Combine the personal touches of a restaurant that is family-owned and family-operated with a menu full of popular Southern specialties nestled in the hills of Tennessee, and the result is The Catfish House in Clarksville.
Address: 1461 Zinc Plant Road, Clarksville, Tennessee
Menu: The entree offerings at The Catfish House are simple: catfish, steaks, seafood and Fettuccine Alfredo, which is something of a surprise. Burgers, sandwiches and a few salads are offered, but for the most part, hungry diners come for the catfish.
Fried pickles, onion rings, cheese sticks and a shrimp cocktail star on the appetizer list, while homemade carrot cake, Key lime pie, pecan pie, caramel pie and chocolate chess pie headline in the desserts.
Thoughts: When the server comes to your table and asks, “Are you ready for some fried okra?”, you know you’re about to have a great meal. The okra is quickly followed by white beans and coleslaw, and that’s before you even order your entree.
The Catfish House won the 2019 Entrepreneurial Growth Award for Tennessee’s Montgomery County, which indicates to me that they don’t rest on their past laurels but are constantly seeking to improve and reach more customers.
The Ellis family purchased the restaurant from Mr. Gerald George in 1978, when it was in a small location on Salem Road. They enlisted grandparents, an uncle, an aunt, and their daughters to help with everything involved in satisfying the folks near Clarksville. Apparently, their efforts were appreciated and supported, because now, 41 years later, they are in a much larger location able to seat 235-250 people at a time. Part of the family operates a second restaurant by the same name in nearby Springfield, Tennessee.
Cindy Kerns, daughter of the original owners, is the driving force now behind all of the success and good eating. When I asked her if the catfish come from the Cumberland River which runs through Clarksville, she quickly laughed and said, “Oh no. Those would taste too muddy. Our catfish are farm-raised in Mississippi.”
She goes on to explain that oysters, crab, and shrimp arrive from the Gulf on ice but are never frozen. The kitchen staff butterflies the shrimp by hand and hand batters each piece of fish. They grind their own cabbage for the coleslaw, and each hushpuppy is scooped into the waiting hot grease one scoop at a time. Ms. Kerns personally makes the carrot cakes, caramel pies, and Alfredo sauce, and she developed the honey mustard dressing recipe herself. The white beans are soaked in-house overnight, and seven huge pots of them are ladled out on a typical weekend.
The fishing poles and lures that decorate the walls belonged to her father and uncle, and she proudly points out other pieces that she found, sanded and painted to add to the ambiance.
The staff of about 50 greeters, servers and cooks work together as a close-knit team and is generally made up of high school and college-age students, plus several whose roots in the restaurant go back for a generation. Nearby Austin Peay State University is a great resource for employees.
The owners are strongly committed to never serving alcohol, but their sweet tea is exactly what their loyal people in Clarksville enjoy.
The Catfish House is a feel-good restaurant. Multi-generation groups sit around the tables for family celebrations or just a supper full of familiar, comforting dishes. In many ways, it epitomizes the culture and personality of Clarksville.
Price range: Appetizers $6-12. Salads, soups and sandwiches $6-12. Entrees $11-17, and desserts $5-8.