You've often heard someone say of their favorite hometown restaurant, "It's the best-kept secret in so and so", and often it is. But Clarksville Seafood, at 916 Eastern Boulevard in Clarksville, Indiana, is the only place I know where the secret is kept, almost guarded, by the operator himself. Current owner Steve Knear has often said, "We have all the business we can handle", and from eyeballing peak periods in the dining room, I believe him.
Clarksville Seafood is a delicious descendent of the Cape Codder restaurants that dotted Louisville and Lexington all through the 60's. There was a location near my house, and it was one of my mother and father's favorite places to take me and other family members. I remember one legendary meal there when I was about five years old, and my cousin Larry ate so much of the delicious, homemade tartar sauce that he got sick and has never looked at tartar sauce again in the almost 50 years since.
By the early 70's, the Cape Codders had gone away after an attempt at franchising them went south, even with a majority stockholder by the name of Colonel Harlan Sanders. But the food, the menu, and the recipes went to Clarksville to a tiny grey shack on Eastern Boulevard, where the original owner opened the quirky little spot, and they have stayed there ever since. People often also say about their favorite spots, "It never changes". Clarksville Seafood, known to most people who frequent it as simply "the Fish Place", takes that to an almost frightening degree, as if you somehow enter a time warp whenever you dine there.
First off, you have to find it. Your best "compass" is your nose--from the street in front to the parking lot in back, you smell the most delicious "frying" aroma you've ever encountered. Eastern Boulevard has gone from a quiet 2 lane residential road to a 4 lane artery in the past 40 years, but the little grey shack looks almost the same, and if you weren't told by someone in the know that this was THE place to eat fish in the Louisville area, there's no way anyone in their right mind would stop here--hell, you might not even notice that this plain little cottage is even a restaurant. The only structural change was a late 70's remodel that knocked out the back wall and expanded the dining area by about 8 or 10 tables and 30 or so seats, pretty much doubling capacity. Everything else is legitimately EXACTLY the same--the tables and chairs, the wallpaper, the model sailboats and fish decorations on the walls--even the fish in the giant fishtank at the front door look like they've defied age and evolution and swum in the same circles for four decades. The same goes for the employees--some have worked there since they were teenagers and are now pushing AARP age. The "newbies" have been there less than a decade, which in a place where time doesn't pass, it freezes, is nothing. Owner Steve worked there for at least two decades before taking over when the original owner passed away. It's a compact operation, with maybe half a dozen employees in total, and Steve, a gregarious fellow and ardent collector of boxing, wrestling and sports memorabilia, still operates the fryers himself if necessary.
The service hasn't changed in 40 years either, because there really ISN'T any service--not because the folks here aren't friendly, but simply by design. The Fish Place has been likened to the operation run by the "Soup Nazi" in the famous Seinfeld episode. You walk in the front door, and passing the fish tank, you are greeted by a lone employee at a cash register, with the same menu on the wall that has been there since opening day--only the prices have changed, and even THEM not as much as you would expect. You place your order (and you'd better know the lingo, especially on busy days when they're taking order after order), or you'll get dirty looks from impatient diners in line behind you waiting for their fish fix. After ordering, if it's to go, you sit on the bench along the wall and wait--if you're dining in, you find a table to fit your party and wait. After about 10 minutes, maybe less, your order is carried on a plastic tray (the same ones for 40 years) from the kitchen to the end of the counter, and your number is yelled once. You better be listening, because they then set the tray down and go back for the next, and if you don't come get your food, someone else might. There's no muzak or radio playing, just the muted conversations at tables, and while Kenny Bolin and I are usually the loudest people in the place, even we treat it almost like a library--you don't come here to talk, you come to eat! The clientele is most often older folks, middle aged people with children, and sometimes families with an infant, but never teenagers--they just don't seem to get it. Lots of them have been coming since the place first opened, like the Twilight Zone episode with William Shatner where he and his wife got trapped in a little town and the fortune-telling device in the cafe wouldn't let them leave.
Then, you dig in. OH-MY-GOD, the first bite of fish is nirvana to Clarksville Seafood devotees. The menu, clearly placed on the wall but never on paper, is as follows: Fried fish, shrimp, scallops, oysters, clams or deviled crab in a rectangular carryout box, with your choice of either french fries or fried onions. They have a hamburger, although in 35 years I've never seen someone order one, and chicken tenders, which Bolin's finicky son Chris gets because he "doesn't like fish", and we mock him unmercifully. The other sides available are potato salad, coleslaw, and fried pickles. Hush puppies are 20 cents each, and little cups of extra sauce are 14 cents, but those in the know ask for a large slawcup of tartar sauce and take home the remainder.
My standard order is two fish dinners, both with onions, a large tartar and sometimes slaw. The shrimp and scallops are really good as well, although you get more bang for your buck with the fish--I've never ordered any of the other entrees because I can't bear the thought of not going into a fish coma. This is the best fried fish I've ever had anywhere in the country--flown in fresh from Boston almost daily as has been the tradition since the place opened, it's served burn-your-mouth hot, flaky and crisp, not greasy, genuine cod fillets with a tasty southern-style breading that I wish I knew how to duplicate at home. Somehow, defying the laws of physics and nature, every fish dinner I've ever had there looks the same as well--the big filet with a smaller piece beside it, same size every time, cooked to the same shade of golden brown, the exact same taste, a Groundhog Day of a seafood experience. I prefer the onions because if the place has a flaw, it's that the french fries are often a little bland, but the fried onion strips are salty, tasty and crispy and work with the fish just right.
For years, the place kept weird hours--closed every Monday, open 4PM-8PM Tuesday and Wednesday, 2PM-8PM Thursday and Friday, 11AM-7PM Saturdays and 11AM-3PM on Sundays. No matter what the hours, there was a demand, and often a line. Just this past year, one of those rare changes took place when Steve decided to open 11-8 every day except Monday, although orders for the dining room stop 40 minutes before closing. It's not possible to call and ask if they're open--they don't answer their phone, they're busy--but the first TV commercials or advertising of any kind the place has done in 40 years heralded the new hours all summer on cable channels, then ceased. Hey, if you haven't gotten the picture by now, you'll just have to miss out!
I first discovered Clarksville Seafood from Handsome Jimmy Valiant and Austin Idol--it's down the road from the hotel the wrestlers used to stay at when they came to Louisville on Tuesdays in the glory years--and my mom and I began joining them every Wednesday on our way to Evansville, Indiana for the matches there. Everyone who wrestled in this area for a generation knows "the fish place". After I moved away, every time I would visit home, my mother and I would go there at least once. It's the place in 1998 where I ran into Danny Davis, heard he had a wrestling school, and set in motion the events that would lead to my coming home to Louisville to stay and bringing the WWE developmental program to Ohio Valley Wrestling. To this day, and even on my ongoing diet, if a month goes by that the Bolins and I don't descend on the place like a plague of hungry locusts, I get grumpy.
For the best fish you'll ever have and a unique experience in time travel, go to Clarksville Seafood. It's just a couple of miles across the river from downtown Louisville, less than a mile off I-65, and don't blink or you'll miss it. To see the simplest restaurant website ever which imparts only the information the people NEED to know, go to clarksvilleseafood.net. Tell Steve or whoever takes your order Jim Cornette and Kenny Bolin sent you, then sit back and prepare to be amazed. You don't even need to come hungry--one bite, and you'll eat until you need medical assistance.