Big plates, big food
Black Water Grill sizzles at lunchtime
By Linda A. Thompson-Odum firstname.lastname@example.org
Prime time for most restaurants is the dinner hour. Not so for the Black Water Grill in Salem.
Owner Christian Breen said his busiest time is the lunch hour, when workers from area offices stop in for a bite. So his staff works hard to get customers’ orders on the tables fast — the average time is seven minutes.
“A study said there are 15 to 20 thousand people who work in the surrounding companies,” Breen said. “Area doctors and lawyers bring their staffs in for lunch. Lots of times there is a wait for a table at lunch.”
The restaurant’s atmosphere fits all types of diners, from corporate types conducting business over lunch to couples on a romantic night out to the casual ski or lake tourist who stops off Interstate 93 for a meal. The building was once the homestead of a Salem family. It expanded into a restaurant years ago. All the wooden tables were hand-made by a Maine cabinet-maker for the previous owner. Warm earth tones, brick fireplaces and the copper wall behind the bar create a cozy, intimate environment that belies the restaurant’s 200-seat capacity.
Breen describes his menu as eclectic American.
“There’s lots of seafood, and dishes with Asian and Italian flavors,” he said. “The menu changes with the seasons. People can expect to not go home hungry. We don’t believe in the dot food syndrome — huge plates with a dollop of food in the center. We have big plates and big food.”
Breen began to develop recipes three years ago, before he’d even found a restaurant. “I was going to be doing a lot of dinners in my house if I didn’t find a place,” he said with a laugh.
Breen has a degree from the University of New Hampshire — in horticulture. He owned a farm stand in Salem for a while that featured produce, flowers, ice cream, baked goods and a petting zoo. When the 60- to 70-hour weeks became too much, he sold the stand and took some time off in Hawaii. When he came back to the area, he started waiting tables at an Outback restaurant in Massachusetts. He soon moved up into management, and then to ownership of the restaurant.
After a few years, Breen decided he wanted a place of his own. “I didn’t want to be another sheep in the pasture,” he said. The owner of the Black Water Grill’s building (the former Loafers) approached him. “I financed it myself,” Breen said. “The first year I remember sitting on the back steps with my head in my hands saying, ‘Oh my god, what have you done?’”
One of the first things he did was join forces with executive chef Sue Hurrell. The two had worked together about 20 years ago. “I was a sandwich maker and Christian was the dishwasher,” Hurrell said.
The both created the menus, which include lunch, dinner and pub versions.
“It’s all about consistency,” Hurrell said. “We’re both really creative and we try to make it new and fresh. He gives me the ability to do what I want for the specials. Lots of times I dream up a new recipe on the way to work.”
Breen noted that moms make up a majority of his staff, and they are welcome to bring their kids in to work if they don’t have a babysitter for their shift. “It’s a great way for the kids to see just what their mom does at work,” he said. “Some of the kids have been around since they were in car seats.”
The restaurant just opened a newly remodeled function space in the basement. The project came about after Breen came into work one morning and found the area completely flooded from a water leak. The room was booked for a special breast cancer fundraiser, so the construction team had to complete the remodel in just six days.
In spite of the bad economy, Breen said his place is doing fine — so fine in fact that he is now in talks with the Portsmouth zoning board to open a second location.
“September typically is the worst month for a restaurant because vacations are over and everyone goes back to work and school,” he said. “But we had the best month ever this past September. And most of our regulars who usually go away for weeks in the summer were only taking weekend trips to areas like the Cape, so they still came in here for a meal.”