Even though she grew up in Bethany Beach Melanie Petrie still gets surprised by how the resort has changed over the years. It’s not just because Bethany is lot less sleepy than it used to be, it also because it angles toward trendy in a way she hadn’t imagined even a little more than a decade ago. The Bethany Boathouse is a great example of why.
She still sees the shadows of the old Bethany Beach during her regular shifts behind the bar at the Cottage Cafe. People love the place because it is predictable. They know what they’re going to get and, if they’ve been a regular for long enough, the odds are Petrie does as well. She calls people by name, and they return the familiarity even going so far as to do the occasional chop busting.
“I can tell you what 75 percent of the people in here are going to drink,” she said looking over the bar full of regulars on a Monday afternoon.
Melanie pulls a lot of drafts and pops a number of bottles between lunch and dinner, breaking for the occasional mixed drink and the even more occasional complex cocktail. But since she started at the Cottage Cafe 13 years ago, her goal always has been to work as close to the top of her game as she can. Often that means delivering the expected rather than the unexpected. Some bars you go to precisely because they provide choice but don’t impose it upon you.
“That’s what I love about working behind the bar here,” she said. “If something’s going wrong in the kitchen, or there’s a wait or something, I can just pour you another beer.”
Still, four year ago the Cottage Cafe ownership purchased the Bethany Boathouse across the street, Petrie convinced them to give her the bar to run. Since that first summer, she’s been balancing delivering the expected behind one bar while pushing the envelope behind another bar fewer than 200 yards east.
Beyond the Cottage Cafe
“Bethany Boathouse is just so much more bar,” she said. “And it always amazes me how many people there really are in Bethany.”
Bethany Boathouse draws a number of its clientele from the Sea Colony, a housing development within walking distance. It isn’t the presence of different patrons that sets her jobs apart, though, it is more her attitude about what each of the different bars should do that sets them apart.
Bethany Boathouse is a seasonal restaurant, she said, and vacationers are looking for a material difference in the places they choose.
“You’re much more likely to try something different when you’re on vacation,” she said. “You’re more likely to want to experiment, to expect it.”
So she does what she can to deliver both the expected and the unexpected at Bethany Boathouse.
What’s expected are solid cocktails, a respectable craft beer and wine selection and the “fruity frozens” people like to drink on vacations. What’s also expected is an interesting answer to, “surprise me.”
Petrie said that people like to be surprised when they try something new, especially if they put themselves in your hands as a bartender. Variations on crushes have been a staple for her since she started thinking about how Bethany Boathouse could distinguish itself. Remember, the Cottage Cafe is a wildly popular restaurant and the idea wasn’t to compete with it, but to find a way to serve patrons who were interested in different.
One of Petrie’s first signature drinks was the Sunset Crush, made with pineapple, orange, passion fruit rum and a splash of grenadine to give it that sunset look.
“People really loved it right away,” she said.
In recent years, variations on crushes have risen to prominence as bartenders like Petrie work to expand drinkers’ imaginations and palates. She’ll still takes a crack at developing new ones all the time, most recently a Sierra Mist lemon crush that isn’t as lemony as you might fear. But her latest investigation into variants has been with sangria.
Bethany Boathouse Sangria
Petrie knows that the bottom line on sangria is that it’s fun. It’s a summer hangout drink. It also traditionally is a catchall term for a homemade drink consisting of the fruit, wine and liquors that a person has to hand when they’re making it.
To that end, mixing up new sangrias is more about the gesture than the precision. It’s about finding the things people like and mixing them together in the order that they are likely to enjoy them, taking the flavor combinations as well as amounts seriously.
“Over there, there is a challenge to come up with different things,” she said. “It’s what people want.”
She does a new sangria pretty much weekly as a trial and they get kept or not depending upon how they fare.
For instance, on Mother’s Day she debuted a white wine sangria made with peaches and pineapple. The sangrias actually are catching on at both places. Unlike cocktails with forgotten ingredients, sangrias are in most people’s comfort zone. They can feel like they’re experimenting but also know that they’re a safe distance from familiarity.
It is the “fun” aura that hangs over sangrias that make them so appealing to visitors. If a person is out to dinner and looking to have fun, a refreshing wine-based drink always is a good answer, when it’s made by someone else, so much the better.
“That’s why one of my favorite drinks is a crush made by someone else,” Petrie said. “It always tastes better when someone else makes them.”