Corrections or additions?

This article by Richard Skelly was prepared for the November 21,

2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Blues, Brews and Seafood

Arrive at the Big Fish Bistro on any Friday or Saturday

night, and you’ll enter a noisy, crowded restaurant. Stick around

a few hours, when the band begins to play, and you’ll find yourself

in a comfortable spot to hear some good roots music.

All of this is by design, according to general manager Richard

Moscovitz.

The D.C. native says the Big Fish Bistro, at 7,200 square feet with

a 2,500 square-foot bar area, was designed to be a noisy, informal

restaurant with good service, not a quiet place for ultra-fine dining.

And with generous fish sandwiches offered for around $7.50, along

with fried clams, blue marlin, catfish, Maine Atlantic salmon, and

plenty of other seafood soups and dishes, clearly, the restaurant

is doing something right.

Big Fish Bistro opened just 18 months ago. Located inside the

MarketFair

mall on Route 1 South, Big Fish hosted its first blues festival,

Oysterfest,

in early October, which it hopes to make an annual event. Bands set

up on the bistro’s outdoor patio, and the front parking lot was closed

to allow for a crowd to gather.

True, the event his the only bad weather of the month, something

Moscovitz

attributes to the luck of the draw. Moscovitz says next year’s event

may be scheduled slightly earlier or later in the hope of drawing

a bigger crowd than it did at its debut.

"Although we had a beautiful afternoon, it rained all

morning,"

he says. "Also, it was our first year and I understand it takes

a year or two to grow on the community.

"We are actually part of a collection of about 20 restaurants

around the U.S," Moscovitz explains in his office on a recent

Friday. Big Fish Bistro is operated by the C.A. Muer Corp., a

30-year-old

company based in the Detroit area. "We call them a collection

of restaurants, not a chain, because every restaurant is different,

in design, in menus, and each restaurant is independently run,"

he says.

"We do have a corporate structure but it’s really the operators

of the restaurant who control the direction and destiny of the

restaurant.

The whole concept at Big Fish Bistro is that the guest is the big

fish, and it’s all about hospitality and great service and

atmosphere,"

he adds.

Moskovitz says Big Fish serves between 650 and 800 dinners on a Friday

or Saturday night, and there is often a 60 to 90-minute wait for a

table. Friday night is the best beverage sales night, he adds. While

Big Fish appears to be booming, anyone who knows the restaurant

business

knows that profit margins are slim on food, especially after the

waiters

and waitresses, bartenders, chefs, and kitchen help are paid.

"The original concept was actually called Big Fish Blues,"

says Moscovitz, who came to central New Jersey after many years in

the restaurant business in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

"Almost

all of our restaurants have some form of music and it has always been

in the culture of the company to offer some kind of live

entertainment.

"We wanted to put some Blues Brothers sunglasses on that big fish

we have in the dining room. But we were also looking for ways to bring

in more people on weekends."

Big Fish brings in blues bands on Friday and Saturday nights, with

sets beginning at around 9:30 p.m. Usually the first set is more

subdued,

but bands are free to turn up their amps for the second set.

"I thought blues fit what this restaurant is all about," he

says, "and we’ve been doing this about a year now." In the

restaurant business, he explains, "you try to do everything you

can for the incremental dollar, you know, Can I keep people at my

bar until 12:30 or 1 o’clock if I have music?"

Bands that appear regularly at Big Fish Bistro include Chuck Lambert,

Scarlett "Lee" Moore and her quartet, Filthy Rich and the

Poor Boys, Ron Kraemer and the Hurricanes, Lenny G. and the Soul

Searchers,

and the Killer Blues Band, a trio. Dr. Barry, an eye doctor and

surgeon

who runs the Princeton Eye Laser Center, often performs as a solo

act on Saturday nights.

"We’ve developed a bevy of bands that can play here, because

acoustically

the room is challenging," says Moscovitz. In other words, it can

be a loud place made even louder by bands with amplifiers.

Moscovitz recalls how the first few bands he brought in last season

first cleared the bar and then cleared the restaurant. Clearly, that

wasn’t working.

"Now the bands we have are bands that can play real soft for the

first set and then, as people finish eating, they can come over to

the bar and the musicians can turn it up a bit." Moscovitz adds

that Big Fish also booked some jazz bands but the reaction "wasn’t

really there."

On a recent Friday night, Ron Kraemer and the Hurricanes were onstage

with Piscataway-based harmonica player Dennis Gruenling, who also

leads his own combos. The band’s first set, with John Barry on

keyboards,

was a perfect example of great ensemble playing at low volume. For

the second set, the band turned it up as they added their own spin

to such blues classics as "Chickenshack" and other tunes

popularized

by Louis Jordan and jump-blues outfits of the 1930s and ’40s.

Guitarist Ron Kraemer, whose band performs at Big Fish on a monthly

basis expresses his enthusiasm simply: "I love this place because

they feed me and my band."

— Richard Skelly

Big Fish Seafood Bistro at Marketfair, 3535 Route 1, West

Windsor, 609-919-1179.

Upcoming Schedule: November 23: Chuck Lambert Blues Band.

November 30: Lenny G and The Soul Searchers. December 7: Papa Majama.

December 14: Ron Kraemer and Hurricanes. December 21: Scarlett

"Lee"

Moore and Band. December 28: Lenny G & The Soul Searchers


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