NaBloPoMo Day 18: Friday Fish Sandwiches

Sometimes you wonder if you’re the only one who remembers something; then a little digging on the Internet and you find evidence to support your memories.

On Fridays, especially in the fall, I think about the fish sandwiches we used to get from a place called Larry’s Dinner Bell. As soon as Dad arrived home from the Cincinnati Water Works around 4:30, we’d hop in the car and drive over to Southgate, Kentucky. (I couldn’t have told you it was in Southgate; I wasn’t positive where it was until I started playing around on Google maps.)

It was a long trip, but I remember that ride with pleasure. Even though we were out in the thick of rush hour traffic, there was a holiday air with the start of the weekend. I always picture it as a sunny evening with the leaves in full color in the hills on either side of the Ohio River as we rode along Columbia Parkway toward the downtown bridges. I’m sure we went in the winter and spring as well as fall, but memory is funny that way. It captures moments in details we recall with the most delight.

Larry’s Dinner Bell was in what I remember as an old brick house on some Northern Kentucky boulevard. I knew we drove through Newport, and I was pretty sure we drove past the Newport Shopping Center. Somewhere beyond that point lay the Dinner Bell. I picture a long building with a second-floor porch along the side that overlooked a parking lot shaded by big trees. I thought maybe the railing of that porch was decorative, maybe wrought iron or wood slats with curves or cut-out motifs.

We’d wait in the car (whichever of us kids went along; Mom usually stayed home to get the table ready) while Dad went up to a window to pick up the fish sandwiches. It may have been a cottage-style door with a top that opened. I’m not sure you could even eat at the Dinner Bell; we always picked up our fish sandwiches and always on Friday evening. I know the Dinner Bell did catering because Mom served their carryout dishes at my youngest brother’s First Communion in 1968.

Dad would return to the car with a whopping parcel. Inside were hot fish sandwiches wrapped in wax paper. There usually was a foam, lidded carton of tartar sauce as well.

It was probably an hour’s drive in those days before Interstate routes to travel from Southgate back to Oakley, an eastern suburb of Cincinnati. All the way our stomachs grumbled and our mouths watered in anticipation of those sandwiches. Sometimes it seemed we’d never get home.

Mom would already have plates and silverware on the table. For some reason Dad always performed the routine of opening each sandwich, then piling the fish filets on one plate and the bread on another. The cod pieces were enormous, so breaking down the sandwiches allowed us have our fill of fish on Friday with some left over for lunch on Saturday.

The sandwiches steamed a bit on the homeward drive, so the breading was falling off a bit, and the bread was kind of limp. But that fish was tender and sweet, and the bread was better than your average grocery store commercial loaf. It had substance and a chewy crust, so even if it was a little moist, it was delectable. A dollop of tartar sauce with its bits of pickle relish added a spark to the overall flavor.

I’m not sure when Larry’s Dinner Bell stopped serving fish sandwiches; I don’t know if unavailability was the reason we stopped going over to Kentucky for carry-out orders, or if it was a combination of other conditions, including my father’s increasing alcohol-fueled problems. I wondered if that old building was evening standing, so I went to Google maps, retraced what I thought was our old driving route, and “drove” visually up Alexandria Pike using the street view.

I tried to find an image of the original Dinner Bell. Unfortunately, the best I could do was this shot of the car wash that, as far as I can tell, replaced the demolished building.

I saw lots of ugly muffler shops, strip malls, and fast food joints. I didn’t see anything that resembled what I remembered the old house looking like, or even a spot where it might have stood. However, a further Internet search yielded a couple of treasures. This October 15, 1998, Enquire article by Karen Samples laments the impending destruction  of the old Dinner Bell building. It also provides the name of the owner, Larry Rust, and even specifies “iron balconies and intricate window details.” It also describes how Larry closed the restaurant when his catering business flourished, opening only on Fridays to sell those fish sandwiches I remember so fondly.

I also found this 2004 Enquirer article about the Friday fish dinner tradition at Cincinnati-area churches. It quotes a customer proclaiming the fish dinner at the Elks lodge on Alexandria Pike as “‘the best fish since Larry Rust,’ who made legendary fish sandwiches as owner of the Dinner Bell in Southgate.”

For some reason, both stories make me feel so much better. Someone else treasured those sandwiches as well. Someone else was impressed by that old brick house with the upstairs iron railing. What I wonder is, how many people drove all the way to Southate from eastern Cincinnati on Friday evenings just for those fish sandwiches?

Nudge: Indulge in some Internet sleuthing. Pick a memory, good or bad, about a place that no longer exists. It’s all the better if you’re not sure where this place was. First, write down all the impressions you can about the physical appearance of the location, what you did there, what you liked or didn’t like, and anything else you can think of. See what you can find out about it. Find out if it’s still there; if not, what has replaced it? Does anyone else on the World Wide Web share your memories? Write about the place or experience in whatever way you prefer, simply as a memory piece or describe your search and how you feel about the results.


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