Come Fry With Me: The Wisconsin Fish Fry

It’s Friday night: do you know where your fish fry is? It’s a Wisconsin culinary tradition that seems totally normal to people who grew up here, but may seem a bit random to visitors and transplants. Why fish? Why Friday? Why fried?

Well, we can already answer the “Why fried?” question. It tastes good and it’s the quickest way to cook a large amount of fish. But the event itself can be traced to medieval Roman Catholic Church history.

Friday is associated with the crucifixion of Christ – remembered on Good Friday during the Easter weekend – and so the day became one of abstinence – specifically, from meat. While beef or chicken were considered “hot” as they were the flesh of warm-blooded creatures, the flesh of fish was considered “cool” and thus got a free pass.

When Catholic immigrants such as the many Irish, Polish, and Germans, settled in Wisconsin, this practice came with them. During Prohibition, taverns – which could no longer sell the products that kept them in business, turned to serving food to keep the doors open (and perhaps sneak a few pints under the table). Fish was abundant and cheap, and frying didn’t exactly require cooking school.

Fish fries come in all sorts. You may find cod, walleye, lake perch if you’re lucky, or even bluegill. Beer-battered, lightly breaded, seasoned or not. Often the fish comes with coleslaw and fries or a baked potato on the side – though some purists insist on potato pancakes. Restaurants and supper clubs long ago joined the taverns, but you can also find fish fries in church basements (and not just Catholic ones) and VFW halls. And though some establishments offer fish fries on other days of the week, it takes away from the charm of a community event.

Ready for some fish? Check out these Friday fish fries, just a sampling of the many great places to go in Wisconsin.

Northern Wisconsin

Delta Diner - Mason

Housed in a shiny aluminum 1940s Silk City diner, this roadside attraction deep in the woods packs up for Friday and Saturday night fries. Great Lakes perch and potato pancakes with an emphasis on local and sustainable.

Headwaters Restaurant & Tavern - Boulder Junction

As one old-timer regular says, "It may be small, and it may be a tavern, but it's got some damn good food." Fish fry is haddock anytime you want it, but baked or pan-fried walleye is also served. Sit on a deck overlooking the Manitowish River.

Paul Bunyan's - Minocqua

For that big appetite this is all-you-can-eat fish, and it comes with potato pancakes, baked beans, and a few other sides. Prices are reasonable at this popular highway-side family stop which has been doing it right since 1961.

Southern Wisconsin

The Dorf House - Sauk City

This German-themed spot in Roxbury dates back to the 1960s. The cod is some of the best and is served with hush puppies. Baked haddock is also available, as is schnitzel, of course. This supper club was named one of the top 10 German restaurants in America by food reviewer and website Tablelog.

The Old Fashioned - Madison

Any place that serves only Wisconsin traditional fare is going to know its fish fry. Order the restaurant’s namesake or one of 50 Wisconsin tap beers to go with it. Cod, walleye or perch – or all three.

Bushel & Peck's  - Beloit

A progressive farm-to-table establishment, B&P’s uses locally caught Lake Michigan perch when possible and not just beer-battered, but grilled or baked as well. (On a side note, the fish tacos are stellar.)

Toby’s Supper Club - Madison

A supper club is its own classic Wisconsin experience; fish fry merely doubles the value. The baby pike, catfish, cod and lake perch all get high marks.

Southeast Wisconsin

Lakefront Brewery Palm Garden - Milwaukee

The ultimate Wisconsin experience. Take the brewery tour, stay for the fish fry with a live polka band. Choose from cod, perch, bluegill, tilapia or even shrimp. And yes they have potato pancakes.

Nite Cap Inn - Palmyra

The fish is as crisp as the potato pancakes. Waits get longer in the summer but take a bench on the porch or stroll about town.

Serb Hall  - Milwaukee

It’s beer-battered cod, perch or pollock at this enormous dining space that holds 1,000 people at a time. Get there before 6 pm or face a line that heads down the street. Take-out is available.

Eastern Wisconsin

Wendt's on the Lake - Van Dyne

Since 1962 this legend has been serving some amazing perch. Doesn’t matter if it’s Friday or not. (But they're typically closed on Mondays.)

Parnell Place - Oshkosh

For a supper club sort of night out, this is a good bet. The perch is excellent and the roasted potatoes go nicely with it.

K.K. Fiske Restaurant - Washington Island

The owner, a commercial fisherman, calls himself the Fish Mortician and a sign in the window reads “Fresh Lawyers.” Locally caught whitefish and burbot (“lawyers”) and a few other fish are fried up on Fridays.

Maricque’s Bar - Green Bay

No putting on airs here; just supremely delicious fish served in a tavern setting. Perch, walleye, lawyers, whitefish, catfish, and bluegill are all on the menu and even smelt in season.

Central Wisconsin

Hilltop Pub & Grill - Stevens Point

Just down the road from the University of Wisconsin, this is one of Point’s best restaurants. The fish fry ventures beyond just Fridays and gives you cod or perch.

Western Wisconsin

Hungry Peddler - La Crosse

All-you-can-eat cod with a light beer batter is the Friday night draw to this dark-wood-paneled eatery. They even have a house beer crafted by Capital Brewery in Middleton.

Wigwam Tavern - Eau Claire
A popular downtown stop for fish fry, the Wigwam has those typical vinyl booths and serves deep-fried cod with all the sides. Shrimp is an option for the fish weary.

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