Legal Sea Foods heads west with first Chicago location

The two-story restaurant on Chicago’s riverfront will be the chain’s first outside the East Coast in its 73-year history.
Legal Sea Foods Chicago
Legal Sea Foods' future home on the Chicago River. | Photo courtesy of Legal Sea Foods

After more than 70 years as a New England institution, Legal Sea Foods is making its way west with a restaurant in Chicago. 

The outpost on the Chicago River will be Legal’s first outside of the East Coast in the brand’s long history. It’s scheduled to open later this year or early next.

It’s part of a plan by owner PPX Hospitality to grow the 25-unit casual-dining brand beyond its New England roots after acquiring it in 2020. The brand's commitment to fresh, local seafood and strict quality standards have helped it become an icon on the Eastern seaboard. And though Chicago is a new market, it already has relations there: The new location is next door to Smith & Wollensky, another brand under the PPX umbrella.

In fact, Legal Sea Foods has been operating out of that restaurant as a takeout-only virtual brand for about two years. PPX used the opportunity to test how Legal would fare in the new market and ultimately deemed it a success.

Now, Legal will get a space of its own, below the famed Marina City complex on the bustling Chicago riverfront. The two-story restaurant will occupy what was once a Subway on the upper floor and a Dick’s Last Resort below, offering a total of about 270 seats across approximately 8,300 square feet.

“It has the ability really to be another real landmark store for us,” said Matt King, Legal Sea Foods president and COO. “It’s more than just opening up another small restaurant. It’s really planting a flag in the Midwest.”

Though Chicago is far from Legal's home base of Boston and the Atlantic Ocean fisheries that stock its restaurants, it made sense for a few reasons. First off, PPX has had a presence there with Smith & Wollensky for more than 20 years and knows the market well. Chicago is also one of the top markets for Legal’s ecommerce business that ships its products nationwide. And it could be a key stepping stone for future locations. “If the concept proves itself here, and we believe it will, it opens up a  lot of other markets in the Midwest,” King said.

The restaurant is currently under construction, which involved gutting both floors and building a staircase to connect the two. The completed design will feature bold primary colors, copper accents and white marble bar tops; a mixture of furnishings, including cane-back chairs and upholstered booths; and large murals of fisherman and fish. The atmosphere will be playful and fun—“not too serious,” King said.

The smaller top level will be bar-focused, featuring a raw bar and sushi, while downstairs will offer the full Legal Sea Foods experience along with a private dining area.

The menu will remain focused on New England seafood specialties like baked haddock, lobster, crab and oysters, though there will be nods to local freshwater fare such as trout. Much of Legal’s fare is caught in and around Boston and shipped out to restaurants four days a week. Those shipments will extend to the Chicago store.

“One of the keys to the success of Legal Sea Foods is the quality,” King said, “so we’ll be shipping fish from our same suppliers.” 

Though it will be just steps from its sister concept Smith & Wollensky, King expects them to complement each other rather than compete. Customers might visit Legal Sea Foods multiple times per month, while the more upscale Smith & Wollensky is typically reserved for celebrations or other special occasions. Legal Sea Foods also does a strong takeout business.

“They’re two very different experiences,” King said.

Legal Sea Foods is not done expanding. It has also been testing a takeout version of the brand in Columbus, Ohio, and King views Las Vegas and Florida as other logical next steps. But it believes Chicago is the right place to start.

“Everything really pointed to the fact that this was the right location to go to,” King said.

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