What is the best catfish restaurant in the South? Hagy’s Catfish Hotel near Shiloh, Tennessee.
There are many reasons I’m fortunate I was born and raised in Savannah, Tennessee. For starters, it’s widely known as the Catfish Capitol of the World. In recent years have I realized I’ve taken this river fish and those who prepare it so perfectly for granted. After all, some of my earliest memories of dining out revolve around Hagy’s and their southern fried catfish.
The Family, Restaurant & the Food Are Historically Significant
Known by locals as “Hagy’s” or “The Catfish,” it isn’t an actual hotel so a brief history is in order.
As the Hagy family tale goes, their ancestor Henry Hagy and his wife docked a flatboat along the banks of the Tennessee River in 1825 and laid claim to several acres. They supported their family by building a riverfront store to supply steamboats and other river travelers. In April of 1862, the infamous Battle of Shiloh was fought a couple of miles south and the Hagy business was occupied by Union soldiers.
Fish fry’s are still and have always been a staple of fundraisers, family reunions and political gatherings throughout the South. In 1938, toward the end of the depression years, Norvin Hagy held a fish fry for his good friend, Tennessee’s Gov. Gordon Browning, who was running for his second term. As the story goes, Gov. Browning told Norvin the fish was so good he should open a restaurant. That exactly what he did. The “hotel” part came into play when travelers who arrived by boat would eat and stay overnight in the small shacks instead of tackling the river in darkness. I have a feeling some good ole Tennessee moonshine may have played a part in their wise decision on remain on dry land.
A Personal Touch
About ten years later the story gets closer to my family. Before they married in 1948, my future mom and dad, Andy Stanley of Adamsville, TN and Bettye Lanier of Savannah, participated in the southern ritual of “courting.” My dad often told us the story of picking my mom up from the beauty parlor most Friday afternoons and making the drive to Shiloh and Hagy’s Catfish Hotel. Daddy said many times they were the only two in the small restaurant so they knew Norlin and his wife quite well.
Daddy would carry a small bottle of whiskey in a brown paper bag. He and Mama would sit down, order their fish and have a little toddy before the meal. Then, to my dad’s chagrin, Norvin would soon deliver their plates and proceed to sit down, helping himself to the bottle my dad had worked so hard to secure for his weekly date. Mama said Daddy never could understand why he had to buy two meals AND provide Norvin with his liquid refreshment too. They were lifelong friends.
I barely remember the “old” Hagy’s building where my parents spent those formative years. It burned in 1975 and was replaced with the current structure, which is only a restaurant and has no overnight accommodations. I cannot count the times I’ve dined at the Catfish Hotel, but I recall eating at least two to four meals there each month, mostly on Friday nights.
Staff & Family
There’s the Hagy’s who are related by “blood and birthright,” and there’s the staff, many of whom have worked there for decades.
“I can’t begin to describe how important the staff are to the success of the restaurant,” noted, Jim Hagy, Norvin’s grandson and one of the current owners. “It’s funny, given our location hardly anyone can walk to the restaurant, so whenever the staff sees a car pull up, they realize those folks made an effort to come and we need to make sure the food and overall experience is worth the trip. So regardless of bloodline, everyone who works with us is family.”
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Consistent Preparation & A Little Seasoning
Jim, who also operates Chef’s Market, a restaurant, and catering operation in Goodlettsville, TN, grew up cleaning catfish and working in the kitchen. And while the restaurant business has evolved over his lifetime, the product and process at Hagy’s have remained consistent. “It comes down to dressing, seasoning, and cooking,” said Hagy. “The quality of the fish, the temperature of the oil and cooking length are critical to great southern fried catfish. And people may be surprised there’s not a ton of seasoning on our deep-fried catfish either.”
The menu has grown through the years, but the staple is, and always has been deep fried southern catfish.
The “all you can eat catfish” is the whole catfish, served with their legendary hushpuppies, your choice of potato and a house salad or coleslaw. I highly recommend the coleslaw that is served before your fish arrives, topped off with one of their homemade dressings. The Blue Cheese and Thousand Island dressings are to die for.
You can order filets if you don’t want to pick the fish off the bone and the Lemon Pepper and Cajun are personal favorites of mine. If you have a little room left, the Lemon Rub Pie, a Hagy family recipe, will guarantee you’ll leave stuffed. County ham, fried chicken livers, and deep-fried frog legs are also popular menu items.
Hagy’s Catfish Hotel Restaurant is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11 am until 9 pm, a little later on Friday and Saturday. Barbara McAfee and her husband Joey, who practically grew up and met at Hagy’s, handle day to day management duties and are circulating through the rooms most evenings. Reservations are accepted, but if you go on Friday or Saturday night or after church on Sunday, I suggest you build in a little extra time. The quality of the food will far exceed any time inconvenience.
Although it’s at the end of winding country road, Hagy’s is easy to find. It’s located west of Savannah, TN off Highway 22, south of the small town of Crump and just north of the Shiloh Battlefield, which you most definitely should tour if you’re in the area. Just turn by the large billboard.
Update: Hagy’s has finished some renovations. The front porch and entry are larger and visitors now have a larger area to sit while their tables are being prepared. Also, both dining areas have been remodeled.