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As State Rolls Back Capacity Limits, Landmark Restaurant in Essex Reopens
The Black Seal Restaurant re-opened Feb. 26 after being closed due to a January 2020 fire. The bar and dining room now have COVID prevention barriers set up. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier)
Well before the pandemic started, the Black Seal on Main Street in Essex Village had to close its doors due to extensive damage caused from a January 2020 fire. Now, just as the state is eliminating capacity limits for restaurants on March 19, the landmark eatery in Essex has reopened, as of Feb. 26.
“Everyone’s reaction was great when we opened Friday,” said Mauricio Salgar, owner of the Black Seal. “We had people standing outside the door 20 minutes before, ready to get to their regular seats.”
Despite certain restrictions for restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic, Salgar said his plan was always to reopen.
“Now is when everything got finished,” he said. “It took that long.”
Salgar has self-certified his business under the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development’s COVID-19 reopening guidelines. The 50 percent capacity limits under these guidelines will soon be eliminated on Friday, March 19. Other safety protocols, such as an 11 p.m. closing time and eight-person table capacity, will remain in effect.
The cause of the fire at the Black Seal on Jan. 6 has been classified as undetermined, according to Essex Fire Marshal John Planas.
“There was too much damage that was there to make a final determination at what had caused it,” said Planas, who led the investigation. “So, it is classified as undetermined at this time.”
Salgar said that the fire could have been caused by “a plug that we did not even know was there and wasn’t in any use.”
Multiple agencies investigated the fire, with no suspicious activity reported, according to Planas.
No one was injured in the blaze, including residents in the building’s second-floor apartments who were evacuated. The restaurant’s business records, along with its vintage nautical décor, were left intact, according to Salgar.
“The fire went up the back side of the kitchen and across the whole, mostly the entire restaurant,” said Salgar. “So, we had a lot of smoke damage.”
The process of rebuilding was a long one, especially with the safety updates required to meet current building and health codes.
“It was a long process,” said Salgar. “I did not think it was going to take 13 months, for one. It got a little complicated with the town because I was no longer grandfathered for a lot of the things I had.”
Salgar came to Essex in 1988 as a chef for the former casual restaurant at 15 C Main Street, Tumbledown’s.
“I ended up buying the restaurant from them and I’ve been there ever since,” said Salgar, who changed the name of the restaurant to the Black Seal.
“It’s a local hangout. We get a lot of tourists, but it’s a big local hangout,” he continued.
The community came together after the fire to show support for the restaurant’s waitstaff at a fundraising event held at the Corinthian Yacht Club in Essex last February.
“They raised a good amount of money for my waitstaff,” said Salgar. “It was great.”
Thanks in part to that fundraising event, Salgar was able to retain the same crew of waiters, bartenders and kitchen staff at the restaurant.
Interior changes at the Black Seal, the costs of which were covered by insurance, included a complete kitchen renovation, fresh paint, re-doing the ceiling, upgrading the electrical system, and adjustments to the bar area.
“We ended up pushing the bar back a little, to give it more room,” said Salgar. “It actually gave it a very good facelift to the same restaurant.”
The building’s landlord was responsible for exterior restoration efforts, which included replacing an air conditioning system.
Janet Peckinpaugh, chair of the town’s Economic Development Commission, is pleased with the reopening of the Black Seal, saying that the impact of the pandemic on business in Essex has been minimal.
“We’re in a great place right now and with the Seal opening, it’s just going to make it even stronger,” she said.
Peckinpaugh said that the town is currently “at capacity,” with low vacancies for its commercial properties.
Approximately 26 new businesses had registered or renewed trade names with the Town Clerk’s Office in 2020, according to town records. Peckinpaugh reported that the town has had very few, if any business closures.
“I think as more and more people get vaccinated and with the restaurants getting special permission to have outdoor dining, some that have never had it before, I just think that is so exciting for us in Essex,” she added.