Ezell’s Catfish on the River

Ezell’s became a restaurant in the 1950s, but its history goes back to riverboats and fish fries on the hunting camp lawn.

ABOVE Mary Ann Hall spent her early childhood in the Tombigbee River-front home that now houses her Ezell family namesake restaurant. The place has been in the family since the days of the riverboats and it has operated as a restaurant since the 1950s. Photos by Art Meripol

One does not merely drop by Ezell’s Fish Camp. The legendary restaurant, deep in Choctaw County, lies on the banks of the Tombigbee River. There are no directional signs and it’s a challenge to find, but no one cares. Because once you are here, you know you’ve found the right place.

The cuisine has been featured in Southern Living Magazine, lauded by Food TV and has a faithful following in three states. Catfish the way nature intended, dipped in savory batter and served with “world famous” slaw, resonates from the winding Tombigbee and beyond. But food is just the beginning in the welcoming and storied atmosphere of one of Alabama’s oldest restaurants.

The original building predates the Civil War, perhaps all the way back to a French fur trader. Early owner Charles Agnew Ezell used the property to supply riverboats with goods and supplies bound for Mobile. In the 1920s, Ezell opened the home to his hunting club, where grand fish fries and fellowship were the order of the day. Fresh river catfish and hand rolled hushpuppies were cooked in a massive pot in the front yard, selling for 50 cents a plate.

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The elder Ezell son, C.A., became a commercial fisherman and conducted business from the family home. C.A. and wife Mary raised their children here — Charles, Mary Ann and Joe.

“I lived in this building until age 5, ” recalls daughter Mary Ann Ezell Hall, walking through the restaurant that decades earlier was her childhood dwelling. “This was our back porch, ” she notes, standing in one of the dining rooms that overlooks the slow moving river.

But she pays particular attention to the main entrance, the original centuries-old building. “The logs were hand hewed from area trees, ” the Ezell daughter explains. With fingers rubbing two-century-old, rugged fasteners, Mary adds, “These iron pegs are the original nails, still holding it all together.” The entrance and two-room dog trot are the original structures.

The former business headquarters of a commercial fisherman, gathering spot of outdoor sportsmen and family home of the C.A. Ezells became the family namesake restaurant in the 1950s.

ABOVE The porch offers an inviting welcome.

Over the years, additional rooms were added, including a deck, party rooms and other wings. Hunters, neighbors and travelers were still friends, but now they were also customers. The Ezell sons eventually left, starting their own restaurants, but Mary stayed in Lavaca. When her father retired, she became owner-operator of the fish camp and ran it for more than 35 years. She is still here, in the restaurant home she has known since birth.

“Today I am here to help out, ” she says. Like her father before her, Mary turned ownership and operations over to her son, Agnew Hall, in 2013.

Today the original humble fish camp and Ezell home form a multi-dining room experience that seats 300. The drawing card is catfish, but other menu items include steaks, burgers, crab claws and po’-boys of distinction.

The turning point for Ezell’s was the switch from river-supplied catfish to pond-raised during the 1960s. Originally, catfish supplies came from river fishermen. Supply and quantity were unpredictable.

“Today we take for granted the abundance of restaurant catfish, ” Mary says. “But plentiful and abundant were not always the case. Daddy was one of the first to use pond fish.”

Her father worked with Auburn University to help determine whether farm-raised were a viable alternative to river-caught. Mary remembers, “Daddy always said, ‘One day people will raise catfish just like they raise chickens.’” His words were prophetic.

ABOVE Fresh caught catfish headlines a fresh-fried feast.

“We serve around 300 pounds a week, ” she notes, about the aquatic bottom feeder, at its best when simmering in tasty batter. “Fillets are popular but whole catfish sell well, too, especially for old-time fish eaters.”

And old-time fish eaters transcend the boundaries of Choctaw County, statewide and beyond.

Faithful followers from everywhere take the Lavaca challenge — which is finding Lavaca, a community or district or perhaps a state of mind. There are no “Welcome to Lavaca” signs. But devotees are undeterred.

“I have driven there many times on my motorcycle, ” says patron and fan Terry Ott, of Baldwin County’s Robertsdale. Recalling his 200-mile round-trip dining endeavors, he adds, “Ezell’s has the best fried catfish I have ever eaten.”

Others agree. It is worth the trip, and the trip is more than a journey, it’s a discovery. As one guest famously said, “You have to be lost to find this place.” But once found, you return.

The customer base includes surrounding towns of Demopolis, Linden, Thomasville, Tuscaloosa and beyond. “We have people from places like Mobile visit and see other people from Mobile they know, ” says Mary. “I recently talked with a carload of folks from Birmingham and asked where they were headed. They were headed here. We were the reason for the drive.” Birmingham to Lavaca tallies 130 miles one way.

Busy season is hunting season. “From November to January, if you aren’t in camouflage you are out of place, ” says Mary. “We’ve held camouflaged wedding events here.” Other under-the-tin-roofed-top events include traditional parties, corporate events, business meetings, family reunions, birthdays and more.

ABOVE The Tombigbee flows serenely past Ezell’s in Lavaca, in rural Choctaw County.

But what sets Ezell’s apart is charm and the nostalgia of a riverbank world. When you’ve been a restaurant for more than 60 years and in existence for two centuries, traditions are inevitable.

Other than an occasional radio commercial, Ezell’s Fish Camp does little advertising. It doesn’t have to. Word of mouth and history prevail.

“Parents come in with children to show where they used to hunt and eat, ” says Mary.  Hunters gather to talk over the day in the woods. People who grew up with the fish camp often return. Mary notes, “They don’t want us to change anything.”

Each room is a story. Indoor main dining room seating and outdoor deck tables overlook the Tombigbee. Guests watch riverboats glide across the water just as they have done for centuries.

On the walls are memorabilia of the way we were. Original fishing baskets, kitchen utensils, pots and pans are in every room. Mounted game and fish trophies line the walls. Think of it as a riverside museum with hushpuppies included.

Ezell’s Fish Camp Restaurant is at 776 Ezell Road, Lavaca, Alabama (also listed in Butler, if you can’t find Lavaca). For 200 years the riverside restaurant has seen fur trappers, boat crews, wedding parties and happy foodies in a quest for culinary catfish. Now, with the help of Google Maps, you can probably find it, too.

Emmett Burnett and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Burnett is based in Satsuma and Meripol in Birmingham.

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