– Editor’s note: Tasty Travels is a three-month series from the Daily Journal that highlights local food and restaurants. Today’s Tasty Travels spotlights a restaurant known for its catfish, as suggested by readers. Next up: Barbecue on June 28 in Business & Money and July 1 in Food & Dining.
If you’re in a hurry for a catfish dinner, you probably want to skip Taylor Grocery. But if you’re in the mood for a little ambiance at a legendary Northeast Mississippi eatery, you won’t want to miss this trip.
Located about 7 miles outside the University of Mississippi campus in Oxford, the dry goods store-turned-restaurant has been serving fried catfish since the mid-1970s
“A boy named Jerry Wilson, a refugee from the Delta, started cooking fish here to supplement his income,” said proprietor Lynn Hewlett, who bought the restaurant in 1998 from longtime owner Mary Hudson “Used to, people bought their groceries here when they didn’t go to town that often. But stores like that kind of dried up.”
Taylor Grocery is one of those places that makes you do a double-take when you drive up. An old gas pump sits in front of the long wooden front porch where crowds waiting for tables gather, and multi-colored Christmas lights frame its windows. Graffiti covers walls, doors and posts.
“Is our product alone what makes us popular?” Hewlett said. “No. It’s just a very unique place. People like to find someplace none of their friends knows about. Then they load them up and bring them to Oxford for the weekend and then haul them here. They turn the corner into Taylor and they all get out of their Suburban and the friends say, ‘You mean we’re going to eat here?'”
But looks can be deceiving. And despite Hewlett’s protests, the product is what draws most people to the restaurant. A guest book just inside the front door is filled with pages of culinary comments from folks visiting from such places as Utah, Tennessee, Texas, Florida, Alaska, South Dakota, California, Louisiana, Maryland, New York, Wisconsin and even Dubai.
“The best,” one woman writes. “WOW,” says another. “I traveled 1,000+ miles for this,” writes a guest from Maryland. Other comments include “want more,” “perfect,” “amazing,” “yes, indeed,” “awesome,” and “oh, oh, oh.”
Worth the wait
The best-seller on the menu is fried catfish fillets, but Hewlett said his favorite is whole fried catfish. They also offer grilled and blackened catfish with all the traditional trimmings, such as hushpuppies, slaw, fries, potato salad, baked beans and “Big Deb’s” famous brown rice.
The majority of his customers are regulars, Hewlett said, although the regulars bring their friends and relatives. And most days there are three distinctive seatings at Taylor Grocery, which is open only Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays for supper.
“Early in the evening you have the old folks, the ones who want to eat and go to bed. I’m in that category,” Hewlett said. “Then you have the younger married people with kids who want to get home and get the kids in bed by 8 p.m. The last seating is students. It kinds of turns into a sorority/fraternity party then.”
Patrons have been known to happily wait up to two hours for a table on busy nights.
“Sometimes a table comes open and people say, ‘Oh no, give it to somebody else. We want to sit out on the porch and visit some more.'”
But to the folks who don’t enjoy waiting, Hewlett offers this advice.
“If you’re in a hurry, this is not the place to come. We seat less than 100 and everything is cooked to order. Look at it this way. We’re open five hours on any given Saturday. That’s 300 minutes. It’s not uncommon for us to serve 350 people. At the end of the night, we’ve done a person a minute. Excuse my French, but that’s pretty damn good.”
Hewlett co-owns the business along with his wife, Debbie, who is also a part-time guidance counselor at Lafayette County High School. She is in charge of running the cash register and keeping people happy, Hewlett said.
Four cooks, not chefs, man the fish cookers in the kitchen and just about all the servers have been at the restaurant since the Hewletts acquired it.
Their youngest daughter, Sarah-Margaret, is a full-time employee and the middle child, Katie, helps out some. Son Daniel just shows up to eat.
“We have a good time here,” Sarah-Margaret said. “There are times when we grind on each other’s nerves, but Dad is pretty laid back.”
Laid back is probably the best way to describe Lynn Hewlett. Most evenings, he can be found on the front porch in his chair in front of a big fan, greeting regulars by name as they come up the porch steps and make themselves at home on a bench.
“I spend a lot of time sitting out here,” Hewlett said. “I’ve got a real good job. A real good job. But I can only have a real good job because I’ve got good help. I feel blessed to be doing something I like to do.”
Ginna Parsons/NEMS Daily Journal