This story first appeared in Bill Addison’s newsletter “Notes From a Roving Critic.” Subscribe now to keep up with Eater’s roving critic on the road.
Lent began last week, which means the seasonal tradition of Friday fish fries is in full swing at churches, restaurants, and community centers across the nation. My grandmother made soft-crisp cakes of reconstituted salt cod and mashed potatoes on Good Friday every year; thinking about how my brother, cousins, and I slowly savored them is one of my happiest childhood memories.
Of course, in many of the states that surround the Great Lakes, Friday fish fries are a beloved year-round happening. The custom arrived in the 19th and 20th centuries with Catholic immigrants — German, Polish, and Irish arrivals (among others) — and weekly gatherings for imported cod or lake-caught perch and walleye gradually spread to mainstream culture.
Wisconsinites in particular still hold Friday fish-fry gatherings dear. The once-religious ritual became a secular gathering during Prohibition, when speakeasies would entice patrons with the aromatics of sizzling fish to mask wafts of the illicit booze being poured. In beer capitals like Milwaukee, the meal endured in taverns and bars after the alcohol ban was lifted, settling in as standing social events to mark the end of the workweek.
I was in Madison last summer to review the city’s fine-dining jewel L’Etoile and had scheduled one day of the trip to explore Milwaukee, where I’d never been. When I realized this day happened to be a Friday, I dropped all other notions about dining in the city to focus on a fish-fry crawl. I researched dozens of places online, asked for suggestions from local food writers, and mapped out a plan. Between noon and 8 p.m., I made it to seven fish fries.
My first stop was Kegel’s Inn, an institution for German cuisine. I ordered bluegill, a midsize lake fish — sometimes called bream — that’s a local favorite among connoisseurs. The plate came with what I soon recognized as the standard Milwaukee fish-fry accompaniments: potatoes in some form (Kegel’s goes all in, offering German potato salad as well as spuds mashed, baked, or in the guise of fries, spaetzle, dumplings, or pancakes), coleslaw, rye bread, and, if you choose potato pancakes (which I did), applesauce.
The food was … not great. Maybe the cooking is more careful at dinnertime, but the schnitzel-like batter encasing the fish was tough, and the potato pancakes tasted as if they’d been sitting too long under a heat lamp. I wondered then if this was going to be a long day.
Things improved at O’Lydia’s Bar & Grill in Walker’s Point, a neighborhood founded in the early 1800s as a fur trading post. With ‘80s hits (“Pour Some Sugar on Me,” “Love Is a Battlefield,” “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life”) playing in the background, I asked for the combo plate. Hunks of flaky cod in peppery batter arrived strewn among smaller, curled filets of perch and firm (but not leathery) pieces of bluegill. One stray fried shrimp found its way into the mix. Light, oniony potato pancakes lay at the bottom of the pile.
I asked the bartender which fish the customers order most. “Cod,” she said instantly. “I’ve never even tried the others.”
I swung by Swingin’ Door Exchange in the stately Mackie building downtown; the restaurant has existed in several iterations since 1933. I was there for a fish fry (a serviceable perch-and-cod combo) but equally for a Brandy Old-Fashioned, Wisconsin’s trademark cocktail. I was coached to order it “Press,” short for Presbyterian, which originally called for seltzer and no alcohol, but these days means 7-Up and soda water half-and-half.
By then, it was around 4 p.m. The Friday afternoon regulars rolled in and took their places at the bar. I sipped my drink slowly; the glow of the muddled maraschino cherries at the bottom of the glass heralded the sunset I’d see in a few hours during a needed brisk walk.
After Swingin’ Door there were stops at Alioto’s, a Continental-Italian old-liner started in 1923, and St. Paul Fish Company in the bustling Milwaukee Public Market, which serves fish fries daily (go for the perch). At Lakefront Brewery Beer Hall, two couples in their 70s adopted me as their fifth. We shouted conversation over the oom-pah rhythms of the Brewhaus Polka Kings. They encouraged me to go eat frozen custard after my hunt concluded.
But my absolute favorite fish fry stop — the one I relive as I stare off in the distance when I think about this day — came as a recommendation from food writer Kyle Nabilcy, who learned of it through a high school buddy. In the basement of the Northshore American Legion, Post #331, there’s a restaurant called the Foxhole Tavern. It’s a big, plain room anchored by a three-sided bar. I parked on a stool and ordered the walleye, a firm, clean-tasting Great Lakes fish I recall savoring when I lived briefly in Minneapolis two decades ago.
My dish included all the familiars: potato cake, applesauce, coleslaw, rye bread. It was a study of golds and browns arranged on a plastic white oval platter, and everything about it felt right. A crisp, sheer coating covered the fish. The potato cakes were akin to hash-brown patties served at diners; their crunch brought comforting satisfaction. Friday fish fries have never been about ostentation, and this might have been the simplest plate of food I was served that day. But in the precision of the cooking and the basic deliciousness of the dinner, and among the easy fellowship of the other diners, it conveyed everything I’d hoped to glean about Milwaukee fish fries. The Foxhole Tavern serves the meal every week of the year. If you’re in the city, I hope you check it out.
Kegel’s Inn: 5901 W. National Ave., Milwaukee, 414-257-9999, kegelsinn.com.
O’Lydia’s Bar & Grill: 331 S. First St., Milwaukee, 414-271-7546, olydias.com.
Swingin’ Door Exchange: 219 E. Michigan St., Milwaukee, 414-276-8150, swingindoorexchange.com.
Alioto’s: 3041 N. Mayfair Road, Milwaukee, 414-476-6900, aliotos.net.
St. Paul Fish Company: 400 N. Water St., Milwaukee, 414-220-8383, stpaulfish.com.
Lakefront Brewery Beer Hall: 1872 N. Commerce St., Milwaukee, 414-372-8800, lakefrontbrewery.com.
Foxhole Tavern at Northshore American Legion, Post #331: 4121 N. Wilson Drive, Milwaukee, 414-961-2123, northshorepost331.org.