By John Burton
SEA BRIGHT – It’s show time again for Paul Diomede.
This time, instead of facing a camera, it’s now all about hungry diners and preparing lobster and fish and chips.
Diomede, a working actor for a number of years in film, theater and television, last month opened the Sea Bright Fish Company at 1054 Ocean Ave. In addition to being co-owner, Diomede also works as head chef.
Like any performance before a live audience, “it needs to be right every time, 100 percent every time. It’s Broadway every time,” he said.
Diomede opened Sea Bright Fish Company with his dad, Paul Sr., brother, Justin, and sister, Kim Cognata, on June 28 after having first looked at the storefront, a former gym damaged by Super Storm Sandy, on April 28. “It was a quick turnaround,” he said.
The opening was a “soft opening” with the family not making much of it on social media or advertising, until they were sure they had all their ducks in a row, he said. “We were not going to overpromise and under-deliver.”
That hasn’t been a problem, Diomede said, as patrons have appreciated his family’s work to make everything by hand and deliver fresh, well-prepared seafood meals to the summer crowd and discerning locals. “I certainly welcome the tourist business during the summer,” he said, “but, it’ll be the locals who will keep us going during the winter.”
Like working in show business, a restaurant is about delivering on the promise, Diomede pointed out.
“You know, someone hired a babysitter, made plans for a great night out and they made it to be here. We need to make it as great an experience as possible.”
Diomede has worked in restaurants for quite a while, most recently having worked as the general manager for two McLoone’s restaurant locations, and for a period co-hosting Tim McLoone’s WOR radio show. Like many up-and-coming actors, Diomede relied on restaurant work to subsidize his acting over the years. But, he got to the point where he “didn’t want to work for another restaurant,” he said.
The prospect of taking what he has learned over two decades, putting his personal spin on it and owning an establishment was another matter, he said.
Diomede went to college in Newport, R.I., his wife is originally from Massachusetts and his family, which includes 5 ½-year-old triplet boys, regularly vacation in New England. His connection to the region and ocean – plus his appreciation for seafood – inspired him to make his spot a seafood restaurant, he said.
Running a restaurant – to say nothing of raising three five-year-olds – is time consuming but as far as his acting goes, he is “still pursuing that” by keeping his hand in as parts becomes available, he said.
Diomede, who was raised in Keansburg and lives in Wall, may be familiar to avid watchers of “Law & Order” in any of its iterations, having played numerous roles in the long-running New York-based TV series. “I’m a perennial bad guy on ‘Law & Order,’” he said.
People occasionally eye him with that hint of recognition when they meet and light up when he tells them of his background. He’s had parts in “The Sopranos” and other shows and has appeared in such movies as “The Messenger” with Woody Harrelson and “City Island” with Andy Garcia and Julianna Margulies.
One of his most memorable experiences occurred while working on director’s Spike Lee’s “25th Hour,” with Edward Norton and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. After filming a scene with Hoffman, the actor stood up and applauded Diomede’s work. “It was my finest hour,” he recalled fondly. “I knew then I made it.”
In 1998, he wrote the screenplay and acted in “Lesser Prophets,” a crime drama with Amy Brenneman (“Judging Amy’), Scott Glenn and Michael Badalucco (from TV’s “The Practice), directed by Matawan native William DeVizia. While the film didn’t turn out as Diomede hoped, he said it was heady times for him and his young career.
“We were 26-year-old kids,” he said of himself and DeVizia, “and someone gave us $5 million to make a movie.”
Whether it’s before the camera or in the kitchen, “I’m a perfectionist,” he said, stressing that the only thing that isn’t made from scratch at this point are the onion rings. “It needs to come out of the kitchen my way.”
His specialty is the restaurant’s lobster roll. “It’s about the weight of a whole lobster,” he said, and can be served with another signature item, lobster and bacon potato salad.
Another of his dishes, whole belly clams, has shown to be quite popular so far. “It’s a delicate handmade item,” he said, and one “you can’t get everywhere.”
The restaurant is still in its early stages and the menu will continue to evolve, he said.
Since opening, lunches and dinners have been served on paper plates “because that is the kind of place we thought we were going to be,” he said. However, it has become the type of place where customers – after buying a bottle from the neighboring liquor store – have been “eating and hanging out for the evening.” That has encouraged him to use real dishes, starting this fall.