The Friday Fish Fry is as much a part of the classic Wisconsin diet as beer, brats, and cheese. The tradition started back when European immigrants flocked to places like Milwaukee and adapted their cooking techniques to the local fish in Lake Michigan. Since many were Catholic and avoided meat on Fridays during Lent, the weekly fish fry became a staple. During prohibition, taverns that chose to follow the law started holding a social fish fry on Fridays to help bring in some money. (Speakeasies, on the other hand, occasionally served free fried fish, making money on the illegal booze.) By the mid 20th century, the fish fry had become a staple of the state.
While you'll encounter a weekly fish fry all over the country—the strongest traditions are in the Northeast and Midwest—few places take the event quite as seriously as the residents of Wisconsin. Sometimes it feels like it's hard to find a restaurant that doesn't do a fish fry on Fridays. Even the fast food chain Culver's, which got its start in the central Wisconsin town of Sauk City, still keeps it on the menu. During Lent, the options are endless, with seemingly every VFW Post and church hosting one.
Never been to a fish fry? While there are no exact rules for how to hold one, there are some general guidelines that most places follow.
Types of Fish
No one species of fish has to be used, though up until the 1960s or 70s, most of the options were locally caught from Lake Michigan. Lake perch, smelts, bluegill, and walleye were all relatively common offerings. But as overfishing of the Great Lakes depleted the options, cod started showing up more and more. This also explains why prices started to go up for the local options, since bars and restaurants had to either raise prices or go with cod. I usually prefer spots that offer local options, even if they do cost a bit more, though some places do good things with cod.
Frying the Fish
The specifics of the frying process are not set in stone, either. In general, places deep fry cod in a beer batter, and pan-fry local fish using a very light breading. The latter method makes it easier to appreciate the tender flesh and mild flavors of the local fish.
A good fish fry comes with a lot of sides. Traditionally, you'll get a slice of rye bread, a cup of cole slaw, tartar sauce, lemon wedges, and a potato option. Though most places serve fries, potato pancakes are my preferred option. Like the rye bread, potato pancake show the influence of the many Eastern and Central European immigrants in the area.
Of course, the most important aspect of a real deal Friday fish fry is to be social. From the moment it first started, the fish fry has been a chance to gather with friends and family, and enjoy each other's company after a long work week. Oh, and more often than not, there is a lot of beer involved.
Without further ado, here are ten of my favorite places to experience a traditional fish fry in Wisconsin.
Ron's Place, Kenosha
Ron's Place is one of the many taverns in Kenosha where allegiances are split. Because of Kenosha's proximity to Chicago, it tends to be about half Packers, half Bears fans. Fortunately, everyone in town loves this fish fry. Held on both Wednesdays and Fridays, Ron's uses fresh walleye, serving two fine fillets in a basket with fries for the ridiculously low price of $9.95.
Cliff's Boathouse Cafe, Racine
One town up the lake in Racine is this popular family-owned boathouse turned cafe. Cliff's gets really busy on Fridays due to its signature fish fry from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. If you're feeling up for it, you can go with the all-you-can-eat special and fill up on as many of the beer-battered cod as you can handle. However, I recommend the lake perch plate paired with the restaurant's secret potato pancake recipe. The fillets are beautifully fried and well-sized, and the potato pancakes kind of taste like they are infused with Ritz crackers.
Swingin' Door Exchange, Milwaukee
Located in downtown Milwaukee in the historic Grain Exchange Building, this space has housed a tavern since prohibition. The most recent owners of the Swingin' Door Exchange have kept the charm and the wood-heavy interior remains intact. Plus, the Friday fish fry special remains, even if it has been rejuvenated. Choose from lake perch, bluegill, shrimp, and cod and enjoy the house-made slaw, a well buttered piece of locally baked rye bread, and some kicked up tartar sauce to go with it.
Old German Beer Hall, Milwaukee
Milwaukee's Old World Third Street is one of the best blocks in the nation to drink beer, and a mandatory stop is the Old German Beer Hall. Gulp on boots of Munich-brewed beers while taking in the spirit and tradition of Hofbräuhaus. And on Fridays you can enjoy a half pound of Hofbräu-battered cod with fries ($9.95) while taking in Bavarian history and tradition.
Packing House, Milwaukee
Want to experience a Friday fish fry in an authentic Wisconsin supper club, which also happens to be located near the Milwaukee airport? Definitely check out The Packing House. Plus, if you don't feel like cozying up at the bar, you can just grab your order to-go. Yep, being able to pick up a prime rib dinner while never leaving your vehicle is just how things are in Wisconsin. Packing House serves hand-breaded Icelandic cod with house-made clam chowder, cole slaw, marbled rye, and your choice of potato pancakes or french fries, all served with gread tarter sauce and lemons.
The Annual American Legion Smelt Fry, Port Washington
I recently attended the 63rd Annual American Legion Smelt Fry in Pork Washington, which is always held the weekend following Easter. It's held in the beautiful fishing town of Port Washington, which is located about 25 minutes up the lake from Milwaukee. The local American Legion's annual fry attracts visitors from all across the Midwest who come for the all-you-can-eat smelt and the good times to go with it. The $12 entry includes unlimited food and a free can of beer (or a pop if you're underage). The best part about this event is getting to sample all of the homemade tartar sauces.
Daddy Maxwell's Antarctic Diner, Williams Bay
This cool Igloo-themed diner is a popular summertime stop for Chicagoans vacationing around Lake Geneva, and for year-round residents, too. On top of wonderful breakfast plates and freshly made doughnuts, Daddy Maxwell's also puts out a mean fish fry. The lake perch and potato pancakes are spot on.
Freddie's West End, Lake Geneva
Another favorite of mine in the Lake Geneva area is this less known option. I first heard about it on the always reliable LTHForum. Freddie's only serves food on Fridays, when you can get a fish fry for lunch or dinner. It always features walleye, pike, lake perch, and bluegill. Be sure to get the tasty potato pancakes as your side.
Tempest Oyster Bar, Madison
When I get back to my old college stomping grounds, one of my favorite stops is this seafood-centric spot during happy hour. Tempest Oyster Bar has some wonderful food, cheap drink specials, and, if it's Friday, a great fish fry. The bar offers either lake perch or walleye, and both come seasoned in a light cornmeal coating with a heaping amount of fresh cut fries, cole slaw, and tartar sauce. This is the fanciest-looking fish fry I've encountered.
Dexter's Pub, Madison
Because there are so many bars in Madison, there are a bunch of options for a Friday fish fry. Dexter's Pub on the east side is a fantastic spot for local craft beer. Regulars flock to the place to sip on some of Wisconsin's world class microbrews, pairing them with some better-than-average bar food. The Friday fish fry is offered with quite the selection of local fish options, as well as some fish from further away. Enjoy the bluegills, which are hard to find elsewhere, while sipping on whatever Ale Asylum brew is in season. Shout-out to @MadisonFishFry for the recommendation. He has the entire city covered on his site.