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Legal Sea Foods debuts neighborhood concept

Seafood restaurant chain known for its uniformity seeks to broaden its appeal

Roger Berkowitz, chief executive of Legal Sea Foods, says the new concept is a response to the public’s growing taste for variety.

KAYANA SZYMCZAK FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Roger Berkowitz, chief executive of Legal Sea Foods, says the new concept is a response to the public’s growing taste for variety.

The new Legal Crossing at Millennium Place does not look or feel like any Legal Sea Foods restaurant. That’s exactly what Roger Berkowitz had in mind.

In a wink to the Boston neighborhood’s X-rated past, Legal Crossing’s black brick walls feature an abstract painting of a woman’s naked torso and the bar offers a bubbly “Princess Cheyenne” cocktail, a nod to the famed local stripper from long ago. An edgier design and a distinct menu also set this restaurant apart.

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The Legal Sea Foods business has grown for nearly five decades by stamping out dozens of new restaurants remarkable for their uniform appearance, service, and quality. Even the tails in their shrimp cocktails point in the same direction, from Braintree to Burlington.

Now Berkowitz, the company’s chief executive, is turning the recipe for standardized dining upside down to create a series of neighborhood restaurants that offer their own unique local flavors. The goal: increase market share and appeal to more consumers by offering a greater variety.

“In the old days we tried to produce identical twins,” Berkowitz said. “Today we’re trying to produce distant cousins.”

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Previously, Legal Sea Foods created two other restaurant concepts — Legal Test Kitchen and Legal C Bar — but both duplicated their own standards at multiple locations.

The company’s new plan for truly stand-alone neighborhood restaurants debuts Thursday when Legal Crossing, a swanky downtown spot, opens its doors.

KAYANA SZYMCZAK FOR THE GLOBE

Rich Vellante, executive chef at Legal Sea Foods, prepared a dish in the kitchen of the new Legal Crossing restaurant that’s opening in Downtown Crossing.

‘One size fits all worked, but . . . as people evolve and tastes evolve they’re looking for a different experience.’

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This spring, a cozy Italian restaurant will follow in Charlestown. Legal Oysteria, serving coastal Italian seafood, will take over the space previously occupied by Todd English’s now-defunct Olives.

Both are much different than a typical Legal Sea Foods restaurant, which serves about 40 varieties of fish and shellfish grilled, baked or fried. Those spaces are often large, seating as many as 250 guests. They are typically situated in malls, airports, or other commercial buildings.

The Legal Crossing menu will resemble a traditional Legal with an edge, with dishes such as the oyster trio served with cucumber, melon, and jalapeno sorbets. Berkowitz is trying to create a social atmosphere by offering more shared plates, such as the smoky salmon tartare and tempura skewered mussels.

In Charlestown, the executive chef of the restaurant group, Rich Vellante, expects to offer a smaller and more focused menu centered around a custom brick oven, grill, and rotisserie already in the space at 10 City Square. Plans are not complete, but he will probably offer pizza, bruschetta, handmade pasta, stuffed trout, Ligurian fish stew, and swordfish salmorigli, among other seafood dishes. True to its name, the restaurant will also feature oysters.

“It’ll have the DNA of a Legal Sea Foods, but we’re trying to expand our scope,” said Vellante, an 18-year Legal Sea Foods veteran and an Italian American with dual US and Italian citizenship. “The majority of the items on the menu will be very different.”

Berkowitz points out that the company is not abandoning its original concept and will continue to open new Legal Sea Food restaurants, including one coming in a few months at Logan Airport.

But he said Legal’s new neighborhood restaurant concept is a response to the public’s increasing taste for dining variety — in menus, locations, and ambiance. He is trying to offer that with smaller and more intimate restaurants that fit in with the local neighborhood.

“One size fits all worked, but I think as people evolve and tastes evolve they’re looking for a different experience,” he said.

KAYANA SZYMCZAK FOR THE GLOBE

The new restaurant features a smaller footprint and an edgier decor that offers a nod toward the neighborhood’s past, when it was adjacent to the seedy Combat Zone.

Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry analyst with the NPD Group, agrees that consumers are looking for unique restaurants.

She said the new concepts will attract baby boomers, the largest group of restaurant patrons, who are flocking to comfortable local neighborhood restaurants that treat them like valued customers. They want social environments and casual atmospheres, where they can share plates, eat bar food, and carry on a conversation, she said.

Riggs also commended the company for continuing to use ‘Legal’ in the restaurants names because consumers recognize it for quality.

“Whenever you have that kind of brand equity like they do it allows you to try new things,” she said. “Right now in today’s marketplace something new, different, and creative is going to attract consumers’ attention.”

The Berkowitz family introduced the traditional Legal Sea Foods concept in 1968 and has since saturated Eastern Massachusetts with 13 nautically themed restaurants. In 2005, it rolled out the Legal Test Kitchen concept that featured smaller spaces and more multicultural options to go along with traditional seafood.

Legal C Bar, a drink-centric concept, operates at four Greater Boston locations. Legal Harborside, a three-floor, three-concept seafood emporium in Boston’s Seaport district, serves as the company’s flagship space.

Berkowitz hopes his two new neighborhood restaurants will attract a crowd of regulars like those who frequent Legal C. They stop by about twice a week, for drinks and appetizers some nights or dinner on others.

Berkowitz said quality and fresh seafood will remain a common thread between the different concepts now and as more pop up in the future.

“It’s really important that at the end of the day we’re a fish business in the way we source and what we put in our restaurants,” he said. “That’s our core. But it can look and feel different.”

Taryn Luna can be reached at taryn.luna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @tarynluna.
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