Those Underestimated Fishing Boats

Jack Spillane, New Bedford Standard-Times

The view from the new Waterfront Grille. Andrew T. Gallagher

So 28 years ago this summer, a guy named Biff MacLean threw a big party on the New Bedford waterfront for a guy named Ted Kennedy who was running for president at the time.
As 85-year-old local politico Sylvester Sylvia remembers it, Ted’s campaign against then-President Jimmy Carter was going badly.
Now, I’ll bet that Biff wasn’t a natural Kennedy fan but he nevertheless came to his aid. Local pork is local pork, I suppose, and Ted Kennedy is a Massachusetts guy.
“He realized the senator was in deep trouble politically, and he needed money,” said Sylvester, who has been the Kennedy family’s point man in New Bedford for half a century.
“He threw a party, a fundraiser, a very successful fundraiser. … The place was packed.”
That waterfront hot spot that was packed for Biff MacLean and Ted Kennedy 28 years ago was called Louie’s on the Wharf.
But Louie’s and its troubled successor, Twin Piers, have been gone from the New Bedford waterfront for 14 years now. Some say they were the victims of the decadent ’80s culture and/or the bad economy of the early ’90s.
But Thursday night, more than a little of the luster of Louie’s during its heyday returned to the waterfront, and right on the same spot where Louie’s once hopped.
Kevin Santos opened his impressive new restaurant, the Waterfront Grille, and once again, a dockside hot spot with spectacular views of the fishing fleet was packed with people.
And I mean hundreds of them.
All of the SouthCoast glitterati seemed to be there, and the party that Mr. Santos threw was more than worthy of succeeding one of Biff’s big times.
The new eatery — with terraced, hardwood floors, floor-to-ceiling windows, patio deck and sushi bar , and all within a fish toss of the boats — is the kind of place that makes you feel you’re at the heart of it all. As Gertrude Stein would say, “There’s definitely there there.”
It didn’t hurt, of course, that the food for the Waterfront Grille bash was free for the night — that definitely made the booze lines longer and the party atmosphere happier.
Mr. Santos, a successful developer in his previous incarnations, is betting that hundreds of folks who received his opening-night invitations had a swell enough time that they’ll want to come back and bring their friends and relatives.
They ought to.
The scallops, shrimp and salmon on Thursday were like the loaves and fishes, constantly replenishing, and cooked all night long with a contemporary flair worthy of Bobby Flay.
In the tough economy we’re entering I hope Kevin Santos is successful. He strikes me as a guy who knows what he’s doing, but time will tell.
“As long as the food stays good, really good quality, and the price is right, I think it will go very well,” he told me.
Ward 3 City Councilor Kathy Dehner, a real estate developer who knows a little something about investing in the New Bedford downtown, pronounced herself impressed.
Kevin didn’t cut any corners; everything was top of the line.
“It’s such a good feeling that somebody believes that much in New Bedford to invest like this. I’m very proud of him,” she said.
This latest incarnation of Louie’s brings back a public use of the city’s working waterfront.
Unlike more precious spots like Newport, it’s the working waterfront that charms in New Bedford. Because without the fishing boats, a waterfront is only another pretty harbor.
Mayor Scott Lang says New Bedford’s historic asset has always been its waterfront. But since the demise of Twin Piers — not to mention the construction of the high-speed Route 18 — the people and the water have been separate.
“So the idea that now we can have people who come down, dine right in the center of the city, on the waterfront, see the most unbelievable views of the biggest fishing fleet in the country, is very, very important,” he said.
The mayor was repeating, of course, the city’s mantra about knitting the waterfront and downtown back together for the umpteenth time. But I’ll let him give it one more ride.
And if the planned hotel across the street really gets off the ground, maybe all the years of talk about a New Bedford seaport about to turn the corner will finally come true.
Looking out at those boats from Kevin Santos’ place this past Thursday, people were talking about how close by they were, how terrific they looked.
“This is New Bedford Americana,” Sylvester Sylvia said. “You know the worth of the ships, the boats that are out there, we underestimate all this, don’t we?”
Contact Jack Spillane at
July 28, 2008

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