Legal Sea Foods founder George Berkowitz dies at 97

Mr. Berkowitz, who initially founded Legal Sea Foods as a fish business next to his father’s Cambridge grocery market, died in his sleep last Sunday in his home at the NewBridge on the Charles retirement community in Dedham. He was 97, his health had been failing. He previously had lived for many years in Lexington.

“As a father, he really sacrificed himself for the family,” said his oldest son, Roger Berkowitz, who succeeded him in running Legal Sea Foods until agreeing to sell the restaurants at the end of 2020.

“When he opened this fledgling fish market,” Roger said, “he was at work all the time, but it was all about family and being able to provide for the family.”

In Mr. Berkowitz’s hands, Legal Sea Foods became part of Greater Boston’s culinary lore, and he played a role in the careers of others, too.

The iconic Julia Child, whose 1961 book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” popularized French cuisine in the United States, was among his Inman Square fish market’s customers.

“When Julia and Paul Child moved back to Cambridge from their years abroad, Julia asked her hairdresser for the best place to buy fish,” Mr. Berkowitz wrote. “Her hairdresser recommended us. From that moment on Julia bought all her fish at Legal Sea Foods.”

They sealed their friendship with a serrated knife. After Child launched her popular TV show “The French Chef,” she devoted an episode to preparing a swordfish entrée. Mr. Berkowitz brought a 200-pound swordfish to the studio and kept it heavily iced for Child’s use until she sliced into it with what he later recalled was “a magnificent serrated knife that was more than a foot and a half long.”

“I asked where she got it,” he told the Globe in 1997. “She said, ‘If you like it, George, I’ll get you one.’ Six months later, she walked into Legal with a French knife as a gift, and I never forgot her for that.”

Born in Cambridge on Dec. 30, 1924, George H. Berkowitz was the fifth of six children. His father, Harry Berkowitz, was a Russian immigrant who ran Legal Cash Market in Inman Square. His mother, Frances Cohen Berkowitz, worked at the market, too, along with raising their children.

Legal Cash Market, a meat market and grocery that Harry opened in 1904, accepted stamps the government issued at the time for families to purchase food — the “legal cash” that led to the market’s name. Harry “was one of the hardest workers I knew, as well as being one of the fairest and most respected businessmen in Cambridge,” he wrote in his memoir.

While attending Roxbury Memorial High School, “I delivered orders for my father after school,” he wrote.

Then World War II began. Aspiring to become a military officer, Mr. Berkowitz enlisted in the Marine Corps the day before turning 18 and was sent to Dartmouth College for an officer training program.

He studied Chinese languages and hitchhiked back to Boston occasionally, but remained focused on adhering to Marine discipline and completing the program.

“If we didn’t make it, we didn’t go home, we went into combat,” he wrote. “Believe me, it was a great incentive to study.”

Upon finishing, he was posted to China just after the war ended and participated in repatriating Japanese and Korean troops and civilians.

The experience “was irreplaceable,” he recalled. Serving in the Marine Corps “taught me resilience, self-sufficiency,” and provided the foundation for how he would supervise employees.

“If they don’t respect you,” he said of his subordinate troops and, later, his employees, “they won’t want to follow your command”

In 1951, he married Harriet Wiskind, whom he first met when he dated her older sister.

Having initially worked for his father as a meat buyer upon returning from World War II, Mr. Berkowitz opened the Legal Sea Foods fish market in 1950, just before he was recalled to military duty during the Korean War.

He said he called his fish business Legal Sea Foods “to piggyback on the great reputation my father’s market enjoyed.” The restaurant followed 18 years later.

“Harriet was my solace,” he wrote of those early 100-hour workweeks, when they opened a restaurant as part of the fish business.

“I could never have done it without Harriet. From the beginning Legal Sea Foods was a family business,” he added.

“Harriet ran the cash register and worked with me behind the counter,” Mr. Berkowitz wrote. “Harriet’s father, Max, also worked the cash register occasionally and got paid off in fish. For a while Harriet’s mother, Annie, wrapped plastic utensils in napkins.”

The Berkowitzes’ three sons “peeled shrimp, swept floors, and did other necessary tasks.”

In 1980, the family opened a restaurant in the Park Plaza Hotel that was the business’s flagship.

Mr. Berkowitz rose to national prominence, especially after NBC’s “Today Show” named Legal Sea Foods the best seafood restaurant in the nation in 1986.

For multiple successive years Legal Sea Foods was voted Boston’s most popular restaurant by the Zagat guide and it even was listed in the book “1,000 Places to See Before You Die.”

At the end of 2020, with the restaurant business hard-hit nationally by the pandemic, Roger, who was chief executive and president of Legal Sea Foods, sold the restaurants to PPX Hospitality Brands. He retained Legal’s marketplace online operation, which is part of the Cfood Brands online and retail business he founded.

In retirement, meanwhile, George and Harriet Berkowitz remained loyal Legal diners.

“Frequently we eat only two meals a day,” he wrote five years ago, at age 92, “but lunch or dinner always includes fish, usually at one of the Legal Sea Foods restaurants nearby.”

The family will hold a private service for Mr. Berkowitz, who leaves his wife, Harriet; their sons, Roger of Nahant, Marc of Boston, and Richard of Sherborn; eight grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Along with having more time to play golf in retirement, Mr. Berkowitz taught ethics courses at Brandeis and Regis universities.

“A moral code is essential, I think, for a good life,” he wrote.

“Many mornings I wake up, put on Louis Armstrong, listen to him perform ‘What a Wonderful World,’ and think to myself how apt the words are in my life.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at [email protected]