Lassis Inn is a catfish restaurant located at 518 East 27th Street in Little Rock (Pulaski County), founded in about 1905 by Joe and Molassis Watson. Its first known advertising listing was in the Arkansas Gazette in 1931. Originally, Joe Watson sold sandwiches out of the back of the Watson home, and when he later added catfish to the menu, sales rapidly increased. Eventually constructing a separate building for their food business, the Watsons relocated the building in 1931 to its current location, moving it a short distance once in the 1960s to accommodate the construction of Interstate 30 near Roosevelt Road. They had apparently intended to call the establishment the Watson Inn but decided on the derivative of Molassis Watson’s name because they thought it sounded better.
Through the years, Lassis Inn has been known for more than its fish. In the years leading up to the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School in 1957, Daisy Bates and other civil rights leaders held frequent meetings at the restaurant. It became known that Lassis Inn was one of the few safe places in the community where people could gather to discuss the numerous problems associated with segregation and other manifestations of racism. Later owner Elihue Washington Jr. noted, “This was the only place [at that time]. People couldn’t go anywhere else.”
Members of the Watson family operated the restaurant well into the 1980s, but it was closed for several months after the death of the owner until it was purchased by Washington in 1989. Lassis Inn continued to serve the same basic menu: fried catfish, catfish steaks, seasoned hushpuppies, and its famous “fish ribs” (made from buffalo fish). It also sports the basic décor that has graced the building since its construction: wooden booths with a still-popular jukebox. When the jukebox was installed, guests often danced down the narrow aisles, but after Washington had to make repairs once a week after an active round of dancing, along with customer complaints about the practice, he placed signs throughout the establishment reading, “No Dancing.” These are still prominently displayed.
Lassis Inn has gained attention far beyond Arkansas from numerous foodways historians and reviewers. Katherine Whitworth, in an entry in the book Cornbread Nation 5 titled, “Ode to a Catfish House,” wrote, “The Lassis Inn hunkers alongside the interstate in a small, royal-blue building. It is the architectural equivalent of minding your own business, and it’s hard to notice unless you’re looking for it….What goes on there is excellent catfish. Fried catfish, to my mind, is best rated by its lack of negative qualities, at least one of which is usually found in any random sample: soggy crust, oily fish, watery fish, overcooked crust, flavorless fish, too-thick crust and sharply tapered fillets (which leave behind those curled nubbins of fishless, overfried cornmeal). None of these descriptions apply to the fish at the Lassis.” The restaurant was in the first group of inductees into the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame, sponsored by the Department of Arkansas Heritage. It was honored at the inaugural induction ceremony on February 28, 2017, at the Ron Robinson Theater in Little Rock. In 2020, the restaurant received the American Classics Award from the James Beard Foundation.
For additional information:
Hoekstra, Dave. The People’s Place: Soul Food Restaurants and Reminiscences from the Civil Rights Era to Today. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2015.
Manuel, Dhinesh. “The Taste of Freedom: 7 Restaurants that Fueled the Civil Rights Movement.” Miles Away, January 13, 2017. https://www.cheapoair.com/miles-away/the-taste-of-freedom-7-restaurants-that-fueled-the-civil-rights-movement/ (accessed October 2, 2019).
Nelson, Rex. “Rhoda’s Big Night.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 15, 2017.
Robinson, Kat. “Lassis Inn: Fish and More Fish.” Tie Dye Travels, August 23, 2013. http://www.tiedyetravels.com/2013/08/lassis-inn.html (accessed October 2, 2019).
York, Joe. Fish Ribs in Little Rock. Southern Foodways Alliance. https://www.southernfoodways.org/film/fish-ribs-a-film-bite/ (accessed October 2, 2019).
Last Updated: 02/19/2020