Chicagoans can appreciate a good lobster roll. It’s a rarity for the Midwest, and that’s what makes New England Seafood Co. so popular after it opened in 2011 in Roscoe Village. The popularity— thanks to segments on Check, Please! and on ABC Chicago’s Hungry Hound—forced co-owner Jeffrey Mazza’s hand, and circa 2013, the quaint seafood market/lobster shack hired a wait staff as the restaurant shifted from counter service to a full-service restaurant.
Four years later and Mazza’s ready to go back. On Tuesday, New England Seafood Co. will revert to counter service with a new streamlined menu. Mazza (and his brother Robert) never intended to open a restaurant. His original vision was a seafood market/crab shack, the kind of beach shacks that the Boston-area native remembered from growing up in New England. They want to have fun with that again: “Identity, that’s the biggest thing,” Mazza said.
The desire to go back has been building for a year, but things really came to a (seafood) boil in January. Mazza stared at his shop’s walls, looking at TV appearance plaques and clippings. They remind him that New England has strayed too far from that original intent. At one point he hired a chef who was churning out delicious entrees with swordfish and salmon with rice and veggie sides. While those were great, those dishes would be at home at a downtown fine-dining restaurant: “These dishes just weren’t us,” Mazza said.
The new menu isn’t really that new. It’s more of a retro menu. Fish and chips, fish tacos, chowder, and crab cake sandwiches join the lobster and crab rolls. They’ll also offer weekly specials like fried clams. The seating layout will remain the same.
Many may conclude that labor costs are driving the decision, but Mazza said that’s not the case. His restaurant manager was moving and his two servers were already leaving for new jobs. Those TV appearances took the focus away from the retail aspect, and the seafood case stopped being stocked as much as it used to be. Mazza wants to rebuild that, and urges customers to make call-ahead orders. He points out that some restaurants, like Shaw’s Crab House, use New England as a supplier.
Mazza’s ambitions go beyond the changes in Roscoe Village. New locations could be in the future. But any expansion won’t have a wait staff. “We’re more quick serve...simplifying things can only make things a little better,” he said.