Art and elegance are part of life in Wilmington

It is dark outside, and the diner is sparsely lighted. Only one customer sits on his bar stool, drinking his last sip. He looks at the waitress, who prepares coffee. She tries to shake off his look, but he keeps staring.

"She might be afraid of being robbed by him," says Delaware Art Museum guide Phoebe Dall to explain the tension between the two plaster figures. She is standing in front of George Segal's work The Diner. This is the first piece visitors to the exhibit American Tableaux will encounter. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis has arranged 70 modern pieces of art about life in the United States, which are on display in Wilmington until Jan. 4.

Wilmington, the largest city in Delaware with 73,135 residents, was founded in 1731 by Thomas Willing as "Willingtown." Eight years later, it adopted today's name in honor of Spencer Compton (Earl of Wilmington), a favorite of King George II. Nowadays, Wilmington is known for its chemical industry and shipping.

You will find the art museum at the Bank One Center on the Riverfront (800 S. Madison St., 302-571-9590), where visitors will notice the city's prevailing harbor atmosphere. The museum building at 2301 Kentmere Parkway is being refurbished and is scheduled to reopen in January 2005. The history of this institution goes back to 1911, when the Wilmington Society decided to promote "the cultivation of the Fine Arts" but did not have enough money to open its own building. Luckily, in 1931, Joseph Bancroft provided the society with a generous financial gift along with his father's collection of English Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

The 19th century Pre-Raphaelites produced detailed and highly symbolic pictures. These are of beautiful women with flowing red hair and sensual lips, surrounded by tulips and roses. There is, however, one notable exception in the collection, a painting of Sleeping Beauty. The artist, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, depicted a gray-bearded king with six of his followers who are all sound asleep in the midst of wild roses.

The Delaware Art Museum is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $7 for adults, $5 for seniors, $2.50 for students and free for children under 6.

Another place to check out art in the Wilmington area is the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts (200 S. Madison St., 302-656-6466), where regional, national and international artists exhibit their work in seven galleries. The Dupont I Gallery offers an installation by Helen Gamble titled Harbor. She attached eight fragile boats by strings to the ceiling, and each little breeze results in slow movements of the boats.

The DCCA also focuses on the needs of artists, with 26 artists working in studios on the second floor. Every Friday night from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., you can take a studio tour, enjoy refreshments and take a look at the seven galleries for free at Art Loop. On all other days, only the seven galleries are open to the public (Tuesday and Thursday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Wednesday and Sunday noon-5 p.m.). Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for seniors and students and free for children under 12. If you visit both the DCCA and the Delaware Art Museum, make sure you pick up a coupon at the first site you visit to receive $1 off admission at the second site.

More to see and do

The Grand Opera House (818 Market St., 302-658-7898): Classical music does not have to be your passion for you to love the Grand Opera House. This Victorian building has a meticulously decorated facade that recalls beautiful wedding-cake frosting.

Nemours Mansion and Gardens (1600 Rockland Road, between Children's Drive and Route 202, 302-651-6912): Hurry to see the impressive Louis XVI style chateau built between 1909 and 1910 for Alfred du Pont. The mansion closes its doors in January and will not open until May. Catch a glimpse of the 102 rooms filled with antiques, rugs, tapestries and paintings. Guided tours through the mansion and surrounding gardens are available Tuesday through Sunday. The tour includes a glance at the billiard room and bowling alley, as well as the ice-making and bottling facilities.

Where to eat

Washington Street Ale House (1206 Washington St.): Got cold walking around Wilmington? A huge fireplace at the Washington Street Ale House will warm you up while you enjoy the restaurant's appetizers and/or entrees with a freshly brewed beer.

Walter's Steak House & Saloon Restaurant (802 N. Union St., 302-652-6780): Hankering for a juicy steak or fresh seafood in a homey atmosphere? Then check out Walter's Steak House & Saloon Restaurant. Reservations are suggested.

Zanzibar Blue (Brandywine Building, 10th and West streets, 302-472-7001): Enjoy jazz with your food? Zanzibar Blue offers wood-fire grill and rotisserie-style dishes served with international jazz music every night .

Getting there

Wilmington is approximately 90 minutes from Baltimore by car. You have two options: Choose either Interstate 95 North directly to Wilmington (Exit 7 toward Delaware Avenue; toll fees: $7). Or take your time and wend your way along Route 40 (turning into Route 13) passing by Joppatowne, Aberdeen, Havre de Grace and Elkton. Amtrak trains are even faster (about 45 minutes), and they take you into the heart of Wilmington. Plus, you will not miss the beautifully restored train station.

For more regional trips, see Page 45.