In my adventures as a food writer, I receive numerous emails describing people’s encounters with restaurants here in the Cape Region. Based on that daily feedback, specific patterns have emerged. And when it comes to The Buttery restaurant in Lewes, one pattern is particularly evident. Words like “quiet elegance,” “tasteful” and “refined dining” pop up regularly over the time I’ve been monitoring these sorts of things.
Anybody with even a passing familiarity with the restaurant business knows that these accolades don’t happen automatically. Restaurants invariably reflect the attitude of the owner, and the success of The Buttery is certainly a reflection of the experience and skill of co-owner John Donato.
Apparently the apple (or perhaps the apple brown betty with fresh, local fruit and a dusting of a cinnamon/garam masala blend topped with a sprig of mint) doesn’t fall far from the tree, because John’s grandmother was not only a professional chef, but also holds the distinction of being the first female chef to run a hotel kitchen in Philadelphia.
John hails from there, but his father worked in Manhattan’s Chrysler Building and allowed his son to explore and marvel at the architecture. John emerged from Rider University with degrees in English and fine arts. “It got me as close to architecture as I wanted to be—without all the technical stuff.” After college, he landed a job as a lecture guide at Lincoln Center, conducting educational tours of all five theaters. “It was the perfect job for me.” And that was true on many levels, as early ‘80s NYC was certainly the time and place to come out! Studio 54 was at its height and The Big Apple was the epicenter of gay expression and merriment.
There was no shortage of jobs for a guy like Donato. He worked for Yves Saint Laurent on Madison Avenue, tending to the couture needs of the likes of Cicely Tyson, Robert Redford and Andy Warhol. But his entré into the world of food took place at a palatial home near Bleeker and Houston Streets. It was there he learned to cook, and when he went to Franklin Market to stock the kitchen, his employer instructed, “Follow that guy James Beard. Whatever he buys, buy it.”
John eventually moved to P’town, and life really took off. “I was young and cute and I made a lot of money tending bar!” He was soon the General Manager of three restaurants in Boston and was about to open and manage yet another in Newport, R.I. when a competitor asked him to take over Lily’s restaurant in Philadelphia. Moving seamlessly between management and sommelier, he was soon overseeing the catering department of the Holiday Inn Independence. It wasn’t long before he became the Director of Catering and Convention Services for the new Dunfey City Line Hotel’s 40,000 sq.ft. of catering and banquet facilities.
In1986, John’s skills attracted the attention of Omni Hotels, and he was asked to manage the demanding and highly educated clientele of the Nassau Inn in Princeton, NJ. By 1988 he was drawn to the equally posh and newly Cunard-owned Bellevue Hotel in Philadelphia, where every day at 5 p.m. he and his crew donned black tie attire. Donato administered events for such luminaries as Luciano Pavarotti and Dan Quayle, and it was there where he met Twain Gonzales. “He was one of the ‘hottest’—in every sense of the word—psychologists in Philadelphia. And I was nothing if not persistent!”
The men eventually moved to Twain’s farm in Georgetown, De., but John continued to commute to Philadelphia. “You’ve opened a lot of restaurants for a lot of people,” Gonzales proposed, “Maybe it’s time you did that for yourself.” The two men pooled their resources, and in ’94 The Buttery opened in the New Devon Inn, where the Hotel Rodney is now.
Five years later, the now-stately Victorian at the corner of Second and Savannah became The Buttery’s new home, and the first few years saw Donato as construction director, co-owner, head chef and GM. During that time, John had helped his good friend Lorraine with her own restaurant/inn in Bucks County, Pa., and had arranged her wedding to Gary Papp. She promised that if Donato ever opened a restaurant she would be there. John tells it best: “She made good on that promise, and she and Gary worked tirelessly to make the original Buttery a success. They said to Twain, ‘if you find us a house, we’ll stay.’ He did, and they did. Gary became our first executive chef and remained with us for thirteen years. The Buttery would not be what it is today without their influence and dedication.”
Fast-forward to the present, and Twain Gonzales is currently serving on the Family Law Commission in Delaware and the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce Legislative Advisory Board. In his capacity working in Career Services at Del Tech, he was honored with the Delaware Governor’s Award for Service to Individuals with Disabilities. In addition to being omnipresent at The Buttery, John Donato teaches the Applied Hospitality program at Del Tech.
And congratulations are in order: The Buttery celebrated 20 years (quite deliciously, I might add) in May 2014.
Bob Yesbek is a Rehoboth Beach resident. Email Bob Yesbek