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A Brief History of the Wisconsin Fish Fry

If it’s Friday night in Wisconsin, chances are Wisconsinites are trying to answer one question, and one question only: “Where am I getting fish fry tonight?”

The classic Wisconsin fish fry is a significant part of our state’s food culture. Ask any Wisconsinite about their favorite, and you’re bound to get a detailed list, typically ranked on the basis of bar or restaurant atmosphere, fish and breading type, seasonings and quality of side dishes.

Wisconsin’s fish fry tradition is attributed to three things: The Catholic Church, Prohibition and our state’s proximity to freshwater fish. Most of Wisconsin’s settlers were Catholics of Polish and German descent, and Catholic leaders called for their parishioners to abstain from eating warm-blooded meat on Fridays as a way to commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday. Many European Catholics took this practice with them when they settled in America.

In Wisconsin, freshwater fish like walleye, perch and bluegill were plentiful and cheap. During the years of Prohibition, selling plates of fish was a way for taverns around the state to stay afloat financially. In the mid-1960s, the Catholic church changed the rules around abstaining from animal meat every Friday of the year and just required parishioners to do so on Fridays during Lent, but by then, “going out for fish” on Fridays was simply an integral part of Wisconsin life.

The typical anatomy of a fish fry? First, beer-battered and deep-fried perch, walleye, haddock, cod or bluegill — and in some areas, you can also get smelt or catfish. Next, the potatoes — usually French fries or potato pancakes, although some restaurants serve hash browns, fried potatoes or buttery baby reds. Then, the enhancements: crisp coleslaw, a slice of rye bread and an assortment of condiments — lemon wedges, malt vinegar or tartar sauce.

Looking to catch a fish fry in Wisconsin? Here are some spots to consider:

Hooterville Inn – Blue Mounds

Enthusiasts of the Hooterville Inn rave about two things when it comes to the fish fry — the rich, smoky batter and the bold, flavorful tartar sauce. The beer batter is a well-kept secret — the only detail the Inn will divulge is that one of the ingredients is New Glarus Brewing’s Spotted Cow.

Swingin’ Door Exchange – Milwaukee

This Milwaukee watering hole gets raves for a few key reasons: the variety of fish to choose from — lake perch, bluegill, cod and shrimp, and the kicked up homemade coleslaw and tartar sauce. The breading-to-fish ratio is balanced, and the well-buttered piece of locally-baked rye bread enables you to turn your fish fry into a fish fry sandwich.

Lost Land Lake Lodge – Hayward

The only thing better than fish fry? All-you-can-eat fish fry. Open for nearly 100 years, this Northwoods institution offers family-style fish fry with the traditional beer-battered and deep-fried fish — or you can also have it broiled with butter or dill sauce.

Oakcrest Tavern – Madison

This favorite is so popular that customers start lining up at the door at 5:00 on the dot Wednesdays and Fridays. The Oakcrest opened in the 1950s and has been serving the same fish fry ever since — and the unfussiness and consistency are appreciated by their many fans.

Sister Bay Bowl – Sister Bay

“The Bowl” has been getting their fresh perch from the same family for decades — Maricque’s in Green Bay (who also offer a great fish fry)! The breading is so flavorful and light, many wonder if it’s actually pan-fried. Did we mention you can bowl a few frames after your meal?

Ready to find your fish fry? Check out these favorite Northwoods fish fry spots or browse our restaurant directory for more.

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