September 18, 2020

Oxford's Ajax Diner is celebrating its 20th anniversary by doing the same thing it's always done. (The same thing.)

Ajax owner Randy Yates (Photo: Bruce Newman / The Oxford Eagle)


If you know Randy Yates, you know there’s nothing he hates more than taking credit for the success of Ajax Diner—Oxford’s incomparably consistent meat-and-three considered one of the best in the South (alongside its local fame as the Best Restaurant in Oxford).
So when I ran into him at City Grocery last weekend, it was no surprise we talked for the better part of an hour before he casually mentioned it’s been 20 years this month since Ajax opened its doors.
There aren’t many places in the world like Ajax. Most would probably say its popularity and accolades are directly tied to its sinful soul-food menu. They aren’t wrong, not technically, but the reason folks love Ajax isn’t so much that the food’s incredible (and it is). It’s because everything about the place—from the menu to the lightning-fast service to the constant crowd of people outside waiting for a table to open up—never changes.
I don’t love Ajax because the catfish with squash casserole is the closest thing to heaven I’ve ever experienced (and it is). I love it because it’s the exact same catfish with squash casserole that used to get me through finals week in college, the same I used to crave after graduation when working in different cities, the same I shoveled into my mouth two days ago to celebrate my 31st birthday—calories be damned.
The reason Randy doesn’t like taking credit for the restaurant’s success isn’t modesty. It’s because it takes a team of hardworking people to maintain that consistency day in and day out. And he praises his staff every chance he gets.
“The most amazing thing about Ajax to me is the longevity and dedication of the staff,” Randy said in a 2016 interview with Oxford Magazine. “So many have been there 15 years and longer. … They make my job easy and a joy.”
Even putting that interview together proved to be a challenge because some of the greatest tidbits about Randy’s time running Ajax, from meeting celebrity visitors in search of authentic cooking to serving Eli Manning’s children their first butter beans, make him uncomfortable. After all, it might take away from giving credit where it’s due, he explains, meaning, keep the spotlight on the people who keep the place in business: his staff.
Things have changed drastically since October 1997. Ajax’s first customers didn’t have iPhones on the dining table. Facebook didn’t exist. The extent of Ivanka Trump’s media exposure was being on the cover of Seventeen magazine. Oxford back then would be unrecognizable to many of today’s Ole Miss students who have more dining, shopping and entertainment options than they know what to do with.
Ajax is one of the only threads that managed to weave the same mouthwatering story amid two decades of change. No matter how big this place gets, or how many chain restaurants move in, Ajax will continue to thrive because Ajax’s customers will keep coming back. This is because the founding force behind it also refuses to change. Randy’s always going to make sure the staff knows how critical they are to the restaurant’s success and the customers’ enjoyment.
“Anyone can do something different,” Randy said the other night. “To do the exact same thing every single day for years and make sure it’s just as good as it was the day before?”
“That’s professional.”