Behind the brick faCade of Jack Russell Fish Co. in Benton, customers find some surprises, and they begin as soon as guests enter the restaurant. Vibrant paint colors, in shades of orange, yellow and blue, join nautical items and a few prize catches from the sea to give a tropical outdoor feel.
Co-owner Jason Bennett calls the atmosphere “a little bit of Florida,” but there is plenty of the local region represented, too. From old water skis to scenes from nearby Rend Lake, the eclectic mix of the Prairie and Sunshine states work together.
The menu showcases variety as well. Bennett and his wife Erin have expanded offerings in recent years. Crab legs, peel-and-eat gulf shrimp, catfish dinners, fish tacos and clams are among the seafood items on the menu, along with steaks, salads, soup and grilled chicken.
Anchoring the menu is the Old Tavern Fish Sandwich, which begins with a 6-ounce piece of cod. To fully appreciate the flagship sandwich at Jack Russell Fish Co., one needs a bit of a genealogical lesson and some history.
The Bennetts took over the business from Erin’s father (the original John “Jack” Russell Moore) about six years ago. One of the first items Moore began serving when he opened the restaurant in 2002 was a fish sandwich that originated at Tom Raymond’s Tavern in nearby Sesser. It was Tom’s son-in-law, Pete, who gave the Moore family the recipe and strict instructions on how to prepare it.
Moore’s telling of the legend remains on the Jack Russell Fish Co.’s website.
“You’ve got to fix the fish the same way every time using our special breading, the hamburger dill pickles, the onion slices, the fresh white bread,” Moore’s telling of Pete’s instructions begins. “He said some people want tartar sauce, but they must use our special ‘top secret’ ketchup to make it a real Old Tavern Fish Sandwich.”
Pete was adamant about how the sandwich was to be served and that the restauranteurs should tell customers to “go on down the street if you want tartar sauce on a fish sandwich.” The Bennetts, however, are a little more accommodating. They say they will provide the tartar sauce for customers who “insist on screwing up the sandwich.”
The fish sandwich was a staple for area coal miners just getting off of their shifts, and Tom was happy to serve it to them. “We still have people who come in and say, ‘I remember getting this sandwich 50 years ago, wrapped in a napkin and served in a brown bag,’” Bennett says. “Now it is on a plate, but it still is something good that brings everybody together.”
The menu at Jack Russell Fish Co. goes far beyond the still-popular sandwich. Bennett says the restaurant’s chicken wings (a Wednesday special) are popular as well. “We try to accommodate for all varieties of life, whether you like fish or not,” he says.
It’s all served in a laid-back Gulf Coast or beach style. In keeping with the casual theme, the restaurant often features live music on the patio as well as a full bar and a family-friendly atmosphere. It has become the kind of place that appeals to generations.
“Erin’s dad had a big following when he had the restaurant, and we’re bringing in our generation,” Bennett says. “We’re seeing all of the 30- or 40-somethings, and they’re bringing in their kids. It’s fun.”