Monday, January 26, 2009

Fish Fry Road Trip

The tradition of the Friday night fish fry is unique to the upper Midwest. Its roots are in the Lenten season when many Catholic churches use to host fish dinners on meatless Fridays. Some still do.

During prohibition taverns obviously declined and those that survived switched to serving food. Traditionally Friday was payday and the fried fish special became a successful lure for customers with cash in their pockets. Going out for fish on Friday soon became popular all year long, not just because it was Lent. As a matter of fact, today Lutherans are more likely to go out for fish on Friday than Catholics.

Prohibition ended but by then the nation was caught up in the Great Depression and the restaurant business languished. Thus began the tradition of the all-you-can eat, Friday night fish fry at a ridiculously low price … and inevitably a long wait at the bar where the real money was made.

Locally caught perch and walleye were originally the most likely ingredient for this weekly ritual since they were cheap and plentiful. But in the 60s their prices started to rapidly increase as their availability decreased. Restaurants began substituting cheaper ocean varieties, especially cod. Today, lake fish have returned to many menus—perch, walleye and bluegill—but imported from Canada.

There is an omnipresent debate about whether the fish should be breaded or battered. Some insist that the fish has to be pan fried, but it’s more likely to be deep fried since this is a quicker and cheaper method of preparation. Everyone has his or her opinion about who has the best fish fry in Madison. I know I have mine. But, I’ll leave those discussions for another time.

Fish Fry in Wisconsin has weathered bad times before but is clearly here to stay. Next Friday, let’s go out for fish … let’s go out of town.

Ding-A-Ling Supper Club
County Road H
(608) 879-9209
This is a classic supper club just west of Janesville long renown for its Friday fish fry. The specialty here is beer-battered cod or perch. They also have something called “plain cod”—the skin browned but not breaded. The dinner includes the anticipated pick of potatoes including homemade potato pancakes (the side of choice among southeastern Wisconsin fish fry aficionados). The Ding-A-Ling is but a little shoebox stuck out in the middle of nowhere, yet it packs them in every Friday (and they do take reservations which are highly recommended).

Glarner Stube
518 1st Street
New Glarus
(608) 527-2216
The journey down State Highway 69 to New Glarus is as charming as the Swiss-styled village itself. The Glarner Stube is small; the bar and dining room usually packed and the kitchen hustling to keep up. They don’t take reservations on the weekends. Like everything else, the fish fry is excellent—deep-fried lake perch or cod or baked cod. The proverbial cole slaw is superior … better yet, you can opt for their famous roesti—Swiss fried potatoes—for just a little extra.

Lake House Inn
1612 E. Hotel Drive
(608) 884-4544
This place can be a little hard to find … part of its appeal. A historic old resort on Lake Kegonsa, the rambling old hotel is unpretentious if not just a tad shabby. Big draws are the crackling fireplace in winter and the screened-in veranda in summer. There’s plenty of room to wait in the cavernous bar (and wait you will on Friday without a reservation). The fish fry is all you can eat and comes with a more-than-respectable cole slaw and choice of potato including the au gratins, favored by the locals.

Norm’s Hideaway Bar & Grill
N150 Danielson Road
(608) 884-4823
If you’re hankering for Up North atmosphere and lakeside dining, Norm’s isn’t so far away. Located on the shores of Lake Koshkonong the rustic restaurant is a favored destination for outside dining in summer and Friday fish fry all year long. Come Friday night, variety is the name of the game here: beer-battered cod; blue gill; smelt; fried, baked or broiled walleye; catfish with hush puppies; a half-pound of shrimp; or even Fiesta Cod, poached with roasted garlic salsa. If you’re there on Monday, be sure and try the deep-fried lobster.

Owl’s Club
5847 E. County Road N
(608) 868-3413
Despite its name, the Owl’s Club in Milton is pure Wisconsin tavern with prices to match. A small salad bar that boasts homemade potato salad and cole slaw is included with the fish fry. The choice of fish is impressive: fried perch and walleye, beer-battered cod and not-so-common-around-here catfish. Both the potato pancakes and hashbrowns with cheese make fine side dishes. A long-running, lively, local watering hole and popular venue for bands, it’s probably not the best choice if you’re looking for a quiet evening.

Polonez Restaurant
4016 S. Packard Avenue
St. Francis
(414) 482-0080
Going to a Polish restaurant for fish fry may seem odd to some, but get over it. Polish American décor and menu specialties with unpronounceable names aside, their Friday night fish fry is All-Wisconsin, offering either deep-fried lake perch or cod or baked cod. All come with cole slaw and a choice of potato—fried, tots, mashed or potato pancakes—wafer thin and absolutely worth the trip alone. It’s not all you can eat but if you’re still hungry order a couple more of those fantastic potato pancakes available à la carte.

Quindt's Town Lounge
441 South Boulevard
(608) 356-6950
Owners Mick and Virginia Quindt work hard to assure all their guests leave satisfied. Perhaps that’s why the Friday night fish fry on average attracts 500 or more diners each week? Tables can be hard to come by but well worth the wait. It’s not that they offer anything out of the ordinary, just that it’s ordinarily well done—deep-fried, beer-battered cod, either two or three pieces. It comes with the expected choice of potatoes but consider forgoing the cole slaw en lieu of the signature house salad with wasabi dressing for only a buck more.

800 Wisconsin Dells Parkway
Lake Delton
(866) 888-1861
This is probably cheating, but I’m going to add it to my list any way. Originally the Del-Bar got its name because it was located between the Dells and Baraboo. You won’t find a fish fry special, but the pan-fried walleye is very special—as good as you’ll ever get anywhere (likewise, the spinach salad with bacon dressing and hashbrowns). The restaurant began in the 1930s as a humble roadside bar. In 1943 it was purchased by Jim and Alice Wimmer and evolved and matured into a restaurant that is all about the good life in Wisconsin. The Wimmer family continues to run the Del-Bar today and it’s a welcomed oasis among the tawdry desert so much of Wisconsin Dells has come to be.


Jason said...

Dorf House in Roxbury is a great one as well.

Nadine said...

Terrific list! A friend and I have been searching for a good Friday night fish fry not too far from Madison and you've saved us a lot of time by compiling this list. said...

Meet yo at the Ding A Ling,,
and to Harpos for a nitecap-

Brad said...

I highly recommend the Nite Cap Inn in Palmyra. Best fish fry I've had, and try the potato pancakes.

Anonymous said...

I never taste this, but I'm gonna made it in a low portion because I don't want to waste food because I already love this kind of food, specially if they are interesting at learn sexual health website.

Mantiz said...

All of these places are just perfect to eat, great service and great prices.