agriculture, as well as tourism.
Originally called Woody’s Diner, after owner Woody Sturgis, the restaurant has been verified to be the oldest “Silk City Diner” still operating in Delaware — which is part of the story told by that 5092 on the door. It signifies, according to Brandon Doyle, that the diner was built in 1950 and it was the 92nd “dining car” — which is what the Silk City Diners actually were — built by the Paterson Vehicle Co. that year.
Doyle, whose family has operated the restaurant since 1983, takes pride in the fact that the diner appears today just about the same as it did in 1951, when Woody’s Diner opened. Coverings on stools and booths have been replaced over the years, and somewhere along the way the original blue coverings were replaced with red ones. But otherwise, the diner is very much unchanged — thanks in part to the Doyle’s efforts to find authentic replacement parts when they are needed.
Much like restoring and maintaining a classic car, maintaining the diner is a labor of love for Doyle.
“Finding pieces and parts is very difficult,” he said. “When you do find them, they’re just astronomically expensive.” But when he does find authentic replacement parts — such as the clock that now hangs over the counter — it’s satisfying.
Doyle marvels at the sliding door at the front of the diner — the fact that it is original, and that “It’s still loud!”
While the original diner car is still the “face” of Doyle’s along Route 113, several additions have added to the restaurant’s ability to serve its patrons over the years. Large dining rooms now accommodate weddings, community meetings and other gatherings.
Doyle, 40, grew up hanging out at the restaurant and playing in the fields nearby. He recalls baseball games where the tax ditch at the edge of the property was a “home run,” by virtue of the fact that no one wanted to attempt retrieval of balls that landed there.
Over the years, Doyle watched his father, Mike Doyle, working hard to assure the continued success of the restaurant, and longtime employees, including Sheila Evans — who started working at the restaurant as a young teen, continued through college and now still works there part-time, even though her “day job” is teaching. Another employee, server Carol Phillips, has worked at Doyle’s for more than 25 years.
“There are 65 years of stories” within the restaurant’s walls, Doyle said. He pointed to a booth in the corner of the diner — the spot where Dick Clark and Connie Francis once dined. While he doesn’t know the exact date, Doyle said the story is definitely true and that the couple dined there “in their heyday.”
More regional luminaries would often stop in, such as longtime Baltimore mayor William Donald Schaefer and Ocean City mayor Roland “Fish” Powell — who would always sit at opposite ends of the diner if they were there at the same time, Doyle said.
Among the stories that the walls of Doyle’s could tell are many that tie into the area’s rich agricultural history — none more important than the restaurant’s role in the formation of the Eastern Shore Poultry Grower’s Exchange.
The Doyles like to say the organization was “hatched” during meetings of poultry growers in the restaurant in 1951. The industry was a few decades old at that point, and many growers were struggling because they were either being poorly paid or not paid at all.
Grower I.B. Hudson, Doyle said, proposed the establishment of auctions, like ones he had seen for the onion growers of Texas, where he had lived previously. Such a move, Hudson thought, might give poultry farmers more control. Soon, an auction was set up just up the road from what was then Woody’s Diner.
Then, the restaurant’s role in the newly re-energized industry expanded, when a bank of phones was installed in a small room off the dining area, so that poultry farmers could place auction bids.
Today, Doyle’s continues to serve as a community hub, hosting monthly coffee hours with state Rep. Rich Collins, as well as meetings of local organizations.
Brandon Doyle said the restaurant’s fried chicken is definitely the most popular item on the menu, along with its turkey and roast beef dinners and local seafood favorites, such as crabcakes and soft-shell crab sandwiches.
Not everything on the menu has stayed the same, though. In the early 1950s, a crabcake sandwich could be had for 40 cents, as shown on a vintage menu displayed in the restaurant. For many years, a greenhouse next to the restaurant produced vegetables for the restaurant — “tomatoes, cukes, squash, zucchini — all the good summer vegetables we all love around here,” Doyle said.
Today’s customers are just as likely to be tourists as poultry farmers, and the growing influx of retirees in southeastern Sussex County keeps the restaurant full year-round, Doyle said. Bridge players and retired Baltimore Gas & Electric employees meet there regularly, and along with weddings and other celebrations, Doyle’s often hosts meals for those who are gathering following the death of a loved one, he said.
A new sign erected in front of the restaurant by the Delaware State Archives honors the restaurant’s history, and dignitaries, as well as former owners, have gathered to celebrate its 65 years as an anchor for a community whose course is ever-changing.
Stacks of historical memorabilia, from old pictures of the restaurant to a 1923 bank calendar, sit in a spare room in the office behind the restaurant — a testament to the eatery’s place in the history of Selbyville and the faithfulness of its owners to their roles as stewards of that history.
Doyle said that Mike, his dad, is the historian in the family, with a love for antiques, including Depression glass — some of which is displayed in the restaurant.
Like the vintage jukebox in the diner that still cranks “oldies” from the diner’s early years, the beat goes on seven days a week, 14 hours a day, at Doyle’s.
These days, Brandon Doyle gets to watch a new generation of his family making his mark on the restaurant. His 2-year-old son Mykolas is a frequent presence, he said.
“He likes to run through the dining room” Doyle said, stopping occasionally to look up and say “Hi.”