It was a clever concept for a restaurant in East Rome and one that stayed afloat for more than 40 years.
The dainty diner’s curious aesthetics matched most seagoing vessels — life preservers and rounded portals adorned its starboard cabin as neon lights flickered “Shrimp Boat” atop a painted, ocean-sprayed wake.
Since the Shrimp Boat restaurant dropped anchor in East Second Avenue’s Central Plaza shopping center, diners by the thousands have flocked aboard the fried-food frigate.
Its popularity has been of Titanic proportions.
Crispy fried chicken, breaded Alaskan pollock filets, freshly-squeezed lemonade, stove-brewed iced tea and hand-cut onion rings have remained menu mainsails.
And since its auspicious launch in the late 1950s, the Boat’s simple-but-effective takeout or dine-in concept has landed loyal customers for generations.
The Boat, it’s said, is unsinkable.
“It’s kind of like when you go off traveling and everybody says ‘Oh you’ve got to try this, it’s just a little hole in the wall but it has the best food,’” said Cylina Payne, 41, of Armuchee, who owns the Boat with her husband, Kenneth, 46.
“That’s the kind of atmosphere it has,” Cylina said. “It’s just this little hole in the wall but it’s been there forever.”
The Paynes dove headfirst into the restaurant business in 1991, paying $125,000 for the two-room, 51 seat diner which neighbors the Second Avenue bridge and Etowah River. It now has become the family business. Their teen-age children, Rachael, 16, and Daniel, 15, work there on weekends and vacations.
Originally part of a Macon-based corporate chain — Shrimp Boats Inc. — the restaurant was and still is a metal trailer on wheels. When the company secured a suitable location, it merely towed in the trailer, outfitted its facade with boating gear and set up shop.
“I’ve been going there since I was a kid, drinking the sweetest iced tea in Rome,” said Jim Kelley of Rome, a realtor who currently manages Central Plaza. “The Boat is my favorite. And now my two little girls can’t get enough of their fried chicken.”
From 1958 to the late 1960s, the restaurant remained under corporate ownership until a local entrepreneur franchised it. That’s when Mack Bolton and his wife, Louise, took the helm in 1969, said Bolton’s daughter, Kay Walley of Rome.
Bolton captained the Boat until his retirement in 1978, when Bolton’s then-son-in-law, John Walley, bought the business in 1978.
Under the Walleys’ command, the Shrimp Boat’s facade eventually faded into wrap-around, enclosed dining rooms and light blue vinyl siding, renovations that remain today. The entranceway to the original trailer is now the service counter entrance.
But despite the Boat’s external changes, its galley has always kept an even keel, said Everett Ballard of Rome.
“I’ve been selling them slaw for the past 20 years and nothing has changed,” said Ballard, a restaurant food service vendor. “The fish is the same, the hush puppies are the same. They just do a world of business.”
That world of business includes 500 heaping platefuls of deep-fried decadence sold daily, Cylina said. On Fridays the Boat serves a whopping 1,500 to 2,500 plates of fried chicken, fish, shrimp, onion rings or combinations.
Locals have compared the Shrimp Boat to the Varsity in Atlanta or Marietta’s Big Chicken. “Everyone knows where the Shrimp Boat is,” Cylina said. “It’s a landmark.”
Today, only three of the original restaurants remain — two in Rock Hill, S.C., and the Rome location, Cylina said. Each is privately owned.
When the Payne’s bought Rome’s Shrimp Boat, they knew its location next to the East Second Avenue bridge was a strategic asset — the restaurant’s presence has even led to the bridge’s unofficial naming as the “Shrimp Boat Bridge,” Cylina said.
But time and progress have swept across the city like a fast-moving wave. The Shrimp Boat has been outmaneuvered.
On April 24, 2002, the Georgia Department of Transportation sent the Payne’s an offer for their restaurant, what they called a death certificate.
It seems a decade-long DOT study to widen East Second Avenue’s corridor at the river has finally been approved, Kenneth said. The project moves forward this year.
“We knew this when we bought the Boat. There’s been a rumor that they were going to widen the bridge,” Kenneth said.
Glenn Bowman, the DOT’s assistant state urban design engineer, confirmed the Shrimp Boat and the Waldenbooks building in Central Plaza Shopping Center are set for demolition.
Work should begin later this year, Bowman noted, and will take two years to complete.
When completed, the expansion should alleviate congestion along the corridor and serve as an alternate to Turner McCall Boulevard, Kenneth said.
From the Payne’s other restaurant, Daniel’s Diner at 402 East Second Ave., the road will be expanded to the railroad tracks just beyond the Riverbend Drive intersection.
A DOT project map shows the planned right of way line slicing straight through the center of the Shrimp Boat, skirting the historic register boundary line for Oakdene Place on River Avenue.
Built in 1917, the current river crossing will be widened with the addition of a new bridge to the west of the existing structure. Plans to match the new bridge with the old one will preserve the current architectural style. The old bridge also is listed on the National Historic Register.
All told, the right of way acquisition will cost $4 million and construction costs are expected to reach $6.3 million, Bowman said.
“What the DOT told us is they no longer build for the next 10 years, they build for the next 50 years,” Kenneth said. “And every year I call because people start up the rumor again.”
“It really is a frustrating and depressing feeling to think that you’ve put almost 12 years of your life into a place and they’re just going to come in and say, ‘sorry, you’re gone.’”
Gone, maybe, but not forgotten, said Marti Walstad of Rome.
She recalled when her volunteer group took a local group of foster children on a field trip.
But what were they to feed them? Walstad asked. That’s when she called the Shrimp Boat.
Not knowing how much to cook, the staff “had done four times the amount I thought we needed” said Walstad. “I asked them ‘What do I owe you?’ and they wouldn’t accept payment. They said it was for a good cause,” she recalled. The children from the Open Door Home even had enough leftovers for supper.
The Paynes expressed uncertainty about the Shrimp Boat’s future. The earlier renovations have made the trailer immovable.
“It would be hard to imagine life without it,” Cylina said. “It’s almost like you’re in denial. You know it’s there, you know it’s coming. You just try not to think about it too much.”
“It’s an icon,” said Jim Kelley. “When I was a kid in 1960, we were eating at the Shrimp Boat. Now, it sounds like my kids will be the last generation.