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Dine with the Fishes

The Tennessean Living Section, April 14, 2004 — by Ron Ruggles

New Opry Mills eatery employs 2,000 tank dwellers for entertainment — not eating. Enjoy the red snapper on your plate? Good. So did the shark next to you. After all, what's a tank full of fish for if a sharp-toothed mate can't pick one off every now and then?

Welcome to Aquarium restaurant, where fish are friends and food.

Dine at the underwater-themed eatery, which opens today at Opry Mills, and you might see some of the same fish from the menu swimming around in the 200,000-gallon tank that displays exotic creatures from as far away as Fiji and the Red Sea.

You might even see one of the aquarium's various sharks snap one up for a snack.

Seldom as it is, "there are animals eaten in here," says biology director Jim Prappas of Landry's Restaurants, which owns several wildlife-related eateries, including Rainforest Café. "If a fish is not doing well, it's like taking an apple out of a refrigerator."

What you won't see is a fish swimming around with its entrails hanging out. "They usually finish them off pretty quickly," Prappas said.

You also won't see fish taken from the aquarium and cooked into a dish. Whatever the sharks might think, the restaurant does make a distinction between fish for display and fish for consumption.

In fact, the more than 2,000 decorative fish, which have been arriving in boxed shipments from all over the world for the past month, get almost VIP treatment, with at team of five biologists and divers to look after them.

They eat the same shrimp, salmon and squid as diners, supplied by the same company. They even have their own kitchen where the food is chopped up and prepared.

"They eat better than I do," said Jeremy Howerton, the team's scuba instructor.

It's no wonder. The restaurant refuses to put a price tag to its fin-bearing staff, but there's no denying it's spendy to ship a live fish from Australia. And some of the fish are pretty rare.

"This is a very diverse collection. You couldn't go anywhere and see this collection," Prappas said.

There's the Napoleon wrasse from Fiji. He's the largest known coral reef dweller, with his huge blue and green body and thick, puffy lips that are a delicacy in Asia.

"I'm just wowed by that guy," said marine biologist Nikki Ellis. Well, he's a guy now. The Napoleon wrasse is a sequential hermaphrodite, meaning it starts life as a female and develops into a male.

Then there's the sawfish from Australia, also an unusual find, where its chainsaw-shaped bill of teeth that keeps the restaurant's divers on the tips of their flippers.

"He's unpredictable," Howerton said. "While he's not trying to be malicious, every time he turns around he whips that big bill around."

If guests choose to nickname the fish, well, the restaurant doesn't get involved with that. The staff calls them by their common names.

Still, it's hard to help feeling affection for the critters. "You grow to love the fish and take notice of their habits," said marine biologist William Edwards. "Some of the grippers have this 'I'm the man, don't mess with me' attitude, and the sharks just move around and everything else moves out of their way."

Getting There

Aquarium restaurant will be open 11a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Though specializing in seafood, the menu also includes items such as rib-eye steak and chicken-fried chicken. Children's menu, too. For information and reservations, 514-3474.