By Ginna Parsons
OXFORD – Randy Yates opened Ajax Diner in Oxford in 1997 because he thought the Square needed a barbecue joint.
That idea lasted about a year.
“At first, we were more barbecue and seafood, but plate lunches took over – veggies took over,” said Yates, 51.
The Jackson native said he used to change up the menu at Ajax every so often, but he can’t do that anymore.
“It’s kind of a greatest hits menu now,” he said. “Any casserole is a best-seller – squash, sweet potato, broccoli and rice.”
The soul-food restaurant is located on the west side of the Square. It features a bar area ringed with stools and gourd lights from Mexico, and a dining room lined with Christmas lights, tables covered with black-and-white checked cloths, and Formica-topped booths. It can seat 127 customers.
Yates figures he serves between 500 and 1,000 patrons on a typical day at the restaurant, which is open from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. And although many eateries report decreased sales in the summer, when families are taking vacations or grilling at home, Yates said summer is actually his busiest time.
“Ole Miss has so many camps and orientations and the baseball park,” he said. “It just never stops in Oxford. Christmas is our only slow time, when the school is out for six weeks.”
The lunch menu features salads, sandwiches and po-boys, but plate-lunches, including a vegetable plate, are by far the most popular.
Plate lunch offerings include red beans and rice, grilled pork chops, pot roast and gravy, chicken and dumplings, country fried steak, fried catfish, meatloaf and chicken and dressing. Vegetables include fried okra, fried eggplant, green beans, sweet potato casserole, potato salad, cheese grits, mac and cheese, squash casserole, butter beans and turnip greens.
The dinner menu features a variety of appetizers, including a pimiento cheese quesadilla, black-eyed pea and catfish cakes and a sausage and pimiento cheese plate. Salads, sandwiches and po-boys are available as well as steaks, pork chops, catfish, meatloaf and chicken and dumplings.
“Our best-selling entrees are the fried catfish and chicken and dumplings,” Yates said.
He said he came up with some of the restaurants’ recipes, some are from his family and some he collaborated on with fellow Oxford restaurateur John Currence.
“We tried fried grouper cheeks on the menu once,” he said. “They were beautiful medallions of fish. And we offered lobster tails. But nobody bought any of it, so they’re not on the menu anymore. Casseroles sell here.”
The restaurant gets its name from Yates’ grandfather, Andrew Jackson Yates, who went by the name A.J. until he got to college, when his friends began calling him Ajax.
“He really liked to cook,” Yates said. “He liked hospitality. He liked to feed people at the Neshoba County Fair. So we named it after him. It seemed fitting.”