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VOL. 42 | NO. 48 | Friday, November 30, 2018

You won’t miss the pizza at Ed’s Fish & Pizza House

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Little Anthony Williams, left, and cook Dwight Teasley are two of the reasons customers keep coming back to Ed’s Fish & Pizza House.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

Don’t expect to get a New York-style slice with pepperoni at Ed’s Fish & Pizza House. Nor with just cheese. Certainly not even a sniff of unfairly pilloried anchovies. Fact is, there’s been no pizza at Ed’s since 1993, when Big Anthony bought the place from his Uncle Ed Morris.

“It was just too much to keep doing,” says Big Anthony Drumwright, one of North Nashville’s kindest gentlemen. Soft-spoken would seem rather rambunctious when describing this benevolent soul who admits that “sooner rather than later” he’ll be turning his landmark fish house at D.B. Todd Boulevard and Buchanan Street over to his grandson, Little Anthony, 21.

“He’s getting a college degree,” adds Big Anthony, looking over at his grandson, who is wrapping a whiting sandwich for a customer to take home. “I have a lot of respect for him.”

Little Anthony Williams long has been preparing for his turn at carrying forward the family’s fish-cooking genius while keeping alive the “everybody-knows-your-name” aura that even has relative strangers feeling at home in this small joint where whiting is king. The catfish is plenty damn good, as well … even if you drown it in mustard, as Calvin Washington does. More on that later.

“I’ve been coming in here, following everybody around about every day since I was 14,” explains Little Anthony, who next semester begins his senior year toward his degree in “finance, with a real estate emphasis” at Middle Tennessee State University.

“I come here most days,” says this young man who has enjoyed learning the Ed’s Fish & Pizza House trade by his grandfather’s side. His college education will help him run the place where hugs are as frequent as handshakes. He’s even got a little “side business” going, thanks to his college major... and the other side of his family.

“I just bought my first rental home. It’s up in Clarksville, maybe two miles from Austin Peay” State University, he says, adding that more such property-buying is in his future. “You said you spent time in Clarksville, didn’t you?” he asks.

I did, from 1974-88, I tell him, adding that during my final year-plus, I commuted from Nashville, and occasionally, I enjoyed a fish sandwich here to fuel my desperate flight from the storms of life.

Little Anthony’s real estate ventures actually are another family business. His father, Charles Williams III, and grandfather, Charles Williams Jr., own rental properties throughout Nashville. They team to nurture the young man’s knowledge and interest in that business.

A side note here: Little Anthony’s mother, Kimberley Slaughter, daughter of Big Anthony, has stayed away from the fish business. A nurse practitioner, Kimberley teaches in a nursing program at TSU, according to her devoted son.

Even as Little Anthony builds a real estate empire – and I’m sure he will – this restaurant on D.B. Todd, not far from Clarksville Highway, always will be his focus, he says, attributing the long-term success to family dedication and hot, succulent fish.

The restaurant opened in 1972. Ed’s Fish & Pizza House did actually serve pizza, as well as fish, until Big Anthony retired from the old Ford Glass plant and bought this historic establishment from his Uncle Ed a quarter-century ago. He immediately sliced pizza from the menu but not from the business’ name nor its North Nashville landmark signage.

Through the pizza and post-pizza decades, “the combination of family and good food” are keys to the 46 years of family success at this stomach and soul-filling urban corner, according to Little Anthony.

And he is proud of the fact that Big Anthony has enough confidence in him to already have turned many of the daily responsibilities over to him, even though he goes to school and commutes from his Murfreesboro apartment.

“My grandfather is a great man,” Little Anthony says, simply, as I relish a few hours immersed in the sweet aroma of fish frying while chatting with customers and staff. By day’s end, I feel like family with the Anthonys – Big and Little – as well as with the family that serves as staff and even with some of the regulars at this place established by Uncle Ed all those years ago.

“I’m going to keep on carrying on the family business,” says Little Anthony as he steals a few moments, now and then, when customers aren’t needing anything, to sit down on a black stool and visit with this uncommonly pale old man. Conversation’s interrupted frequently as customers step in from the blustery 30-degree North Nashville day to find warmth and fulfillment … or at least “fill-ment”… by climbing into one of those straight-backed stools, ordering (though that’s often not necessary, as I will explain shortly) and waiting for their meals.

Others just come in to pick up to-go orders of fish sandwiches and sides – spaghetti and slaw are favorites – to take back to their work sites or offices. As the snow-flecked afternoon grows long and dark, some are taking these meals home for dinner.

The phone rings and Little Anthony’s grandmother, Pam Drumwright, picks it up and prepares to write up an order. “Just catfish?” she asks the person on the other end of the line. She listens for a moment and then answers: “They are cooked right, and they are very delicious. Just a catfish sandwich? Do you want cheese on it? Catfish, extra crispy, with hot sauce, mustard and cheese?”

The menu sign near the small front counter – a three-seater, although there is other seating in chairs along the restaurant walls and a table back near the door – makes it clear that if you don’t say otherwise, all orders are served with onions, pickles, hot sauce and mustard.

Pam turns from the phone, with intentions to go into the kitchen to help Dwight Teasley, who is cooking precisely and with a smile. Dwight and Big Anthony have been friends for decades and the cook “is like an uncle” to Little Anthony.

The phone rings again, Pam answers and then listens for a moment before repeating the order. “The whiting. Don’t fry hard. Just the fish and bread. Three of them. Make one of them with cheese. And leave the onions off.” Some want it hard and crispy, others prefer it doesn’t fry to that texture.

“We’re constantly doing cooking,” explains Pam, who has been working here 20 years. “I married into it (the family business). I married the owner.”

She retreats to the kitchen, just as Claude Cox, 66, steps inside as a dandruff of snow whirls over D.B. Todd.

“I’ve been coming here a long time,” Claude tells me, as he sits down in the stool next to my own, which is feet from a window onto the boulevard. A TSU 2018 Homecoming shirt is displayed near that window and is for sale. Ed’s has its own T-shirts, too, designed by Little Anthony’s big brother, Charles IV, who is a graphic artist and a fireman. I forgot to buy one, but I’ll go back. Pretty much have to after the wondrous day of soul-lifting and good people.

Claude says he began coming here several decades ago as a steady customer back when Ed Morris was running the place, selling fish and pizza.

“He was a pretty nice guy,” he recalls.

“Deceased a long time ago,” hollers Pam from the kitchen, interrupting Claude briefly and good-heartedly while answering my yet-unasked question.

Claude is a local truck driver (meaning he stays in Nashville). Sometimes he stops here if his work brings him to North Nashville. Other times, when he gets the hunger for Ed’s Fish, he drives up here from his home in South Nashville.

“I don’t mind,” he says of the crosstown fishing expedition. “It’s easy. … Being a truck driver, I know a whole lot of roads, a whole lot of back roads. I can get here real quick.”

Despite the fact he comes seeking fish, he doesn’t mind a bit of variety. Sometimes he has it fried “hard” other times not so much. “It’s different fried and stuff.”

Little Anthony, who has returned from working the drive-through window, acknowledges he is happy he’s tabbed and trained to be the one to carry forward this historic family business. And he’s also proud his brothers, Charles IV, 26, “he just joined the Nashville Fire Department,” and Montgomery, 31, who works for TDOT, will help him guide the restaurant into the future.

“We aren’t going to make a lot of changes,” he says, adding that the “Ed’s Fish & Pizza” sign that presides over D.B. Todd will remain, and the “Pizza” will stay in the name of the restaurant forever, causing some confusion and good-natured interrogation.

“I have people who come in here asking ‘Where is the pizza?’” he says, face busting into a big smile.

Those folks may come in here wondering about the missing piece of the pie promised by the sign. But they leave with a glow, filled with fish fried with love and family pride.

“We have a great product,” Little Anthony points out. “One thing is we change the fish grease every morning, sometimes in the middle of the day, too, depending on business.

“And everything we have is cooked to order. That’s kind of different from other fish places, because we don’t have cooked fish lying around.”

When he is in charge – “sooner rather than later” – there will be slight changes, but he promises to keep the character the same.

“I plan on doing some renovation, but I also want to keep to the old, vintage style.”

A large piece of his pride is that even as North Nashville gradually surrenders to gentrification -- and its accompanying Caucasian invasion -- and while other old-time black businesses are shuttered before the teardown to make room for the tall-skinnies and other atrocities, his family’s business will forge long into the future.

“There are not a lot of black businesses that are still standing,” he says. “Ed’s Fish & Pizza is a staple.”

Newcomers and old white guys like me feel more than welcomed by the lively interplay among the staff and the regulars.

“We have a lot of customers who come in two, three times a week, so we’re on a first-name basis,” Little Anthony continues. “We know what they’re gonna get, so as soon as they step out of their car, we can begin making their order.”

As if on cue, Pam hollers out: “Here comes Calvin for his catfish. Put in an extra piece.”

“Long time no see,” says Calvin to the staff. It has been perhaps a full day since the retired 61-year-old has stopped in for his regular, extra-large plate of catfish, spaghetti and slaw.

“How you doing, Calvin?” asks Pam, likely knowing what the answer will be.

“I’m fair for a square,” he replies. In other words, he’s doing fine for a regular kind of guy.

Calvin Washington is from Detroit and retired after 17 years as a district manager for KFC.

“I had to be in something about food, right?” he says, as he douses his catfish with a thick coat of mustard. “I like the taste,” he says, forking a yellow-coated fish chunk, rapidly followed by a mouthful of spaghetti.

“I spent about 10 years in Detroit before (KFC) sent me down here (to Nashville) for 90 days. Then I spent seven years in Louisiana.”

Calvin retired to Nashville and discovered what now is his favorite restaurant – “I got tired of eating chicken” – as he rolled into town on D.B. Todd.

“When I came back here, this was the first place I happened by,” he remembers. “I was driving down the street. It was summer, and the street was empty, and I seen this little restaurant and I said, ‘Boy, I’ll bet they got good food there,’ so I turned around.”

He’s not missed a lot of days enjoying his fish plate while perched in the sole backless stool that Little Anthony lifts from behind the counter especially for the former KFC executive, so he can sit comfortably, body spilling over the sides.

Ed’s Fish & Pizza House on D.B. Todd has been owned by Big Anthony Drumwright since 1993 and will be passed down to grandson Little Anthony.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

“I find something I like, I stick with it,” Calvin says. “If I don’t want to eat fish, I don’t come here, but I love fish. I like the taste of the catfish.”

Another regular – at least when he’s not driving a big rig “all over the States and Canada” is Robert Largen, 64.

He admits to thinking about Ed’s sandwiches when he’s maneuvering the long and lonesome highways. When he’s in town, it’s hard to keep him away.

Not that anyone would want to stop this jovial soul. “These are good people,” he says, as he waits for Little Anthony to procure his lunch from the pass-through to the kitchen. “I come way across town (from Antioch) to get Ed’s fish sandwiches.

“I’m hitting the road tomorrow.”

Where to?

“I’m like Buzz Lightyear: Infinity and beyond,” he answers, waving his bag of fish sandwiches to me as he walks toward his car.

Bill Knuckles, 59, owns a printing company out in “the Priest Lake area’’ that specializes in funeral programs.

“A lot of my customers (the black funeral homes) are around here,” he says. His Knuckles Graphics duties call for him to be in the neighborhood frequently, so he can find out what to write in the program, who is speaking, what music has been chosen, Scriptures selections, etc.

“I just met with one family; and I’m waiting for another one, so I decided to get me a sandwich.”

That happens with regularity. “I like to support a local business,” he says.

Bill explains that he is a transplanted New Yorker, and when he came in here the first time, he helped the restaurant add a regular condiment to its mustard and hot sauce regimen.

“On the East Coast, we have tartar sauce on our fish. I was the first one to ask for tartar sauce here, and now I think a lot of people ask for it.”

Many others swear both by the family and by the fish, in equal measures, as my favorite afternoon in weeks grows long and soul-filling.

Eric David Hudson, 41, a white guy, uses his cane to help him negotiate the streets where he lives and the small restaurant, where he finds Little Anthony near the dining counter.

“I’m homeless,” he tells Little Anthony. “Anyway you can help me out with a sandwich of some sort?”

The young fish entrepreneur nods, smiles and politely asks Eric to sit down, just like any other customer.

“My kinfolk own the (Hudson) River and the (Hudson) Bay,” Eric tells me while waiting for his meal. “I’m the last of my clan.

“Sometimes I’ll go to that market (kitty-corner across the street) to get some rolling papers so I can roll my tobacco (mined from discarded smokes),” he says.

He is smiling and grateful when Little Anthony returns with a white bag containing the same exact fish-sandwich meal he’d deliver to a paying customer.

Big Anthony set the example for such generosity, and the next boss says he’s proud to carry that trait – just like the fish recipes and the proud restaurant name – long into the future. The homeless and hungry “come here more often than you’d think,” he acknowledges. They are always treated as members of the human family and with respect.

“My grandfather is a great man,” repeats Little Anthony. “He told us ‘I don’t care about how big you get, never forget where you come from, never forget those who are in need of food.’

“He also gives food to people with a death in the family and makes sure we help out with the people in the community who need something to eat.”

Big Anthony, who has returned from some errands, offers quiet explanation for his business practices. “It don’t cost nothing to be nice.”

This kind soul who is nearing his retirement – “I’m the same age you are, 67. I don’t get around as easily as I used to. It’s harder.”

I nod and explain the black eye I’m wearing on this day is an age-related injury, the result of a sore leg, a clumsy trip and a full-speed face-plant onto the concrete slab outside a barbecue joint.

“Looks like it’s healing up,” he says, asking if he can get me something to eat.

I decline, I came here to meet people, not to eat on the house. But when he tells me I need to have a fish sandwich, I can tell it is more than a demand. It’s a display of pride and celebration of new friendship.

“You can have the catfish or the whiting, but the whiting is what we built this place on,” he says.

Good enough recommendation for me, so I wait at the counter and look across at a wall filled with sports paraphernalia, including an autographed picture of Mookie Betts, the former John Overton High School star who now plays in the shadow of Fenway’s Green Monster. On the very day I’m sitting here, Mookie is being announced as the American League MVP.

His parents are regulars here and, as would be expected, friends of Big Anthony. I tell him Mookie graduated with my daughter Emily, and she always liked him, praising him for being a regular, nice guy rather than some big-headed star jock. Mookie, who learned from his parents and their good friends, spends time and money tending to the homeless in Boston, when he’s not roaming the field or offering up a home run. My daughter, therefore, is a Red Sox fan ...well, unless they play her father’s Cubs in the 2019 World Series.

Little Anthony ponders the legacy he’s going to carry forward “sooner rather than later.”

“One thing, going into a McDonald’s you are never going to see the same people (behind the counter) twice. You come here and it’s always the same six faces, a close-knit atmosphere.”

Tawana Harris, one of Big Anthony’s cousins, comes in mid-afternoon and begins working in the kitchen after extending a warm Fish House welcome.

“We get people who are from all over the United States who come here,” Little Anthony points out.

Perhaps they are TSU grads who learned to love Ed’s when in school. Or perhaps they are folks who moved away from Nashville for business or family needs.

“They say: ‘The first thing I do when I get to Nashville is get me an Ed’s Fish sandwich.’ And we have people who come here all the time from Franklin or Clarksville.”

Little Anthony looks back at his hero, his grandfather, the man who “sooner rather than later” will turn this legendary little restaurant over to him.

He says he’s learned a lot from Big Anthony and appreciates the opportunity to work, with obvious love and respect, by his side and to work among his family members.

Nope, he restates, when he does take over, he’s not going to change much. Especially not the spirit of Ed’s Fish & Pizza House. He wants to preserve that landmark sign and this neighborhood family establishment long into the future.

“Oh, we may change the menu a little. Maybe add wings or something,” he says.

“But we’re not going to have pizza.”