Every Friday across the state of Wisconsin, people trek out through sun, rain and snow to get their hands on some golden fried fish. But what’s the story of this weekly institution? Below, Mike Seidel of the blog Madison Fish Fry breaks down the fish fry tradition, and recommends some places to join in the fun.
Welcome to wisconsin
In Wisconsin, Fridays invariably mean one thing: fish fry. While it's not a steadfast rule, the best fish fries tend to be found at the state's famous supper clubs and taverns. Wisconsin has a rich history when it comes to bars and restaurants, and at no time is it more evident than on a Friday night.
The Wisconsin fish fry tradition began in the 1800s with the European immigrants that settled near Lake Michigan in places like Milwaukee. These pioneers brought the techniques they'd perfected in the old world and adapted them to meet their current environment, which meant utilizing the abundant fish they found in their local lakes and rivers. The fact that many were Catholic and needed to abstain from eating meat during Lent made the fish fry a natural evolution.
During the Prohibition era, fish fries became a way for certain establishments to stay in business: it was a convenient way to mask their speakeasy under the intoxicating aroma of frying fish. Fish was either incredibly cheap or free at these illicit taverns (as long as you were imbibing) and often served All You Can Eat.
What's a fish fry
At its core, the fish fry concept seems fairly self-descriptive: it's a meal consisting of fried fish and accompanying sides. But how is a Wisconsin fish fry different from the typical pub fish and chips you can find almost anywhere?
While fish and chips is essentially just that — deep fried cod or haddock served with a side of chips (French fries) and malt vinegar, served every day of the week — fish fries take it further. Cod and haddock are still popular fish fry choices, but Wisconsin fish fries traditionally use local freshwater fish: lake perch, bluegill, and walleye. During the spring smelt run, special "Smelt Fries" pop up here and there at veteran's halls, fraternal organizations, and similar other clubs all over the state.
More recently, however, fish fries evolved to include oceanic varieties; saltwater fish passed their freshwater counterparts in popularity and never looked back. In my estimation, cod accounts for upwards of 80% of the fish ordered at fish fries.
In addition to serving a variety of types of fried fish, fish fries generally offer several potato options beyond French fries, including: baked, mashed, au gratin, and (around Milwaukee) traditional potato pancakes. Most every fish fry will also include a salad (usually in the form of either a mayo- or vinegar-based coleslaw), tartar sauce, lemon wedges, and some form of bread (rye being the traditional choice). Some may also include sides like baked beans, macaroni salad, or a full-fledged salad bar.
No fish fry would be complete without some adult beverages. Whether it’s beer or brandy (the liquor of choice in these parts), a meal of fried fish is made infinitely better by a few libations. It doesn't hurt that fish fries are often held in bars and taverns. Wisconsin has a robust brewing tradition stemming from the days of Pabst and Miller and blossoming into modern craft breweries like New Glarus and Ale Asylum. It’s a flavor combination that is distinctively delicious and uniquely Wisconsin.
Supper Club: A traditional Wisconsin restaurant specializing in steaks and seafood. Historically only open for dinner, many have evolved to serve lunch as well. Most are known for fish fry on Friday, prime rib on Saturday, and broasted (pressure fried) chicken other days of the week. These family-owned establishments usually feature dark wood paneling, low lighting, and a relaxed atmosphere. More of a social gathering spot than just a place to go out for a meal, people often stop at the bar for a drink before dinner and shoot the breeze with their friends and neighbors. Many supper clubs are also known for ice cream drinks such as the grasshopper, brandy flip, or pink squirrel.
Brandy Old Fashioned Sweet: The unofficial official drink of the fish fry. A cocktail made by muddling sugar, bitters, an orange slice, and a maraschino cherry then adding brandy and 7-Up or Sprite. Topped off with an orange wedge and additional cherries. Most prefer them hand-muddled - some places use a mix - with Korbel brandy. You can also order Old Fashioneds "Sour" (topped with sour mix) or "Dry" (topped with club soda).
Potato Pancakes: Fried pancakes of grated or ground potato, flour, and egg, often flavored with grated onion or garlic and seasoning. They are usually accompanied by apple sauce or maple syrup.
Bluegill: One of the traditional freshwater fish found throughout Wisconsin. A member of the sunfish family, these are the smallest, and arguably the tastiest fish you will find among the Friday specials. In addition to lake perch, these were the main fish available at fish fries in the early days, but as stocks dwindled cod and haddock eventually moved in.
Perch: Some places that claim to have "perch" serve what is called ocean perch, while others have varying forms of freshwater perch such as European perch or pike-perch. The traditional fish fry perch is a freshwater fish known as yellow perch. So, if the menu just says "perch" and you are looking for the true Wisconsin experience, make sure to clarify that it is real yellow perch, and not ocean perch or one of the other imposters.
Smelt: Another freshwater fish found in Wisconsin. Smelt are unique in that they are netted in the early spring and rarely appear on menus outside of that time. For this reason, special Smelt Fries are found during the spring and bring out people en masse. The fish itself is small, similar to a sardine, and often fried fully intact with only the head, tail, and guts being removed.
Walleye Pike: Walleye is a fish fry fish to be sure, but it's not just reserved for Fridays like some of the others. Many restaurants (especially supper clubs) have it on the menu every day of the week all year long. Walleye is a predator fish and therefor they accumulate mercury as they grow. Thus many places prefer to serve baby pike instead. Baby pike also have a slightly sweeter taste than their adult counterparts.
Relish Tray: A staple at supper clubs. A dish consisting of items such as carrots, celery, radishes, and green onion. May include pickled eggs, or cucumber slices, but usually no actual pickle relish.
AYCE or AUCE: Acronym for All You Can Eat. Once incredibly common, the AYCE fish fry has become harder and harder to find. Those that still exist feature either haddock, cod, or ocean perch, and in some cases the less desirable pollock.
Poorman's Lobster: Or simply "Poorman's," just another way of saying baked or broiled fish. Oftentimes cod is used, but haddock or other ocean fish may be substituted as well. Although it's not fried, it is almost always found at the fish fry as a sort of healthier alternative. It's traditionally served with lemon wedges and drawn butter which gives it a lobster-like presentation.
Beer Batter: Just like it sounds, a batter that uses beer instead of milk or water. The bubbles in the beer add body and lightness to the batter, and depending on the type of the beer will add color and flavor. Usually beer batters are reserved for cod or haddock, but some places will also use it on walleye or other freshwater varieties. The use of it on freshwater fish is something that is usually discouraged, since thicker batter tend to cover up the subtle flavor if freshwater fish.
Where do I get my own fish fry?
There are so many fish fries out there, it is extremely difficult to choose a few places that best exemplify the tradition. Most of those listed below were chosen based on the overall quality of the fish fry and the diversity of their offerings. A few were picked solely based on the fact that they do one thing incredibly well and have done it for years and years. Part of the allure of the fish fry is the ambiance of the restaurant, and these places all have the "it" factor in one way or another. These are located in Madison and the surrounding area; there are, of course, excellent fish fries across the state.
The Crawfish Junction is a great place to start any discussion about fish fry. Located in the tiny village of Milford (between Johnson Creek and Lake Mills) they have basically every type of fish available and do every single one well.
Of course they have cod, and it's great. A key component of fried cod is that it doesn't harbor grease, and Crawfish's lightly breaded loins come with nary a drop. They also season their breading well which gives the cod a little extra flavor without overwhelming it.
In addition, they also get fresh bluegill and lake perch on Fridays which they serve until it runs out. When fresh fish is paired with Crawfish's specially seasoned breading, a taste combination is achieved that is really tough to beat. In addition, their sides are superb, especially the house-cut fries and house-made tartar sauce. They also serve a traditional slice of rye bread with their fish, which is something most places simply don't do anymore.
W6376 Cty Hwy A
Johnson Creek (Milford), WI 53038
Dexter's Pub has staked its claim as one of the best fish fries in the city of Madison, and is showing no signs of slowing down. Like Crawfish Junction, Dexter's fries just about every type of fish and does them all extremely well.
While the bluegill is my personal favorite (lightly breaded and never fishy tasting), the lake perch and walleye are also extremely enticing. Their signature breading actually pairs best with the walleye as it has a sticky, almost Fruit-Roll-Up-like texture that is uniquely appealing.
Dexter's also has some of the best side options the world has ever known, including the most tasty waffle fries I've ever had the pleasure of eating. The brew fries, garlic-chili fries, and tartar sauce are no slouches either, and they serve some of the only rye that you'll find in the city.
What's more, Dexter's makes a point of spelling out where their fish are sourced, from the Great Lakes Lake Perch to the Canadian Walleye and the Bering Sea Cod. Lastly, if you're not in the mood for an Old Fashioned, Dexter's boasts one of the finest beer selections in the city.
301 North Street
Madison, WI 53704
When you talk about AYCE fish fry in the Madison area, the conversation starts with the Dorf Haus. The Dorf Haus is located in the tiny village of Roxbury which is about 30 minutes from downtown Madison, and while some might consider that a long drive for some fish, believe me it's worth every mile.
The fish of choice at the Dorf is haddock, and it's some of the best haddock around. The fish boasts flawless meat with a fantastically flaky texture and delicate flavor. It's paired with a well-seasoned breading that compliments the fish without stealing its thunder. While even a limited portion would be worth the drive north the fact that you can eat as long as your heart desires takes this fish fry over the top.
In addition to the endless fish the Dorf Haus includes AYCE fritters (fried bread balls) and French fries with the meal. The fritters are sweet little doughy bites of heaven and downright delicious when slathered with the provided honey.
8931 Hwy. Y
Roxbury (Sauk City), WI 53583
Fitz's on the Lake
While the AYCE conversation starts with the Dorf Haus, it ends at Fitz's on the Lake. Located on the shores of Lake Wisconsin about 30 minutes north of Madison in Okee, Fitz's is the most scenic fish fry in the area, but the greatness doesn't end with the view.
Whereas the haddock at the Dorf Haus is breaded, Fitz's uses a beer batter that is among the best out there. The secret to a good beer batter is to keep it light, which is something a lot of places can't seem to figure out. The last thing you want is a donut wrapped around a piece of fish and Fitz's knows the tricks to keep it thin. Their beer batter still has plenty of flavor and is fried in scalding hot oil which helps keep it flaky.
The haddock is paired with their thick and creamy tartar sauce, adding a textbook finishing touch. Put a plate of Ftiz's signature hash browns with cheese and onion on the side and a brandy old fashioned sweet and you have a meal fit for a king.
W11602 County Road V
Lodi, WI 53555
By now, you might be sensing a theme here: some of the biggest fish fries are found in the smallest of places, and that refrain continues in the town of Poynette. The Owl's Nest is a supper club for the ages and has one of the best fish fries in the area (and probably the world for that matter). While the term "Supper Club" doesn't appear anywhere in the name, the Owl's Nest has all the hallmarks that make the traditional Wisconsin restaurants so alluring including: Friday Fish Fry, Saturday Prime Rib, a fully-stocked salad bar, fancy ice cream drinks (like the pink squirrel and the grasshopper), and portions so large you'll probably need a doggy bag.
The fish of record is beer battered cod, although they do have lightly breaded and broiled versions as well. The cod has an incredibly flaky batter that is dark and smoky with a rich flavor. Making a beer batter this flawless is a skill perfected over years of trial and error, and the cooks at the Owl's Nest are true students of the game.
In addition to the five fat pieces of beer battered fish, Owl's Nest serves thick-cut French fries, rich, zesty tartar sauce, peppy coleslaw, baked beans, and plenty of dark rye to make a meal that isn't All You Can Eat, but is probably All You Should Eat. Of course, if you do eat it all and you still want more, you can always take a spin through the salad bar for a couple bucks or add on more fish at a mere dollar a pop.
617 E North Street
Poynette, WI 53955
Jordan's Big 10 Pub
No guide to South-Central Wisconsin fish fries would be complete without a visit to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Big 10 Pub. The Big 10 boasts an impressive selection of fish on Fridays including: cod, lake perch, bluegill, and walleye. While the cod is commendable, the real stars here are the freshwater fish. The bluegill is some of the best the city has to offer, the perch is a very respectable rendition, and the walleye (albeit grilled rather than fried) comes in two different styles.
In addition, the Big 10 is one of the few places in Madison that offers potato pancakes as a side option. Slightly thicker than the traditional Milwaukee-style pancakes, these still feature plenty of seasoning and come with a side of homemade apple compote.
1330 Regent Street
Madison, WI 53715
Toby's Supper Club
Toby's Supper Club on Madison's extreme southeastern side is a quintessential supper club, complete with low ceilings, dark wood paneling, and relish trays. While not as fancy as some of other supper clubs out there, the prices are incredibly reasonable and the food incredibly tasty, earning them a loyal following.
Like many other great places, Toby's offers a slew of fish on Fridays. Cod, lake perch, bluegill, walleye, and even catfish are represented, with the best among them being the cod and the bluegill. Toby's cod is a breaded version that is so light it practically floats on air. The bluegill is also lightly breaded and served in a large portion that delivers plenty of bang for the buck.
Battered steak fries or hash brown assist the fish admirably, as does Toby's homemade tartar. All the fish options at Toby's go for under $13, which is a real steal considering that they come with all the trimmings, including the relish tray and a dessert. On visits the unannounced treats have been: ice cream, cookies, and homemade cinnamon rolls. It's always a surprise and the perfect way to finish off a fantastic fish fry.
3717 S Dutch Mill Road
Madison, WI 53718