By June Naylor
Photos by Meda Kessler
From Berry Street to Camp Bowie Boulevard, Zeke’s has attracted a following for its food and no-frills approach to dining
In reaching the 50-year mark, Zeke’s Fish & Chips has managed to earn the loyalty of generations.
There are just a handful of restaurants along Camp Bowie Boulevard — or in Fort Worth in general — where grandparents enjoy the comfort food of their youth alongside their kids and grandkids. (This select club includes Galligaskin’s Submarines and The Original Mexican Eats Cafe.) But at Zeke’s, you can get not only fried food but the spaghetti with meat sauce that’s a holdover from TCU-area music venue The HOP, which served food in the ’70s.
Originally opened as a mostly takeout restaurant in 1969, the cozy Zeke’s sat next to a head shop where Curzon Avenue crosses Camp Bowie. In 1971, the owners sold to employee Craig Lidell, who would also soon buy into a place to listen to local bands on Berry Street. Just as generations of Westsiders came to rely on fixes of fresh, hot fish and chips and crunchy-fried veggies, TCU students flocked to The HOP for those same veggies, or they’d opt for bowls of spaghetti with salad on the side. Even when The HOP disappeared from the local dining landscape, Zeke’s grew into a landmark.
It wasn’t long after Craig first took over Zeke’s that Mark Lidell, his brother, jumped on board. Craig eventually became an investment manager, but Mark never left. “I’d been going to school at North Texas but wasn’t liking it, so I just came to Zeke’s to help out. I washed dishes, did some cooking,” Mark says, sharing his recollections on the restaurant’s back patio. While pitching in at Zeke’s, Mark also spent a lot of time over at The HOP, following local bands that were popular acts there. The restaurant bug bit him hard, because he remembers wanting to make it work: “We really didn’t know what we were doing, but my brother hired a friend whose dad owned a Dairy Queen. And then I hired good people who helped us figure out a lot.”
The friend’s fast-food experience paid off, and a collaboration among devoted workers turned Zeke’s into a thriving little shop that then expanded into the space next door, allowing for more seating. While brother Craig was busy at The HOP, 21-year-old Mark was in charge at Zeke’s. A few years later, Mark opened a second location in Arlington, next to J.R. Bentley’s, another favorite University of Texas at Arlington hangout. “I was running both Zeke’s stores, and it was just too much.” After four years, Mark pulled the plug in Arlington — just in time to meet the love of his life.
“We met on a blind date at The HOP,” says Diane Lidell, smiling at the sweet memory of a fateful night in 1983, “and we’ve been together ever since.”
Diane points out that she and Mark worked well in tandem, largely because they were like-minded about two important elements at Zeke’s that remain in place today: making everything from scratch and being consistent in food quality and service. No corners would be cut to save a buck.
Longtime customers appreciate the effort. David Bloxom, a Fort Worth native who attended Paschal High School with Craig Lidell, a couple of years ahead of Mark, recalls falling for the fish and chips at Zeke’s in its earliest days.
“I’ve always liked that they make their own batter from scratch, and they use Icelandic cod, which is the best — you can taste the difference,” says Bloxom, who visits Zeke’s most weeks. “My wife, Julia, loves the fried zucchini. We like that every meal is as good as the last time you went, and the time before. Every time. You can count on it being exactly the same.”
Bloxom appreciates the nostalgia factor, too: Proud to be a no-frills spot, Zeke’s hasn’t changed its footprint, which means that the order counter remains adjacent to the small, busy kitchen filled with employees who “always seem like they’re having fun,” as Bloxom observes. The dining room has seen some updates but remains modest, filled with two- and four-top tables, a single TV and vintage music performance posters and framed dining reviews hanging on the walls.
One of the most fortuitous assets at Zeke’s is its drive-thru window, which was in place when the Lidell brothers first came aboard 50 years ago. That very feature saved the business last spring, when the pandemic shut down restaurants. Zeke’s never had to close, and no employees were laid off.
“Our business is huge during Lent, and COVID started around that time. Our drive-thru line was down the street,” Diane recalls. “We were busier than ever.”
The hand-breaded catfish and shrimp also are popular at Zeke’s. Fresh mushrooms, zucchini sticks, eggplant and the wildly popular okra also are quick-fried to order. Fish is served with handmade cocktail sauce and tartar sauce that has a touch of mustard. The veggies and crunchy hush puppies are served with Zeke’s signature tart ranch dressing, thick and laced with dill.
But it’s not just fried food at Zeke’s: Spaghetti with meat sauce remains a hit. Eating light? Try a scoop of the chicken salad laced with sweet pickle relish and chopped pecans, served on avocado wedges and a green salad. Vegetarians gravitate to avocado or sliced mushroom sandwiches, served with lettuce and tomato on toasted bread.
Mark and Diane rarely cook at home and treat themselves to the occasional dinner at The Capital Grille and La Playa Maya. And each year, they look forward to their weeklong vacation, when Zeke’s closes and the two jet off to places like Hawaii or Jackson Hole or the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
Mark continues to work seven days a week, taking pride in a half-century of dedication to Zeke’s. With no family members waiting to take over, who will run Zeke’s when he retires?
“I don’t know. That’s why I’m still doing this,” he says with a half-smile. “I just hope someone will make me a good offer one day.”