The Fisher King

By Kris Frieswick | Boston Magazine |

WHATEVER CRITICISMS HE AND HIS CHAIN have faced, Berkowitz continues to have enormous sway within the restaurant industry. He’s a trendsetter and one of the city’s biggest players. Garrett Harker, longtime restaurateur and owner of both Eastern Standard and Island Creek Oyster Bar (and a former Legal Sea Foods server), says, “I think Roger is as obsessed with the finished product as he is with the source of it.”  

Harker says Berkowitz has always been willing to try out new ideas and “was never afraid to start over with a new philosophy and a new management team.” He credits Berkowitz with the idea of “clustering,” a concept often associated with Starbucks. “Roger was doing that before there was a Starbucks,” Harker says. “He opened [restaurants in] Copley Place and then in the Prudential Center, a stone’s throw from Park Plaza. Some thought he would be cannibalizing, but it didn’t work out that way. Instead, he was creating a kind of fervor for the brand. He just became so associated with dining out in Boston.” And Berkowitz is still clustering — his new Harborside location is directly across Northern Avenue from Legal Test Kitchen, its more loungey, less fish-focused sibling.

Berkowitz’s record, though, is hardly one long string of uninterrupted successes. He admits to overestimating the strength of the Legal brand when he started opening restaurants in malls outside of New England. Malls in the Boston area have been extremely successful locations for Legal. In other areas of the country, though, the prevailing belief is that a restaurant in a mall can’t possibly be good. And once you get beyond New England, Legal has lacked the name recognition to overcome that notion. “The success of the out-of-state mall restaurants has not been anything like we have here,” Berkowitz acknowledges. “So as leases come up, if we want to stay in the community, we’ll move it onto the street.”

Then there was his particularly harrowing 1980s foray into winemaking in France — a chapter of his life Berkowitz says requires him to take a stiff drink before he can talk about it. That entire complicated episode proved, once again, that for Berkowitz, the devil truly is in the details — in this case a disgruntled employee who Berkowitz says sabotaged most of a first batch of white wine; arcane French rules that barred Berkowitz from selling what he was able to salvage; and fines from the French government for firing the saboteur.

The malls, the winery — perhaps the fish pond? — Berkowitz’s occasional mistakes seem to fall into the “seemed like a good idea at the time” category, the hallmark of people who sometimes fail to do their due diligence. But even a thorough vetting couldn’t have predicted how things would end when, in 1996, he hired Jasper White — the fine-dining chef who specializes in seafood — as Legal’s executive chef. The two men parted ways after four years, and White started Jasper White’s Summer Shack, a competing chain.