The first fish and chips I ever tasted, at least in my memory, came on a blue plastic tray in a fast-food restaurant in the middle of nowhere, California.
I must have been four or five years old, but I can still picture my dad sitting across from me in that booth, splitting his piece of batter-fried pollock in half and dunking a steaming corner into a cup of tartar sauce. I liked the fish just fine, but my favorite bites were the crisp, gumball-shaped hush puppies and the little pebbles of extra fried batter that lined the bottom of the basket.
Later, I’d found out these little “crumblies” (or “crispies” to some) were a signature off-menu item at Long John Silver’s. There was just something about that batter and fry oil that people couldn’t get enough of. Decades later, it’s obvious this was my indoctrination into a cult of fast-food fried fish — and I’ve never forgotten the pull of the venerable chain, even with the brand plodding toward extinction in the last decade.
My dad could never resist the prospect of hitting up Long John Silver’s, which he fell in love with sometime after immigrating to America in the late 1970s. My entire life, the mere mention of the seafood franchise was enough for him to perk up and get nostalgic. We even ate at Long John Silver’s during my later upbringing in Hawaii, which is low-key unhinged when you consider that we lived on a literal island of top-tier seafood restaurants.
These days, publicly expressing a love of Long John Silver’s is likely to garner some weird looks, if not outright derision. Somehow, America’s most popular seafood franchise is now the butt of all kinds of jokes, including digs about it being a drug front and a hub of diarrhea.
Despite this, there remains a core group of hardcore fans, seemingly keeping the restaurants afloat despite Long John Silver’s losing branches all across the country. I was horrified to discover that three locations near my home in San Francisco had closed in recent years. The nearest branch was more than an hour away, and worst of all, it wasn’t even a standalone Long John Silver’s — it was a combination franchise tied to a KFC.
Founded in 1969 in Lexington, Kentucky, the following decade saw massive success and growth for the fried-fish restaurant, with more than 1,000 locations by the end of the 1970s. Another 500 stores opened in the 1980s, but as fish became more common in the American diet, and more expensive to source, Long John Silver’s saw declining profit margins and fleeing investors. The company went private with a leveraged buyout in 1989, and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1998, largely the result of accumulated debt under the buyout that couldn’t be covered, even despite maintaining popularity as a brand in the 1990s.
In 2002, the corporate food conglomerate known today as Yum! Foods decided to acquire Long John Silver’s, adding it to a lineup crowned by Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC. These financial machinations are why so many LJS franchises have been turned into Frankenstein’s monsters — but I didn’t mind, as long as I could still get my hands on hush puppies and fried fish.
After nearly 90 minutes on the road on a Sunday night, I pulled up to the restaurant in Fairfield, California, daydreaming about diving face-first into a pile of crunchy, golden-brown goodness. And then, to my horror, I realized there was a problem: The Long John Silver’s side of the operation was closed for the night. Something about them running out of batter, and needing to shut the fryers down. I started to dissociate, and the last thing I recalled hearing was an offer of KFC.
With respect to the Colonel, the last thing I wanted was fried chicken. I had journeyed across the Bay for a rousing reunion with a meal embedded deep in my memory — one I had neglected for more than a decade while living in places that lacked Long John Silver’s. The next closest location was another 80 minutes away. I was too late.
While I chalk up my experience to a bit of a freak accident on a weekend evening, the closures of Long John Silver’s locations has put plenty of its cult members in a bind: Sometimes, the only option to eat some of America’s least healthy fast food is a long drive that practically doubles your meal cost via gasoline usage. It’s why lifelong LJS lovers like Charles White, 62, still appreciate having a branch nearby — even while acknowledging that problems with ownership have led to some huge lapses in quality and consistency.
“I hate to sound like the old guy who claims everything was better back in the day, but I swear, Long John Silver’s was better back in the day. It was one of the most reliable places I could get a plate of crunchy, not-too-greasy fried fish and fries, in five minutes, for under 10 bucks,” White says. “It’s more inconsistent now between the restaurants where I live in Fort Worth, but I got my regular spot, and they treat me well. It’s an independent franchise now, which can be a good thing.”
Coincidentally, the people who work at LJS also acknowledge how different of a vibe it has compared to other, more popular fast-food options. “We have a lot of regulars — people coming through once a week, maybe even more. It tends to be an older crowd, too. I’ve been working here for two years, and it’s a lot sleepier than other fast-food jobs I’ve been in, that’s for sure,” says Tony Marcos, a 22-year-old who works at a location near Atlanta. “The people who like us, really like us. And we try to make the food right for them, because the regulars are the ones who know what’s up.”
I can still imagine the plate of food I should’ve received: Perfect little triangles of crunchy, soft pollock, nestled on a bed of crumblies with some fries, hush puppies, cole slaw and a large Coke. Maybe I’d even get a combo platter with some fried shrimp and clam strips. I mean, just look at this:
“There’s no fast food place like this. It’s more interesting to me than working at a McDonald’s. I feel like I’ll get to tell a story one day, when Long John Silver’s is gone, about how good it used to be,” Marcos tells me with a deprecating laugh.
But, alas: I’m taunted today by the presence of Long John Silver’s, simultaneously near me but inconveniently out of the way. Perhaps it was the universe trying to tell me something by leading me to a hybrid LJS-KFC that was closed. Maybe I am supposed to use one of many excellent-looking “copy” recipes online to make my own fried pollock and hush puppies at home. Or perhaps it’s a lesson in perseverance, and the need to truly seek out the things that give us nostalgic, cathartic joy.
Is it insane to care so much about a fish joint that is now objectively a C-tier fast-food establishment that’s struggling to survive? Probably. But for some reason, I hope that Long John Silver’s will hold on, staying weird amid a sea of generic burgers and chicken nuggets — and enticing me to return, even despite the headache of a nearly three-hour round trip.