Former club owner revives Manchester-by-the-Sea eatery
He may have grown up on Winter Hill — the Somerville neighborhood known for Whitey Bulger’s gang — but Paul Barclay is making his imprint on his adopted hometown: Manchester-by-the-Sea.
“Just because he didn’t grow up [in Manchester] doesn’t mean he doesn’t understand the town,” said Rob Hoff, a native of the Cape Ann community who served with Barclay on the Board of Selectmen until Hoff’s recent move to Raleigh, N.C. “He’s the kind of guy who understands and cares, and he connects with people.”
Barclay, 58, was retired from a career as owner of two landmark Boston nightclubs — The Comedy Connection and The Rack — before running for selectman in the seacoast town, a position he’s held since 2011 in a community he moved to from Boxford 10 years ago. But holding down only one job wasn’t easy for Barclay.
So he decided to bring back one of Manchester’s landmark eateries: Seven Central, most recently known as The Landing at 7 Central.
“As a selectman, I get to apply a lot of my experience, but politics is not my passion,” said Barclay, who retired from the nightclub industry in 2007. “It’s fun and I’m passionate about it, but my passion’s always been entertaining people, creating an atmosphere. So last year when I heard [owner] Chris Shea might be retiring, I investigated it and thought about it for a while, and figured this is the place for me.”
Barclay’s plan was to bring in some new kitchen talent and entertainment ideas, and blend them with town tradition. His goal is to appeal to people’s fondness for the venue, while putting his own stamp on the restaurant and pub, which he will call Seven Central.
His interest goes beyond nostalgia, said Barclay, one of six partners in the venture.
“You have an established 35-year history, you have a pub which is casual and busy seven days a week, you have a dining room in the back that overlooks the water, a deck, and you have a function room upstairs,” said Barclay, noting that there’s little function space in town, and few entertainment licenses.
To that end, he’s planning to call the 70-seat function space “7 Up.” For entertainment, he’ll bring in Simon Kirke, one of the founding members of the popular ’70s rock band Bad Company, who performs on Oct. 24 along with Amy Fairchild, a Boston-based folk-rock singer/songwriter who has developed a following. The next night — Oct. 25 — Boston comedian Mike McDonald, who has performed in 50 countries, is the featured act.
“Every restaurant — especially a suburban restaurant — needs to be reinvented every 10 years, and this happens to be the 10th year [since the restaurant became The Landing at 7 Central],” Barclay said. “Everybody has their own belief in what the public wants. We want to put the latest brand on this long-running restaurant.”
Barclay was 21 when he and fellow standup comedian Bill Downes started the Comedy Connection in 1978 in a 120-seat room at the Charles Playhouse in the Boston Theater District.
The one-night-a-week promotion grew into a full-time club that helped launch the comedy boom of the 1980s. By the time Barclay sold his interest in the club in 1998, it had moved to larger digs — 530 seats — at Faneuil Hall.
“During its heyday, it was the greatest comedy club in the country,” said comedian Jimmy Dunn, who grew up in Beverly Farms and these days is shooting a sitcom for CBS. “When I was a young comic, Paul was great to me. I was lucky to be a regular there, and got to open for some of the best in the business, including Jon Stewart and Dave Chapelle.”
By that time, Barclay had already shifted his focus. He opened The Rack Billiards Club in 1997, and it had a strong 10-year run near Faneuil Hall in the Financial District in what is now home to the Hard Rock Cafe on Clinton Street.
S.J. Torres, owner of many top nightspots in Boston — including the Howl at the Moon dance club — was a Boston promoter who worked at the Rack, among other venues. “The Rack had a Studio 54 run in Boston history,” he said. “There’d be 800 people on the weekend, from Thursday through Saturday, and every celebrity that passed through the city went there and had a VIP table. Paul Barclay, to me, is a living legend in Boston nightlife history. He knew all the right strings to pull to get all the right people together.”
Boston restaurateur Nicky Varano, owner of the Strega group of upscale Italian restaurants, met Barclay during the Comedy Connection days, and relied on him for advice as he got into the business.
“When he opened up The Rack, he revolutionized Boston night life forever, with his marketing, advertising, and everybody he got to go in there,” Varano said. “He had the ability to make everybody feel better. He’s awesome. I used to pick his brain every day.”