BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — A new restaurant opens today on hallowed ground.
Turner’s Seafood at Lyceum Hall is located in the same Church Street building where, for two decades, George Harrington ran The Lyceum restaurant, a North Shore dining landmark long before the recent restaurant boom.
This is also the spot where Bridget Bishop, the first victim of the Salem Witch Trials, had her apple orchard, according to local legend.
And this is where Alexander Graham Bell gave the first public demonstration of a long-distance telephone conversation, as is noted on a plaque outside.
But, maybe most famously, this is the site of the old Salem Lyceum, a historic lecture hall where Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, John Quincy Adams and other luminaries of the 19th century spoke to packed houses.
Turner’s Seafood, of course, has its own proud history, which began more than a half-century ago on Boston’s Fish Pier and continues today with a restaurant in Melrose and a seafood processing plant and fish market in Gloucester.
Jim Turner, one of four Turner brothers (along with wives) involved in the family business, thought about calling this new restaurant simply Turner’s Seafood — but not for long. Wherever he went over the past year, Turner said he was greeted warmly and then told directly how much the “lyceum” name means to the city.
“I can’t tell you how many times I heard that suggestion — or threat,” he said with a grin.
Rinus Oosthoek, executive director of the Salem Chamber of Commerce, called Turner’s Seafood at Lyceum Hall a “great name.” Even Mayor Kim Driscoll weighed in on the subject.
“There is such strong affection for the Lyceum in Salem, given the history of the building and the fact that it has long been such a prominent gathering spot in our community,” Driscoll said.
Turner knows he has been entrusted with a piece of local history.
“This place has such meaning,” he said, “and we really tried to respect that.”
There is an old Lyceum restaurant sign hanging inside, along with old Salem photos and a worn, wooden “Salem Seafood” sign from another era. There are also photos and artifacts from Turner’s history.
Turner said the restaurant tries to honor the past while reflecting the present.
The old mahogany bar is back, along with brass nameplates of faithful and departed customers. But the old women’s bathroom has been moved to make room for a 15-seat, marble oyster bar. There is a small fish market near the entrance, similar to the one in Melrose.
This is a traditional seafood restaurant, family members said, but with a twist.
“What makes us a little bit different is we purchase and process our own seafood,” said brother Joe Turner.
“Our goal is to provide a pure, authentic New England fish house,” said Jim Turner. “Nothing more and nothing less.”
The menu reflects that with starters such as clam chowder, lobster bisque and traditional oyster stew; appetizers like “Nana Turner’s cod cake” and oysters Rockefella; and entrees of Newfoundland finnan haddie, winter swordfish, New England baked scrod, English pub-style fish and chips, and Surf N Turf, with prices from $15.99 to about $30.
Jim Turner said he came to Salem, in part, because of the Church Street location. He thought it was the perfect home for chapter two of Turner’s Seafood.
“We fell in love with the building,” he said. “One thing we try to achieve (here) ... is an almost timeless authenticity, and the building defines that.”
Turner’s Seafood at Lyceum Hall opens tonight and for a few weeks will be open for dinner only. The owners expect to add lunch to the menu next month.
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.