Neighborhood Institution: Martin’s Fish House

When discussing the experience of Martin’s Fish House, it’s impossible to separate the restaurant’s atmosphere and food from the larger-than-life presence of owner Robert Martin. From his station behind the cash register, Martin’s baritone voice easily reaches both customers and kitchen staff, and he seamlessly orchestrates the constant flow of business with all the skill of a grand conductor.

“When I’m out here, things just work better,” he shrugs.

Martin’s Fish House has been in business for 34 years, so it’s not surprising that things run so smoothly now. But back in the beginning, it was a very different story. In fact, it was a different business altogether.

Martin originally wanted to open a grocery. “You can go without new shoes, a new shirt, but sooner or later you gotta eat,” he explains. “Job security!” But that plan didn’t work out, and so Martin switched gears. He opened Martin’s Fish House as a little shop serving what he calls “fresh fish.” “Fresh fish,” in this instance, meant live fish plucked from a large tank—“a big old tank in the back, waist high, about 10 feet long”—and dressed on the spot for customers to take home. The process was chaotic and messy, to say the least. It didn’t last long.

Within 10 months, Martin decided he’d had enough of the “fresh fish” business. He called in reinforcements in the form of his wife—who worked in a restaurant at the time and brought some much-needed expertise—and some very basic kitchen equipment, and they started cooking.

“We started out in a little black pot, moved to a tabletop, then the big floor model,” Martin recalls. They hit their stride quickly, adding items to the menu when enough customers requested them and pouring every penny they made back into the business. Now, nearly 35 years and two buildings later, those early days of grocery stores, giant tanks, and “fresh fish” are all but forgotten.

Martin’s Fish House may have grown into a Jackson institution, but it’s still the same little neighborhood joint at heart. Martin’s kids were “raised in the fish house” and are often to be found in the kitchen or behind the counter. And customers are treated like family, too, even when that means they need a good talking-to.

“Sometimes folks will come in here with a bad attitude, and they’ll try and put it on me,” Martin laughs. “I’ll just stop and tell ‘em, ‘Don’t put that on me! It’s my job to make your day better. So you can take my good mood if you want to, but don’t give me your bad mood.”

As for Martin, he’s happy with how things have turned out. He and his wife have built a business that provides a stable income for themselves and a handful of employees. He has an eye on retirement—“My plan is, fish three days a week and figure out the rest later”—and when that time comes, he can hand off Martin’s Fish House to his kids knowing they can keep things running. “Whether they take it further, that’s up to them,” he adds.

Many of his customers would likely be surprised to learn that this successful restaurant, which has attracted a wide assortment of loyal customers and won its fair share of awards in its 34 years of business, wasn’t Robert Martin’s first choice. But life has a funny way of working out right in the end.

“It’s been a good run,” Martin smiles. “I don’t have any regrets.”

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