By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Mar 21, 2008 at 5:19 AM

McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurant opened at Mayfair Mall this week and judging by the response from diners, Milwaukee was ready for its arrival.

Founded in Portland, Ore., in 1973 by Bill McCormick and Doug Schmick, when McCormick revived the century-old Jake's Famous Crawfish Restaurant -- a Portland dining landmark -- there are now more than 50 restaurants across the country. The Mayfair location is the first in Wisconsin.

Despite the fact that it was beaten to the punch by the arrival of Devon Seafood Grill at Bayshore and Mitchell Fish Market and Bonefish Grill in Brookfield (and Kincaid's opens soon on Old World 3rd Street, too), McCormick & Schmick believes its local approach will be key to its success.

"We strive to become a part of the community we open in," says Regional Manager Kevin Finegold. "That applies to the architecture as well as the food. All of our restaurants are driven by their cuisine, and our menus are designed to appeal to local tastes."

That localization is most visible in the bar area, which occupies half the space beneath a lovely stained glass dome in the center of the restaurant, located in the outlot near Macy's. The dining room fills the remainder of that area and the space surrounding it.

There are old Packers, Brewers and Bucks photos as well as historical pictures of the Milwaukee area. The dining room décor features more on fish- and seafood-focused prints.

"The nicest thing we have going for us," says General Manager Rick Steavpack, "is that the company lets us localize the restaurant. For the NCAA tournament they've encouraged us to let bartenders and other staff wear Badgers and Marquette shirts, for example.

"We want to make (guests) comfortable with a neighborhood-type feel, especially in the bar," Steavpack says, noting that the restaurant's founders were bartenders before they moved into the dining business.

The dome, the crab and fish-adorned stained glass hanging light shades and the warm wood décor with green banquette seats are not unique to the Milwaukee restaurant, but the localization definitely helps. And it is a unique tack among local seafood chain restaurants.

Steavpack -- a Milwaukee native who helmed the now-defunct Moceans Downtown and has a lifetime of restaurant experience - believes that the earlier arrival of his competitors was good for McCormick & Schmick's.

"Those places did some of the educating for us," he says, pointing out that while Milwaukee diners have come to understand that you have to spend some money to get a great steak, many still don't expect similar pricing for fresh fish and seafood.

"The pressure is on, but I think our food speaks for itself," Steavpack says.

On a recent visit, we sampled fried calamari and coconut shrimp appetizers, Maryland crab soup, and an apple salad with white cheddar and pecans before entrees of Atlantic salmon stuffed with blue crab, bay shrimp and brie and seared sea scallops served atop a potato pancakes and cream spinach and tomato salad.

Without fail, the dishes were attractively presented, served at a nice pace and, most importantly, built around extremely fresh seafood.

While the food -- and the amazing apple pie for dessert -- made an impression, what was most memorable was the warmth and efficiency of the staff.

One server deftly saw to our needs from start to finish -- with minor assistance from others -- and was friendly and fast, making recommendations, promptly refilling water glasses and clearing plates. During the evening, numerous other staffers greeted us, stopped to chat and asked about the experience.

And the mood was clearly contagious as other diners stopped to chat, too. And, perhaps surprisingly, it didn't feel intrusive.

"First and foremost I went out and got nice people," Steavpack says of his staff, "that hopefully are also great servers and bartenders. But if they're nice people and so-so servers, for example, we can make them great servers.

I've always told my staff - here and at other restaurants - it's when you have a bad day that you find out the mettle (of a restaurant employee). They key is to be nice even when you're having a rough day for whatever reason. That's what I'm looking for in my people. I don't want to get in the car and dread going to work. This is a great business to be in and I don't want (working) here to be a downer."

Like the localization, Stevpack recognizes that his staff's friendliness -- as well as its skill -- is important for McCormick & Schmick's durability in a competitive market.

"We've got stiff competition in the mall. Cheesecake Factory, Maggiano's, P.F. Chang's, they've all got good food, they've all got good service. So, let's not give them any fodder. Let's kill ‘em with kindness. The people that we've hired feel the same way and (management is) going to have to put ourselves on the line, out there (with waitstaff) walking the walk."