It's noon on Friday, and Z's Fish & Shrimp on Lincoln near Belden is packed to the gills. Hospital workers in scrubs and kids from Lincoln Park High School wait for takeout. A lone salesman sits in the window eating fried jumbo shrimp. Next to him, Audrey Starks and her daughter Gwen eat fried chicken and split a plate of hush puppies. And in the back, 85-year-old Ples Farrow is deveining shrimp. Farrow--who will probably clean 600 shrimp today, as well as answer the phone and take orders--has worked as a fish cutter and butcher since the Great Depression. He works Fridays only, and every week his boss, Scott Zells, drives him back and forth from his south-side home.
Nobody in Z's looks upset about being squeezed in--except for maybe his good-sport mother, Myra, who is helping out during the crunch, manning the cash register with one hand and taking call-in orders with the other. It's a far cry from her regular job, doing special events for MK and MK North. Her son, the 35-year-old proprietor, is wearing a doo-rag and a bright blue T-shirt, smiling and trying to keep it together.
It took guts for Zells to open his tiny shop on a street that's already packed with other options for a quick meal. "Look at what's around me," he says, ticking off Domino's, Subway, Quiznos, Potbelly, Chipotle, McDonald's, and Jimmy John's. But Zells has always worked in fast food: at 14 he was dipping ice cream cones at Swensen's, at 16 slinging hot dogs at Fluky's. He studied restaurant management briefly at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (though he graduated with a degree in communications), and his first few management jobs were at the Hunt Club and Joe's Sports Bar.
His fascination with fish started in 1999, when State Fish Distributors, a fish market located near the old stockyards, brought him in to help open the nearby Danny's Fish Market, which sold cooked fish to take out as well as fresh seafood. There he met Farrow, who had retired from State Fish ten years earlier. He'd been lured back to work at Danny's two or three days a week, says Zells, "due to his expertise and general demeanor."
When Danny's closed two and a half years later, Zells was determined to open his own place. Originally he'd thought of a little hot-dog-and-hamburger stand, but he knew Lincoln Park had nothing like the fish-fry places dotting the south side. He found a 640-square-foot space down the street from Children's Hospital, painted the facade a screaming shade of blue, then commissioned "sign painter extraordinaire" Ernie of R and G Signs to decorate it with cartoon images of a smiling ear of corn, a dancing fish, and waving cheese fries. Farrow, fish cutter Grover Jefferson, and Z's four other employees all worked at Danny's.
Z's sells hundreds of pounds of seafood a week, Zells says, all brought in from State Fish. A small charbroiler grills up salmon, tilapia, tuna, shrimp, catfish, and scallops, all served four ways: sauced with teriyaki or honey dijon, seasoned with lemon pepper, or blackened. Fried options include fish, chicken, scallops, and shrimp (served without the tail). There are steamed vegetables and corn on the cob, plus french fries, hush puppies, mac 'n' cheese, fried okra, and onion rings. Catfish, fish-and-chips, and shrimp are available by the quarter, half, and full pound. Desserts include banana or Oreo pudding, coconut cake, and fried Twinkies.
Since the restaurant opened in May 2002, Zells has had no time for vacations or much of a social life. But he does find time for good works. He picks up garbage on the street after Z's closes and before it opens in the morning. He takes out his neighbor's garbage. He gives discounts to Children's Hospital employees and to parents of patients. Kids get free candy ("As a kid, I loved that gum shaped like little hot dogs, so I got the kids a little Swedish candy shaped like a fish"). And when one of his employees recently had an automobile accident, Zells bought him a recliner.
There are no tables at Z's, but customers can sit by the window on high stools, watching life drift by, surrounded by the collection of fish tchotchkes Zells has gathered from thrift stores and prop houses. On Fridays they can also chat with Farrow, who, when he isn't working at Z's, relaxes at home and does yard work. His wife of 55 years, Bessie, died two and a half years ago. "She was my right arm, my wife, my friend, my companion, my everything," he says. He smiles, thinking of his wife, then turns to talking about Zells. "He has a heart in him. He doesn't have to give me a job. He's really a wonderful man."
"He's my icon," Zells says of Farrow. "He's been in fish for longer than I've been around."
Z's Fish & Shrimp is at 2273 N. Lincoln, 773-525-6000.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.