BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM, Mass.— After years of false starts, it looks as if the city has finally found a tenant for its “historic” and long vacant restroom/bathhouse at Salem Willows.
A new restaurant, tentatively called The Clam Shack, hopes to open this summer, or next, depending on how long it takes to secure permits and complete renovations.
The Park and Recreation Commission approved a five-year lease this week for Angelo Meimeteas, a Salem resident who, with his brother, George, owns and operates the Clam Shanty in Wells, Maine.
Meimeteas told the board he plans to open a restaurant with takeout and outdoor seating that will serve fried clams, steamers, lobster salad sandwiches and lobster dinners. Since the building is small, no indoor dining is planned.
“I’ve always loved the Willows,” said Meimeteas, whose wife, Amie Marie, runs a hair salon on Boston Street. “I’ve been going there with my family for years. When I heard the city wanted to lease this property, I looked at it and thought, ‘This could be nice here.’”
He said he can picture customers getting takeout and parking by the water, or sitting under awnings at outdoor tables facing the harbor.
Meimeteas said he has heard all the jokes about leasing a former bathroom, a vacant building which the city has tried unsuccessfully to market for years. But he says the renovations will be so extensive that little more than the outside frame of the structure will remain.
“This is going to get gutted,” he said. “We’re going to start from scratch.”
Under terms of the lease, Meimeteas will pay no rent for five years as long as he puts at least $30,000 into the building. The new tenant said he plans to install kitchen vents, new floors, air conditioning and make other improvements that will far exceed that figure. A contractor, Meimeteas said he plans to do most of the renovations himself.
He also plans to create an outside dining area with tables and awnings, a nautical rope and posts.
The board gave him tentative approval with the stipulation it wanted to see detailed plans for the outdoor dining area. The lease also includes an option for an additional five years, at one-year intervals, and with the rent to be negotiated at that time.
Although he would like to open this summer, Meimeteas said he is not sure how long renovations will take and what other permits and approvals are needed. Rather than rush the project, he said he wants to do it right — and to fit in with the other food businesses.
“I didn’t go to the Willows to compete against anybody,” Meimeteas said. “I think, if anything, it will help. Anytime you add a business and it draws people from other towns, it helps businesses throughout the whole Willows.”
In addition to the Clam Shanty, which has been in business for three years, Meimeteas used to own roast beef fast-food restaurants in Lynn.
The seafood restaurant got an enthusiastic reception from the park board, which voted unanimously for the proposal, the only response the city received to a request for proposals earlier this year. A city councilor at the Tuesday night board meeting also liked the idea and said he thinks it will fit well with the other food offerings at the Willows.
“If we have learned anything in Salem the last 15 years, the more restaurants the better,” Bill Legault told Meimeteas. “You are going to bring new people down there. ... This could be the start of the revival of Restaurant Row,” he said, a reference to restaurants here in the early 1900s.
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.