For Dick Heidenberger, taking the helm of Bethany Beach’s newest oceanfront restaurant was a move that made a lot of sense.
The endeavor began back in January as a conversation with Jack Burbage, owner of the new Bethany Beach Ocean Suites/Residence Inn. Burbage is also Heidenberger’s landlord at the Bethany Beach eateries Mango’s and Bethany Blues. Once he took a look at the hotel that was still under construction and the plans for the restaurant space, Heidenberger said, he decided to jump onboard.
The rest of the winter brought a flurry of preparations for Heidenberger and partners Steve Montgomery and Jim Weisgerber, Heidenberger said. The trio quickly began assembling a team of people to bring their vision to life. A crucial part of that process was hiring chef Danny Somoza and director of operations Donna Serafina.
“The two of them really put together our playbook here,” Heidenberger said.
That playbook includes a “very innovative menu” that features the freshest ingredients possible. To that end, 99 Sea Level works with a number of local food producers — including, but not limited to: Adkins Produce of Millsboro, Bennett Orchards of Frankford, Fishkiller Lobster Shack of Dagsboro and Sea Eagle Fish Company of Selbyville, in addition to farms and seafood companies from all over the Delmarva Peninsula.
From wild-caught salmon to free-range chicken, the menu features the freshest ingredients available, Heidenberger said. And from those ingredients, “everything that is served here is made fresh, in-house,” he said.
The crowning touch on the 99 Sea Level menu is the Seafood Tower, designed to be as beautiful to look at as it is to eat. The tower comes in three sizes and features blue-point Chincoteague oysters, steamed shrimp, Broadwater clams, steamed Prince Edward Island mussels and steamed Alaskan crab clusters.
The location of the restaurant, which seats 90 inside and 100 outside, is a huge part of what makes it unique — steps from the boardwalk and the dunes, it is one of a very few oceanfront restaurants in the Bethany Beach area. The wide porch, graced with elegant columns and fitted very simply with potted palms, was cool and pleasant even on a recent hot, humid afternoon, with ceiling fans adding to the breeze from the ocean.
Heidenberger touts 99 Sea Level’s raw bar, which will be open year-round, as an important asset. Menu items currently include many seafood appetizers, such as fish tacos and Hooper’s Island blue crab flatbread. Dinner entrees include popular beach fare, such as crabcakes, as well as a bouillabaisse brimming with local seafood, pasta dishes, beef and chicken dishes.
The lunch menu at 99 Sea Level features a unique and hearty array of sandwiches, as well as lobster bisque showcasing lobster from Fishkiller’s, as well as salads that focus on creative combinations of ingredients.
“Family sides” add fun and flexibility to meal choices, with selections including lobster mac-and-cheese and shoestring truffle fries, which can be shared with others at the table.
Heidenberger said being connected to the new Marriott brings a level of sophistication to the location that will benefit surrounding businesses.
“It’s great for the town of Bethany Beach,” he said, adding that “the Marriott network is very strong,” bringing potential customers to the hotel and restaurant, as well as the surrounding businesses — customers who might not have previously considered a stay in Bethany Beach.
Now that he’s had a bit of a chance to catch his breath after jumping in at the height of the summer season, Heidenberger said he is looking ahead to the off-season.
“We’re really excited to be here. We really don’t know what to expect,” he added, as far as flow of business through the fall and winter months, since the location is so unique. “We’re looking forward to a strong off-season.”
For Serafina, who worked for Heidenberger at the Starboard before pursuing other career paths of her own, the chance to come on board at the start of such a unique business was exciting.
“It doesn’t feel like work,” she said. “It’s been fun for both of us.”
Once porch seating is not possible due to the weather, the focus will be on the indoor space, located on the first floor of the Marriott. With soaring ceilings, oversized prints of historic Bethany Beach photographs and modern-but-inviting furnishings, the space seems to connect the past and future of the beach town.
Heidenberger said the Marriott promises to be a popular destination for conferences and other gatherings, from fundraisers to weddings, and he is upbeat about the prospects those will bring to neighboring businesses and to Bethany Beach in general.
Lunch at 99 Sea Level is served from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; happy hour runs from 3 to 5 p.m. and dinner is served from 4 to 10:30 p.m. The restaurant’s name refers to its address — 99 Atlantic Avenue. For more information, call the restaurant at (302) 539-0299.