Daphne Kent-Wilczynski is a busy lady. She has two phones in her hand and three restaurants going, and she is hands on in running all three of them.
Kent-Wilczynski was raised in Hamilton, brought up her children in Robbinsville, and has fed many people from both towns through the years. She has been in the restaurant business since 1983, and her energy is almost as well-known as her cooking.
Now, 25 years after she established a diner in Robbinsville at 1124 Route 130, Kent-Wilczynski has opened a second restaurant, Daphne’s of Hamilton, which she started in the middle of the pandemic, in the heart Hamilton Square. The new fine-dining restaurant is located at 3681 Nottingham Way and opened in July of 2021.
Her third venue is Daphne’s Catering, which provides services for both private and corporate customers.
Kent-Wilczynski grew up in Hamilton and is a product of Greenwood Elementary, Nottingham Junior High and Steinert High School. She was a standout athlete in basketball, softball and soccer.
“Playing varsity as a young freshman was intimidating, but brought you to a higher level quicker,” she says.
She learned leadership and at a young age, how you need a terrific team around you. “I still play rec ball. I always say, if you keep at it, you will get good at it,” she says.
She worked in restaurants as a kid, and started her own catering in 1982. She opened Daphne’s first in Foxmoor before eventually settling into the long-time site of Phil’s Pizza Palace on 130, a classic, stainless-steel diner dating back in 1956.
Kent-Wilczynski says the pandemic made life difficult at the diner. “We were not allowed to serve inside. We did a lot of takeout. We set up a tent outside,” she says. “Our customers are loyal and very supportive. A lot of places, a lot of my friend’s restaurants did not survive. It is very sad.”
The newly opened Daphne’s of Hamilton is a BYOB featuring “fine continental dining/catering with a Mediterranean flair.” While specialties range from steaks to seafood, there are also gluten free and vegan options.
“The dynamic is changing. The business is changing. People expect more choices and I offer that with my specials,” Kent-Wilczynski says. “I am not scared to try new things, and people are happy to try them. I put the word out in the morning when I am cooking and preparing and people see it on social media. It is very easy to get the word out now. It’s immediate. I love how social media works, and I am good at it. I was on it from the beginning, and it works so well for me.”
It is easy to see how it works for getting the word out. When Daphne’s Facebook posts for specials such as roasted balsamic duck, creamy scallion risotto, balsamic carrot and asparagus hash, lobster macaroni and cheese bundts, Cordon Bleu Benedict, or rosemary olive bread, it tends to bring in the faithful followers.
Kent-Wilczynski says she is happy to be open in the new location. “Our people are back to work. A lot of our staff are long-time employees. Some, we have been together for 25 years. They are great. I can’t say enough about them. I appreciate them so much,” she says.
Employing more than 40 full and part time workers is no small feat. Daphne’s restaurants are old school and family oriented. “I don’t favor chains, I never did. Even when I took my kids out when they were small we didn’t frequent chains. My kids were well behaved in good restaurants, eating real adult food, like lamb chops!” She laughs.
The family connection is one thing that enables Kent-Wilczynski to be successful. She is the oldest of four siblings; Daphne’s two sisters, Becky and Jennifer, and brother Eric have always been there to help out in the restaurants.
“With no hesitation they help me. No hesitation. With anything I need. From serving, food prep, building maintenance, whatever needs to be done, they help,” she says. “My parents also help out. They love it. They love to make food as the specials. They just made hundreds of stuffed cabbages. People really love those.”
Kent-Wilczynski says that customers get excited when she announces the availability of cakes made by her mother, Carol, and says her stepfather, Nick, once worked as a chef at Mastoris in Bordentown and “can make anything.”
“It is a real family affair. I love having my family so close,” she says.
Kent-Wilczynski also names dishes after her family. “My kids have dishes, very popular dishes. Pasta Caitlyn, Chicken Alexandra and Nicholas Pappardelle are big crowd pleasers. I have also begun to name dishes after my two new sons-in-law, Robert and Daniel. That’s a high compliment!”
Named as one of bestofnj.com best diners in New Jersey, 2021, Daphne’s Diner mixes traditional diner fare with Daphne’s own surprising recipes. One attribute that she brings is her “no fear” in showcasing specials that she creates along with Chef Timothy Boyan, with ingredients that may not fit in with area traditions.
Long-time patron Terry Rossi grew up in Hamilton and went to high school with Kent-Wilczynski. She now lives in Robbinsville and enjoys both restaurants.
“I love the proximity to me, the staff and especially the menu surprises. I order from Daphne’s recipes, things I would never usually order and I always love it,” Rossi says. “Daphne is old school. She comes out to every table and makes sure everything is just right and everyone is happy.”
Being a hands on manager and chef presents challenges that Kent-Wilczynski welcomes. “I learned how to do many things in the course of business. I learned to do things myself as it speed up the process. I learned how to do the graphics to make ads, flyers and menus. They look professional,” she says. “I can fix appliances in a pinch. I seriously thought about going into auto mechanics at one point. These are all things I learned by necessity. So I didn’t need to depend on someone else. I read two books a week on all subjects. I love to learn new things.”
With special nights people can count on, such as pasta night, all you can eat mussel night or prix fixe Sunday, Kent-Wilczynski looks to mix the reliable with the new and different.
“We see a lot of walking traffic for the Hamilton Square location. People will walk to the restaurant from the nearby neighborhoods with a bottle of wine and have a nice dinner. I love it. We have outdoor seating and will expand that for the spring. One thing good that came from the pandemic is outdoor dining. People really love it,” she says.
One need of any business if it hopes to last a long time is a loyal customer base. Daphne Kent-Wilczynski appears to have cultivated just that with her restaurants.
“I use quality ingredients and people notice. I have served generations now. I have catered birthdays, sweet sixteens, engagements, wedding showers, weddings, baby showers and more. We become part of the family. Now we are feeding the next generation. The business has changed but it is still person to person. That is old school, that is family and I love it,” she says.
Daphne’s Diner. 1124 Route 130, Robbinsville, NJ 08691. Phone: 609-208-3104. Hours: Wednesday through Sunday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Daphne’s of Hamilton. 3681 Nottingham Way, Hamilton, NJ 08690. Phone: 609-438-9166. Hours: Wednesday through Sunday, 4:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Daphne’s Catering. Phone: 609-433-8425. Web for all Daphne’s businesses: daphnesdiningandcatering.com.