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By Bethel Poston
Many times, as we traveled from Lenoir City to Maryville, I’ve noticed the small highway department sign on Hwy. 321 saying, “Allison’s Catfish Restaurant and Farm, 0.5 miles.”
Longtime friends Jim and Mae Grasham, who live in the Crestwood area of Kingston, recently asked during our time together at Roane State Fitness Center if I had ever eaten at Allison’s.
We had not, but soon my wife, Carol, and I made plans to meet our Knoxville friends, Mickey and Jerry Pease, there on a Friday. Jerry is part of Pease Furniture in South Knoxville, and they have been mentioned in my previous articles.
With computer research, I discovered that Allison’s is open only on Thursday, Friday and Saturday — and then only from 5 to 9 p.m. Therefore, this “Out to Lunch” adventure began at 5 p.m.
Allison’s is out in the boonies for most people. The highway sign is the only indication of anything at all down the quiet little South Union Grove Road, in Friendsville.
My research revealed that John Sparks probably never thought his hog farm would one day become one of the most eye-pleasing locations in East Tennessee.
Paul Allison bought the Sparks property in 1972 with an idea for converting it into a commercial catfish operation. He also never envisioned the way the property has evolved.
“I just wanted to dam up the spring and build a nice little catfish pond,” said Allison in a newspaper article his daughter showed me.
But the former hog pond and catfish operation have evolved into a hugely popular catfish restaurant in a house that came with the property.
The grounds now include a huge operating mill waterwheel, a recreated two-level pioneer cabin with dozens of antiques and rugged pioneer furniture and implements.
The eye-catching cabin was built over a cave and spring, taking advantage of the natural rock formation and built around the flowing waters.
You can follow the graveled paths that lead through floral areas. The walk is highlighted with a horse carriage, several ponds, waterfalls and carved birdhouses perched on poles.
Benches are provided for those who want to sit down to rest, meditate and just take it all in.
Allison is the founder of Allison Boats and an accomplished artist with many of his original watercolor works hanging on the walls of the restaurant.
He and his wife. Lucille, now leave the restaurant operation for his daughter Danette, her husband, Steve Clemmer, and grandkids.
Lucille taught Danette how to make pies and deserts; Paul taught Steve how to cook the catfish, shrimp and chicken.
“If Steve is not here to cook, we’re not open,” Danette said.
Allison’s is a family-operated business.
The Clemmers’ daughter, Kayla, was our server. She teaches at John Sevier Elementary School in Blount County.
Their son, Cale, was coming out of the kitchen when we met him. He is a senior at Maryville Christian School.
“We’re here almost every Friday,” said Jim and Suzanne Gregg, Friendsville natives now living in nearby Louisville. Both are retirees of Buddy Gregg Motor Homes and were having catfish dinners with baked potatoes.
All dinners are served with cole slaw, hushpuppies and your choice of home fries or baked potato.
When the restaurant opened in 1972, the catfish farm was abandoned.
“We use Mississippi catfish … the best you can get anywhere,” Allison said in a 2003 interview.
Grain-fed catfish are hand carved into fillets, breaded and deep-fried to order.
Since opening 31 years ago, numbers are used to place each dinner order. For catfish dinners; No. 1 is a regular 8-ounce portion; No. 2 a jumbo 12-ounce portion; and No. 3 a small 6-ounce portion.
Allison’s can seat 135 people if every seat is occupied. One evening when Bluegrass/gospel music was played, 500-plus dinners were served in a four-hour period.
Calling 865-995-9245 for reservations is recommended. We did. As we left the restaurant, customers waiting to be seated filled rockers on the front porch.
After putting their name on the waiting list I heard a couple comment, “They say it may be an hour, but the food’s worth it.”
Seymour residents Michelle and Scott Richey were seated in a nearby window booth for their first visit to Allison’s.
Scott is retired from the Navy and was doing a good job on a jumbo catfish dinner.
Michelle ordered the 8 ounces of fresh chicken tenderloins, breaded and deep-fried. The jumbo is 10 ounces of chicken, and the small has 6 ounces of chicken.
Twelve-year-old Sara Richey passed on the small shrimp dinner with six pieces of large shrimp, lightly breaded and fried. She smiled big as she enjoyed a regular with eight shrimp. I wasn’t surprised to see that the No. 10 shrimp dinner had 10 shrimp.
Emily Blum, who works at Blount Memorial Hospital, was also seated with her family.
She chose the new seafood platter of flounder, scallops, clam strips and shrimp.
The numbering system continues up to No. 13, with the addition of several combo dinners with catfish, shrimp and chicken. The children’s menu has C1, C2 and C3 dinners.
On the menu — and without numbers — are grilled chicken breast and smoked salmon. Stuffed crab shells are on the appetizer menu.
We enjoyed visiting with Oak Ridgers Burt and Elaine Brubaker, who were seated near us.
Burt works at Energy-Solutions, and Elaine teaches English at Oak Ridge High School. Carol and I are both Oak Ridge High graduates, and I hope she doesn’t grade my article.
Both were having No. 5 jumbo catfish. They began talking about how much Allison’s reminded them of the now-closed Cross Eyed Cricket Catfish Restaurant in Roane County and how much they missed it.
My grandkids fished for catfish in the pond at this popular operation which Jim and Jean Lockwood opened on Buttermilk Road in 1970.
Gene and Charleen Reynolds live in Friendsville and are regulars at Allison’s. He is the retired owner of Gene Reynolds Realty, and she is retired from Alcoa City Schools.
They had catfish, and I didn’t ask the order number. Their comment, “We had too much for dessert,” would make me think it wasn’t that small.
Mama did a good job teaching Danette how to make good desserts. There are more dessert than entrée choices on the menu.
I passed on caramel cheesecake, peanut butter pie, several cream pies and other choices, instead choosing apple dumplings — like grandmother used to make.
Allison’s offers buttermilk in addition to standard beverages with free refills for tea, coffee and soft drinks.
We all had catfish. The Peases split a jumbo.
Microwave ovens are great. Carol and I enjoyed leftover catfish, home fries and apple dumplings at a later meal.
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Bethel Poston is a Roane County businessman and entrepreneur who writes about places of interest in our area. E-mail suggestions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.