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McCormick, Schmick and ... Bubba's?!

The restaurants, which have just seen an ownership change, trace their roots to Jake's in Portland. Whatever the new Texas-born owner does, according to our Portland-native writer, he shouldn't mess with Jake's.

Jake's Famous Crawfish in Portland and the building that houses the restaurant are listed on the National Register of  Historic Places.

Jake's Famous Crawfish in Portland and the building that houses the restaurant are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. werewombat/Wikimedia Commons

If you're from Portland, you know about Jake's Famous Crawfish, the city's iconic, old-fashioned fish house, which could be the model for historic seafood restaurants in a category of decor that's not really antique, but certainly "Old Hometown." Dark wood, stained-glass chandeliers, oil paintings, starched linens. Nothing too sleek, weird, or modern, just fresh seafood. Similar spots around the country: Sam's and Tadich Grill in San Francisco, Shaw's Crab House in Chicago.

Growing up in Portland, Jake's was where we'd go for special dinners. Once, when (then) state Sen. Richard Neuberger and his wife, Maureen, came to dinner, my dad ran down to Jake's and bought a bag of crawfish.

Jake's was founded in 1892 and thrived, first as a sort of "gentlemen's club," then, as time went on, with early commitments to Oregon wine and the freshest fish available. It was taken over 80 years later by William McCormick, who hired Doug Schmick as GM.

They opened the first McCormick & Schmick's in downtown Portland in 1979, and expanded nationwide over the next quarter century; four of its 90 units are in Washington. Much of the expansion was funded by an IPO, and one of the investors was a Texas restaurant operator named Tillman Fertitta, who had taken over Landry's Seafood in the 1980s when there were only two stores. Today there are 21 Landry's, along with 30-some additional brands (Bubba Gump, Claim Jumper, Rainforest Cafe) all under the Landry's umbrella.

Fertitta became the largest individual shareholder in McCormick & Schmick, and last year decided to buy it outright. When the M&S board resisted, Fertitta approached individual shareholders, and last week announced he had bought 88 percent of the shares.

McCormick & Schmick epitomizes a strong corporate commitment to fresh seafood; they print updated menus twice a day at the units in Seattle, but they haven't been immune to the recession. The company lost nearly $70 million in 2008 and $1.1 million in the first quarter of 2009, according to reports published in the Portland Business Journal. Even though it was Oregon's 18th largest publicly traded company, with annual sales of $300 million, management closed the flagship McCormick's in downtown Portland last year when they couldn't come to terms on a lease.

Having absorbed the venerable Northwest institution into his private empire, Fertitta moved quickly to make changes. The Portland Business Journal reported that he had fired several executives, including McCormick, and closed a number of restaurants. He has also said he'll rebrand some of the McCormick & Schmick's stores. Ironically, the McCormick & Schmick's Harborside on South Lake Union has just undergone a complete renovation and rebranding with celebrity chef Peter Birk, late of Ray's Boathouse, at the helm.

You can do what you want with most of them, Bubba, but you better not mess with Jake's. Ya hear?

Ronald Holden is a regular Crosscut contributor. His new book, published this month, is titled “HOME GROWN Seattle: 101 True Tales of Local Food & Drink." (Belltown Media. $17.95).


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