BY ANGELJEAN CHIARAMIDA
---- — SALISBURY — It’ll be a family affair when the Deck at Bridge Marina holds its grand opening tonight, with dad and the kids working together to rejuvenate a local landmark riverside venue.
The historic Fish Tale Diner was part of the property when Mark Audette bought Bridge Marina last year. By the time the papers were passed, Michelle (Merrill) Freeman of Salisbury had closed the doors of the breakfast and lunch spot she’d run for about 20 years, with most of her family working right beside her.
Audette hadn’t intended to get into the restaurant business, but when his son, Conrad, approached him, the deal just seemed too perfect to pass up. So father and son took on the challenge of overhauling the place, bringing the decades-old diner up to code and creating an inviting pub on a patch of ground overlooking the Merrimack River.
“I’d had a lot of calls from people who wanted to take over the Fish Tale to run another breakfast place,” Audette said. “But the Fish Tale was such an iconic establishment, an institution really. Everyone has great memories of the place; I know I do. I felt we needed to go in a totally different direction. That’s what we did.”
Conrad Audette told his father the site was just too wonderful to leave fallow. A social worker by profession, like a lot of people, Conrad Audette, who is in his 20s, always thought it would be “cool” to run a pub. And there was one other motivating factor.
“I wanted to start a business with my dad,” he said. “This just seemed right.”
Enter chef Matt Belliveau and restaurant manager Kassie Kane, and the nucleus was complete. Both, though still in their 20s, have considerable experience working in the food service industry, most recently at Stripers before it changed hands.
Audette hired Newburyport architect Chip Nutter of Woodman Associates and started the process of bringing the more than 60-year old plumbing and electric systems, as well as the tiny kitchen, up to code. Although the shell of the front of the dinner remains, most of its interior was gutted. The counter and a few of the stools remain, along with some classic woodwork, but even the octagonal floor tile had to go because it was cracked and could harbor bacteria.
And that tiny kitchen is larger now after they pushed out the back wall. The totally new stainless steel equipment installed just sparkles, ready to prepare all the “high-end pub food” Belliveau can conceptualize.
Even the standards, like burgers and chicken fingers, are getting a new life at the Deck at Bridge Marina. For example, there’ll be no drumstick-shaped, processed chicken nuggets here, Belliveau said. Order chicken tenders and expect haute cuisine.
“The chicken tenders are hand-cut instead of frozen,” Belliveau said. “They’re soaked in a brine and fried with our custom-made dredge.”
Burgers are also unique, said Audette, who should know because he started his business career as the owner of two sub shops before getting into real estate. Pre-made hamburger patties won’t be found at the Deck, and the fried pickles will be attention getters.
“Our burgers are a blend of three meats,” he said. “Nothing is frozen, everything is fresh and made here, even our burger buns.”
As for the fried pickle appetizers, “They’re whole spears, not just slices,” he said.
The menu includes salads, lump crab cakes, pulled pork and specialty burgers, plus an “I hope you never meat” variety for vegans. Seacoast classics like lobster rolls, fish and chips, and fried clams and calamari are available, as is the menu’s nod to diner food with grilled cheese and BLT sandwiches, Conrad Audette said.
The prices range from $6 to $12 for most entrees.
Open daily from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. (Sundays, noon to 11 p.m.,) April to Oct. 31, the seating on the outdoor Deck at Bridge Marina overlooks the river and Newburyport’s waterfront.
And there’s one more person to fill out the Deck’s family portrait.
“My daughter Carling is going to be a waitress here,” Audette said. “She’s a marine geology major at Salem.”