Hook, line and sinker, the freshest fried catfish dinner can be caught at the E’town River Restaurant.
It’s likely those tender, but crispy golden nuggets were caught in the Ohio River that morning and delivered by boat to this unique barge restaurant in Elizabethtown in Hardin County.
Using the restaurant’s own method to cut and clean the fish into perfect sizes for the fry baskets, many of these popular catch-of-the-day prizes literally pass from boat to plate in less than 12 hours.
“We’re an attraction, we’re a draw. It helps brings people to E’town,” says Patrick Joyner, the restaurant’s third owner for 12 years now.
Business on the river
E’town, as the locals call it, is home to about 300 people, with many of them regular customers since the restaurant opened in 1988.
The establishment is a barge complex comprised of the restaurant, a patio with outdoor seating, a fish shack processing center and a boat dock. The barge housing the business is 20 feet wide while the restaurant is 35 feet wide. It’s cantilevered across steel beams that rest from edge to edge on the barge. A platform hangs over the perimeter and smartly placed tanks are used for ballast.
“That’s why it looks like we’re sitting right on top of the water,” Joyner says.
That’s also why Joyner keeps a close eye on river levels.
“We follow predictions for Golconda and Shawneetown. We fall somewhere between,” he explains.
Although the Ohio River doesn’t experience as many flood issues as the Mighty Mississippi, it does have its share of high water. For Joyner, the river levels affect whether the ramp from the parking lot can clear the water. It also means the restaurant closes mid-November and re-opens each April depending on when the river cooperates.
This year, that was after two false starts.
“We opened three times this spring,” Joyner said. On April 17, it opened for five days, then closed for 10, re-opened one day and then closed again for two days. “When the water goes across the road, people don’t want to get their feet wet,” Joyner jokes.
Closing for the season is typically right after Illinois’ first shotgun season in November.
“We’re good for summer, but you have to watch the river all the time,” Joyner says, adding that a huge tree tagged the fish shack last year.
Setting up a processing center and kitchen right on the river means the four or five commercial fisherman who supply the restaurant can unload their catches from the water. The fishermen place the fish in aerated tanks, so they are delivered live – no dead fish are accepted. The fish are kept alive until they are on the processing table.
“That’s how fresh our fish is,” Joyner says.
In one week, as much as 6,000 pounds of catfish may be delivered.
“So, we turn a lot of fish. I don’t ever turn them away. I have to get as much as I can,” Joyner says.
There’s no magic number on the restaurant’s fish inventory. “If we get ahead of the game, we freeze it because fish aren’t always running,” Joyner explains. “We’re taking as much as we can because there will be a time when it gets hot and dry. Things slow down and then the fishermen don’t catch as well.”
Yet, it’s so busy as many as 16 people work there at the peak of summer.
Catfish and more catfish
About 80 percent of sales are catfish. However, there are plenty of other menu offerings including burgers, grilled chicken, pork tenderloin, grilled chicken salad, chicken strips, BBQ and the popular BLTs.
It’s the catfish that flies out of the tiny kitchen. Joyner says the fish is prepared with a special cut without any of the red meat or fat. “We kind of spoil the public on the white meat only but you know people come here for the fish,” he says.
There’s been no change in the breading recipe or frying process since the restaurant opened. While the breading is a time-honored tradition with paprika and salt, “good luck figuring out the proportions,” Joyner says.
The fish can be purchased by the pound or by the plate, with sides, or as nuggets, filets or a sandwich (sorry, no fiddlers here). It can be enjoyed in the window-wrapped air-conditioned dining room or on the two-story patio barge just a step away. “Everyone wants to sit on top for the river view,” Joyner says.
Likewise, boaters on the river can pull up to the docks (and bring their own beer).
Whatever way you arrive, one thing is certain, “our fish is good, period,” says Joyner.
If you go …
Elizabethtown is tucked in along the Ohio River Scenic Byway, so there’s plenty to explore in the area. Not to miss is
Cave-in-Rock State Park with its river pirate history.
Ohio River Scenic Byway: www.enjoyillinois.com/explore/listing/ohio-river-scenic-byway
Regional wine: IllinoisWine.com
Shawnee National Forest: www.fs.usda.gov/shawnee/