On a Friday night two weeks ago when Isabel, Micah and Ed Hightower went out to dinner at Isabel’s favorite restaurant in Blairsville. Isabel hasn’t been to Catfish Heaven since before her husband Ray died more than two years ago, and I never suspected that there would be long-lasting consequences to this innocent dinnertime excursion.
“Catfish Heaven” has been a popular local dining landmark in Union County since it opened back in 1946 as a primitive “fish camp” which became renowned for it’s abundant and tasty servings of deep-fried catfish filets, chicken, hush puppies and deep fried mushrooms and okra. Catfish Heaven was originally opened by Blairsville natives, Jesse Abel and his wife Florence and it was later turned over to their son Jesse Jr. and his wife when Jesse Sr. retired and moved to Florida in 1977. Local folks would tell you that Catfish Heaven has moved on a slow but steady downhill trajectory ever since.
When Isabel and her group arrived at Catfish Heaven, the parking lot was almost empty even though it was 7 p.m. and the height of the dinner hour. Originally constructed on a log cabin theme, the restaurant was huge, dark, unnaturally cool, and nearly empty with three bored waitresses hanging out near the hostess’ station and a listless busboy reading a paperback novel in an alcove adjoining the reception area. The odor of fish dinners and greasy spills from years past emanated from the carpets and furniture with an additional hint of stale cigarette smoke retaining it’s presence in the cool air. Isabel found it difficult to conjure up memories of the happy evenings spent here, as the self appointed waitress/hostess/maitre’d led Isabel and her friends to their table.
Although a hand-drawn sign posted on the clear plastic ‘sneeze shield’ boasted a “fresh, all you can eat salad bar,” a quick view of the salad fixings immediately belied the claim. The vegetables were no longer crisp, and two hours of sitting out in the air had taken it’s toll on their color, turgor and freshness. Nevertheless, Isabel and Micah dug around in the heaping bowls of vegetables and managed to come up with fresher-looking lettuce, spinach, mushrooms and tomatoes but not without some diligent effort. Ed declined the salad “sort and select” exercise and nibbled on some crackers that he found in a basket on their table.
The main course was not as disappointing as the salad bar, and Isabel chose broiled native trout instead of the highly touted deep-fried catfish. The fish was tasty and well cooked, and refills were generous and handled quickly and efficiently. Because the restaurant wasn’t busy, the waitress seemed to be attentive and quick, but in general there seemed to be a lack of energy within the place, and the stale smell of meals gone by continued to plague the experience.
“You know, if someone got their hands on this place and brought back the old ‘Catfish Heaven’ that it used to be, this place could really be a great restaurant again,” Isabel remarked as she returned from her inspection of the salad bar. “From what I can see, these folks have got to be operating in the red,” replied Ed Hightower. “I think I’ll pulll a credit check on the Abels when I get back to work on Monday,” he murmured as they walked to the car.
It was 10 a.m.On Monday morning Isabel received a call from Ed Hightower. “The Bank of Union County holds the paper on the Catfish Heaven property, and one of my friends with the bank says that the Abel family is at least four months in arrears on their mortgage payments. Glen also said that UCB’s loan officer has been working closely with the Abels in hopes that they could turn things around before any foreclosure, but the situation doesn’t look good.” “How much do the Abels owe, Ed, do you have any idea?” Isabel asked. “I’d say somewhere around twenty grand, but they are also behind on their utilities and county taxes as well,” Ed countered. “So what do we do now, Ed?” “Not much TO DO until UCB goes public with a foreclosure or an eviction; remember, Isabel, this is somewhat privileged information at this point.” “I’m not sure I want to take on a restaurant at this point in my life, Ed, maybe we should just leave it alone.” “That’s certainly your option, Isabel; you asked the question — all I did is get you an answer, but this just might turn out to be an excellent opportunity for you to own a restaurant.”. Since no more could be accomplished at the time, Isabel left it there, and their conversation moved on to other things, but knowing Isabel, I was sure that the ultimate fate of Catfish Heaven would be up for discussion again.