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SALEM — It's unlikely an inmate at the former Salem Jail could have imagined the joint as an upscale restaurant.
But with little fanfare, Great Escape Restaurant and Bar welcomed the first of its guests at 4 p.m. yesterday after seven months of planning and construction in the brick building.
Customers who trickled into the eatery lapped up the ambience, a prison-themed interior complete with jail-cell bars and a chain-gang mural.
"I bought the first legal drink in the prison," said Henry DuLaurence, who lives across Bridge Street at the apartments called Jefferson at Salem Station.
The 50 St. Peter St. restaurant's first customer ordered a California Chardonnay at the bar, which literally has prison bars inset.
Though owner Cleber Santos and general manager Shane Andruskiewicz had planned to open sooner, a delay with the restaurant's liquor license pushed back the opening to yesterday.
Zack and Ashley Young of Salem said they read about the opening in the newspaper and followed the restaurant online.
"We think it's a great idea to try and keep this place around," Zack Young said.
He and his wife, who moved from California in April, were impressed that Salem had gone to such lengths to preserve the building.
"It's different from any other restaurant," Ashley Young said.
"This could be a big-city restaurant," Zack Young said.
The couple tried the outdoor seating initially but opted to go indoors because of the blustery afternoon conditions.
"It's a great atmosphere in front," he said.
Ginger and Frank Albanese of Beverly drove by the restaurant on their way back from Boston, hoping it would be open for business.
"We got a kick out of the menu," Ginger Albanese said.
She ordered the Scarface, a dish of sauteed shrimp in a garlic parsley white wine sauce over linguine. Her husband picked the Mafiosa, a feast of shrimp, scallops, mussels, clams, calamari and haddock.
Frank Albanese said he appreciated the restaurant's theme.
"It reminds me of the one in Boston," he said of the jail-turned-restaurant called Clink at the Liberty Hotel.
He washed down the fried calamari appetizer with a martini, and his wife chose the Cosmopolitan.
"The martinis are fantastic," Frank Albanese said.
Great Escape will be open daily from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m.