Ayden's newest restaurant built on family legacy and a dream
Photos by William “Bud” Hardy / Neuse News
AYDEN — Ayden is a tiny town in our area, but if you are a foodie, you know it well. Ayden’s barbecue joints are well-known across the state and across the nation. Now, Tonnia Pollard Wallace wants to throw her hat into the restaurant ring.
Just around the corner from the Ayden Fire Department and a block from the heart of the town is a tiny little restaurant called “Fryday Nite Fish.” The restaurant is scheduled to hold its grand opening Wednesday.
Even more important than the menu or the restaurant itself, however, is the journey Wallace took to get to this point — a journey that has lasted a lifetime for this Ayden resident. It is also the first restaurant in Ayden that is founded and owned by an African-American woman.
“We were poor growing up,” Wallace said. “Fish was seen by our family as kind of a delicacy. On Friday nights, my father would go down to Morehead and go fishing and bring some home for us. It was a wonderful treat that we could have with our family.”
As a teenager, Wallace moved to Grifton. Anyone who is from this area knows fried fish is a major part of the culture of Grifton, the home of the annual Shad Festival.
“My mother would have cookouts at her house where she would fry up fish for family and friends,” Wallace said. “It wasn’t just for the festival, it was all year round. However, during that weekend for the festival, she was frying up a lot of fish. Everyone would come over and hang out. We’d have music playing.
“My mom would lead us all in dancing, and she could really dance. It was a very special thing for us.”
Cooking became part of the legacy left by her family as Wallace learned to fry fish as well as her mother. Her father-in-law was well-known for his barbecuing abilities. They soon started to receive requests to fry fish or cook some pork for family reunions, funerals and church functions. With the success of these dinners, Wallace had a vision of opening her own restaurant with her husband.
“I started saving money and for awhile, I had to work three jobs in order to earn enough,” Wallace said. “Something always came up. I had decided to do this back in 2000, but something kept pushing this back and back.”
During that time, Wallace suffered some health issues and her mother, Faye, passed away. Her uncle, who had been supportive of her, had moved in while he was ailing in the last few months of his life. After taking care of family needs, Wallace finally had the opportunity to build the restaurant of her dreams in Grifton. However, when she couldn’t make that happen, she drove to Ayden.
“I pulled into this location here on 1st Street and cried and cried,” Wallace said. “My dream was so close and I was upset it might not happen. Then I looked up and saw this place and it had a ‘for sale’ sign. I knew I was supposed to be here.”
She calls the restaurant “Sea Soul Food,” a combination of her fish traditions and the barbecue traditions of her husband’s family. The atmosphere for the restaurant is that of a country, backyard cookout. Picnic tables are set outside with umbrellas to shield from the sun. Wallace wanted to honor her family by having people come out and eat with each other in a comfortable environment sharing a great meal as if you were in your own backyard.
The menu is filled with dishes that include trout, flounder, tilapia, shrimp and catfish, along with homemade sides. Specials include sandwiches, fish stew, croakers and salads.
Likewise, the restaurant offers her husband’s barbecue and fried chicken, pork chop sandwiches and sausage dogs on Jay Faye Fridays, named in honor of her mother and uncle who helped to inspire this restaurant, and on Sea Soul Weekends.
The restaurant is at 521 1st St., in Ayden. It is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. It is a cash only restaurant.