Indoor-Outdoor Bar Offers Spectacular Waterfront Views from Pickering Wharf
Words By Keith Spencer
Photos by Social Palates Photography
SALEM – George Carey opened Finz Seafood & Grill nearly 15 years ago, and is now injecting more flavor and fun into the fare of the Salem culinary scene. The recently opened Sea Level Oyster Bar and Kitchen boasts the city’s only indoor-outdoor bar with the most spectacular view of the waterfront for dining.
George’s story is a classic one, working in the restaurant industry for his entire career. He started as a dishwasher and eventually moved on to become a prep cook, line cook, bartender, and server. He attended culinary and hotel school, and rose through the ranks at a number of larger, local companies including Bertucci’s and John Harvard’s Brew House.
In 1998, George struck out on his own when he opened Stonehenge Tavern in Marblehead. It was here that he met Serie Keezer, a sous chef whose career would mimic his boss as he rose through the ranks over the last decade to become the culinary director at both Finz and Sea Level.
“Our experience and the fun we’ve had at Finz has been wonderful,” George said. “We’ve grown as a restaurant, we’ve grown as people, and it’s a city that I think embraced us and we’ve embraced them.”
“Salem very much feels like home,” George stated directly. “There’s great leadership at the city level, and you have a lot of private investment by developers, by restaurateurs, and by the college. There’s lots of cooperation, and it doesn’t feel like a lonely island like it did fifteen years ago.”
Finz has been a popular choice for both locals and tourists alike since opening, offering fresh, innovative seafood and grill fare perfect for a special evening or just a night out to relax. With Sea Level located just a few hundred feet away, some may view the new venture as somehow at odds with the flagship restaurant.
“I look at the market, and Salem is… one of the better more dynamic markets in the North Shore,” George explained. “There’s a lot of evolution, and I’ve seen a tremendous amount of change and improvement since we opened. I think this is another step in that.”
“I think downtown and the dining scene is really good. We’re working to make the Pickering Wharf waterfront scene good. I think there are really a number of good choices on Pickering. This doesn’t compete with 62. This doesn’t compete with Finz, and we like that.”
While both offer seafood and grilled cuisine, the similarities between the two restaurants end there. George emphasized the development of the Sea Level menu was “concept-driven” and ultimately dictated by the market. They didn’t rush into the familiar seafood dining experience out of simplicity or ease, examining other possibilities that included South American cuisine.
“Sea Level is a modern interpretation of rustic New England that’s not contrived,” George said. “We needed to do something different, and we’re trying to do something that I think the market is need of, so we see it as a niche.”
George’s team commenced renovations on the former Capt’s Waterfront Grill last December with construction continuing and transforming the property through out the worst winter in New England’s recorded history.
“The conditions were very trying, but we persevered. Replacing every window up and down, the complete outside skin, and the deck through this winter was not for the faint of heart,” George said.
The eatery’s two levels include a first floor that immediately brings the waterfront to the forefront of your dining experience.
“You turn around, and there is not a bad seat in this restaurant to look out at this waterfront,” Serie said. Massive garage doors are opened on warm days, and undoubtedly offer one of the best views North of Boston including a sweeping look at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, Friendship, Derby Wharf and Light, the Town of Marblehead, and the Salem Harbor Islands.
Simplicity was key in developing Sea Level’s atmosphere that embraces marine-themed decor incorporating repurposed wood, antique oyster can sconces, and other custom-made lighting.
The first floor features their custom-made raw bar stocked daily with the freshest, local oysters from Massachusetts and Connecticut. A wrap-around concrete bar was also poured on-site. Patrons seated upstairs will encounter another massive bar that offers the ultimate indoor-outdoor dining experience.
“The indoor-outdoor bar is unique when you look at the North Shore and Boston as well. With as many miles of coastline that we have, there just aren’t many bars like this,” George said. “It’s sort of like if you’re on vacation. The idea is to evoke that gorgeous cottage you’ve rented, you’re out on the back deck, and you’re enjoying a drink.”
The drink menu is impressive with 20 beers on tap that includes local, handcrafted beers that are not only different, but also of the highest quality. Local brews served include Notch Brewing, Clown Shoes, Newburyport Brewing, Cape Ann Brewing, and Ipswich Brewing.
“This beer is really for the locals, but now the tourists also get a chance to taste a good local beer,” George added.
“We like having twenty beers that we’re able to keep fresh,” Serie added, “and a lot of fun cocktails like The Shrub that are selling very well.”
The amusing atmosphere is also conveyed in the affordable appetizers, sides, and entrees on the menu, developed by both Serie and Sea Level’s Executive Chef Jen Normont, a former competitor on Hell’s Kitchen. The staff also includes two other contestants from the hit Fox television show.
“They deserve a lot of credit for coming up with a fun but approachable menu that is a little irreverent,” George said.
The menu is playful to say the least, and incorporates the freshest ingredients that hone into the taste buds of locals and their favorite aspects of the North Shore. They offer traditional, rustic seafood including mussels, lobster, and fried clams in addition to a variety of popular burgers, pizzas and playful plates.
“We love and want to play off the North Shore and what’s really popular,” Serie explained. “There’s a roast beef joint on every single corner, and everybody loves going to get a three-way. So we turned that into a pizza.”
The Sea Level Three-Way Pizza has James River on the dough with cheese and sliced grilled steak topped with some crispy onions and habanero that acts like a mayonnaise.
The burgers are also flying out of the kitchen as they use a delectable chuck brisket burger not often incorporated by chefs in the area. The Sea Level Spicy Pickled Coleslaw has been a huge hit, incorporating local pickles from Salem’s Maitland Mountain Farm. Their daily popcorn special has also been popular for buddies grabbing drinks at the bar or families sitting down to enjoy a meal together.
“You come in with your friends or your family. You’re sitting at the bar or you grab a table. You have the popcorn of the day, a couple of beers or cocktails, or you take in an entire meal. You could spend thirty minutes or more than an hour with us, and we’re happy to accommodate both,” Serie noted.
The food is presented in a manner that further supports their no-frills approach, using a lot of galvanized steel, various sizes of pie pans, buckets, and sheet pans with market butcher paper covering the tables.
The dessert menu is pretty impressive as well, including the Sea Level Doughboys (fried dough pillows filled with chocolate), key lime pies in mason jars, lemon poppy cake, and a cookie pie served in a stainless skillet.
“We have a lot of fun here. The server walks up to the table, and the butcher paper is there. They write their name. They write their favorite oyster of the day. When they come by for dessert, they literally stamp the menu onto the paper in front of you,” Serie described.
“It’s a different kind of dining experience and hanging out.”
The restaurant seats 225 and is staffed by 70 employees who have spent considerable time training and listening to feedback from the many locals and the trickling of tourists who have visited since their soft open at the end of April.
“We’re getting better everyday,” George said. “It’s been a cooler spring that has allowed us to get our feet on the ground, and we’re really started humming.”