Tasty, fun and cheap: It's easy to see why Wisconsin is hooked on Friday fish fries
By JAY JONES | Chicago Tribune | Published: July 5, 2019
In America's Dairyland, folks have about as much love for their Friday fish fries as they do for the Packers, cheese and beer. And leading the cheering squad -- for the fish, not the football -- is a Milwaukee guy named Caleb Westphal.
"I have eaten a fish fry every Friday night for at least 279 weeks," Westphal said in an email in mid-May, meaning the number of consecutive weeks has likely grown by a few. He started keeping track in early 2014 but said that his streak actually extends back to the summer of 2013.
"That would make the number a bit higher," noted the 33-year-old Westphal, who writes about his weekly "fishing" trips for the Milwaukee Record website.
To the uninitiated, Westphal's feat may be jaw-dropping. But in Wisconsin, fish fries are a Friday night ritual that became popular during Prohibition, when both fish and illegal booze were coming out of the kitchen.
"If there was intoxicating liquor being consumed, the smell of the fish fry would cover it up," said Jim Klisch, co-founder of Milwaukee's Lakefront Brewery.
Each Friday, thousands patiently wait for tables at taverns, restaurants and bowling alleys to get their fish-fry fix. Within a couple of hours or so of Chicago, there are seemingly endless eateries at which people fill their bellies at bargain prices. At the more popular places, the wait can be as much as two hours, especially on a summer evening.
"It's a rite of passage," said Joe Burbach, the kitchen manager at Dexter's Pub in Madison.
Dexter's is one of those popular places where the line often stretches onto the sidewalk outside the corner bar, located in a working-class neighborhood about 3 miles northeast of the state capital.
"It's more about the experience than just the wait," Burbach said. "You make a night of it."
The lure of the fish is as intoxicating as the ever-changing list of 24 craft beers on tap and dozens more in bottles and cans. Each Friday in the tiny, steamy kitchen, fry master Evan Christiansen uses a different brew in the batter for the wild-caught Bering Sea cod ($13.99).
"It's wild and sustainable," Burbach said. "That makes a difference flavor-wise.
"We pay top dollar for our fish," he added. "I've always believed that you get what you pay for."
People keeping an eye on their cholesterol and calories needn't be excluded from the culinary tradition. Most restaurants offer baked or broiled alternatives, such as the Canadian bluegill ($15.99) and walleye ($17.99) at the Madison pub.
Just a couple of miles off Interstate 94, the highway linking the state capital with Milwaukee, people have been flocking to Pewaukee's 5 O'Clock Club for 90 years.
Jason is the fourth generation of Knutsons to run the popular bar and restaurant that, during Prohibition, served moonshine distilled just a few feet from where people imbibed.
"We actually still have the still up in the attic," Knutson said.
The look and feel of the place hasn't dramatically changed since its opening in 1929.
"If you look around, some people call it dated, but it's meant to be that way," he said. "It's meant to be like you're walking into your grandmother's house."
In a woodsy setting overlooking Pewaukee Lake, the 5 O'Clock originally got its fish out of the nearby water. Demand, however, quickly outpaced the local supply.
"We're going through maybe 120 pounds of perch on Friday; cod will be upwards of 400 pounds," he said.
Knutson started breading fish when he was 9 years old.
"It's still the same breading," he said. "It's very simple: flour, bread crumbs and an egg wash. We try to let the fish speak for itself."
A cod dinner with the typical sides -- fries, coleslaw and rye bread -- costs $12. A bowl of seafood chowder -- a blend of clams, crab and scallops prepared each Friday by Jason's mom, Jeanine -- adds five bucks to the bill.
The 5 O'Clock's fish fry is also available Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings.
"People will say, 'The best fish fry is on a Thursday night,'" Knutson said, referring to the shorter wait times.
It's on Friday nights that people -- 1,000 to 1,200 each week -- are drawn by both the aroma and the music to Milwaukee's Lakefront Brewery. Despite its name, it's located on a river, about a mile west of Lake Michigan.
"We are about as traditional Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as you can get," Klisch said, noting the presence of a polka band. "It's a big beer hall somewhat reminiscent of Munich."
Klisch described the family-friendly atmosphere as unpretentious and approachable.
"It's not unusual to see four generations of a family sitting at a table," he said.
Fried fish has been a dietary staple in Milwaukee since the 1870s, Klisch said, when Polish immigrants settled on an island just offshore from the city.
"Their economics, sustenance and diet were based on fishing," he said.
Before long, the Poles were welcoming people into their homes and small taverns for heaping platters of the fish they'd caught.
"Fish was a very cheap and plentiful way of being fed," Klisch said.
At Lakefront, a cod dinner -- either baked or beer-battered and fried -- costs $13.
By late afternoon, the wait can quickly grow to 45 minutes. Many guests use that time to take a tour of the brewery, which produces roughly 46,000 barrels a year. That's in stark contrast to the 72 barrels sold in 1988, Lakefront's first full year in business.
Lakefront is on Westphal's list of the top fish fries in southeast Wisconsin. The fish-fry connoisseur typically eats at places within a 45-minute drive of Milwaukee.
Among his favorites, the nearest to Chicago is The Depot Tavern in Caledonia, about 75 miles north of downtown. The three-piece Atlantic cod dinner costs $10.95.
Westphal's top two picks are Pat's Oak Manor in Milwaukee and Randy's Neighbor's Inn in West Allis, home of the Wisconsin State Fair. Both places offer all-you-can-eat deals for a little over $10.
"At Pat's, it's beer battered, while at Randy's, it's breaded," Westphal said about the fried fish. "Pat's has some solid homemade potato pancakes, while Randy's is noteworthy for having all-you-can-eat coleslaw, bread, fries and German potato salad."
The restaurants both ooze what Westphal called "authentic warmth." Although not as important as the fish, he said "the overall character and ambiance of a location" factor in to his online reviews.
Westphal said he didn't start out trying to set a record. And he acknowledged that some people older than him may have eaten more consecutive Friday fish fries than he has.
"I did apply to Guinness World Records a few years back, just for the fun of it," he said.
"I don't think they grasped the importance of Friday fish fries," he said.