NEWBURYPORT — Brine Oyster Bar will soon have more seating and an expanded menu as its owner plans to move the restaurant next door to 17 State St., the longtime former home of Fowle's News.
Even before COVID-19 concerns hit, restaurateur Nancy Batista-Caswell entered 2020 knowing she wanted to make some changes in her career.
With two restaurants in Newburyport, Ceia Kitchen and Bar, and Brine, and one restaurant in Boston, Oak + Rowan, Caswell felt "really challenged to be in all places at all times."
At first, she considered moving Brine from its location at 25 State St. into where Ceia had been located at 38 State St. In some ways, she felt she was competing with herself by having the two restaurants across the street from one another, so it made sense to downsize to one.
Following a test run, Caswell said it "just didn't feel like the right space for Brine."
At the same time, she began talking with other candidates to takeover the Ceia space. Bar 25, a craft cocktail, is now set to fill the spot.
Around the time Ceia closed in late November, Caswell said she and her staff reviewed what they liked most about Brine — the intimacy and feel of the space, the exposed brick, a bar that "felt homey and comfortable" and the history of having homed one of Newburyport's renowned restaurants, Scandia.
In seeking something new, Caswell wanted to retain those types of details. She started to think about Fowle's, as she had seen a lot of restaurants come and go over the past decade. She knew the space mimicked a lot of what she loved about the current Brine space, while offering more room to expand its offerings. The new space would seat 90, while her current space seats 47.
In working next door, Caswell saw the challenges those various tenants faced and thought about how she would address them. She began conversations with the landlord, New England Development, and felt comfortable with the opportunity at hand.
"Brine is the perfect fit to reinvigorate the Fowle’s space," New England Development General Manager Chris Skiba wrote in a statement, citing the restaurant's eight years in Newburyport with "a very loyal customer base."
"Nancy is a savvy, successful and creative restauranteur," Skiba said. "We look forward to working with Nancy on her vision to incorporate Brine into this iconic space and to create a welcoming new home for this well-known steak and oyster bar."
Caswell is cognizant of the history of Fowle's and the way its sign has become a landmark on State Street, saying she's "honored to takeover a space that has left such a legacy in the our community." Her experience in establishing restaurants, both in Newburyport and Boston, has centered around transforming landmark locations and signs.
"I like a restaurant that has a curated experience and there's going to be nuances that happen throughout the experience at Brine that will hopefully bring a connection back to Fowles," she said.
She also knows that the sign is very old and has seen a lot of damage over the years, so she will be strategic with how she works with the sign and ensures its longevity into the future.
"It weighs heavily on me — the history of the space — and I don't want to upset our community by making the changes, but I also see the challenges of what other restaurants have had in the space without making tweaks to the location that has left it abandoned for a few years now," Caswell said.
As far as what dedicated Brine customers can expect, Caswell hopes to launch an extended steak menu to expand more on the "chops" of the oyster, crudo and chop bar.
Caswell and her husband, for example, love going to an oyster bar before moving onto a sit-down dinner, whether its at home or at a restaurant. Caswell wants guests to have the opportunity to experience both an oyster bar and a full dinner at one place.
Oysters will remain important though, as Caswell is focused on continuing to work with oyster farmers, offering an assortment of oysters, changing those options frequently and providing a variety of sauces to go with them.
Caswell just hopes that in addition to Brine being known for its oysters, people will see the prime cuts of meats also available.
In discussing a possible date to open, Caswell said it all depends on approvals from the city. So far, she has received positive responses from the community about the news, but she knows it will take time to work through all the details, especially when preserving an historic space.
In an ideal world, Caswell said she would love to open in the new spot around the end of April or beginning of May. Particularly with the impact of COVID-19 this year, she is focused on getting her employees back to work.
For more on Brine, visit http://brineoyster.com.