The 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter are supposed to be a time of spiritual reflection and piety. Ironically, Lent also ushers in one of the most festive times of year for Fox Citians – fish fry season.
In the 1930s and ‘40s, restaurants, supper clubs and taverns began hosting fish fries to accommodate a large Catholic customer base that was restricted from eating meat. In the 1960s, the Catholic church limited its meat ban to Fridays during Lent, but the fish fry had already become a cultural institution.
“It just became such a cultural tradition; people grew up with the idea of the Friday fish fry and embraced it as one of those things. People actually liked it,” says Matthew Carpenter, executive director of The History Museum at the Castle in Appleton.
Carpenter says that while the fish fry is not unique to Wisconsin, the state in particular widely adopted it, partly because of its significant Catholic population. “Our Wisconsin culture just embraced it, sort of like brandy old fashioneds or cheese curds,” he says. “It’s an iconic part of our cultural identity.”
Two Deals under $10
When payday is Monday, but Friday is today, The Dome Sports Bar and Grill in Neenah is a great option. Nine dollars gets you a perch or haddock basket, which includes coleslaw, your potato of choice and rye bread. The food comes out hot, fresh and each table is equipped with its own large squirt bottle of tartar sauce – a fish fry necessity. Another budget-friendly option is The Outpost Pub & Provisions in Sherwood, which offers fresh walleye, lake perch and haddock in three different sizes — small, regular and double. According to co-owner Brittany Schroeder, all small portions are just $9 and come with coleslaw, rye bread and a side item. Regulars love the homemade German potato salad and potato pancakes. The pub’s “up North” log cabin vibe makes it the perfect place to watch the game on one of many big-screen TVs.
Belly Up: All-You-Can-Eat Options
Mark’s East Side in Appleton has offered all-you-can-eat Icelandic brand batter-fried haddock since 1967 when owner Mark Dougherty’s parents first opened the supper club. The details are what makes Mark’s fish fry shine – the haddock batter is a special family recipe, the coleslaw is made with hand-shredded cabbage and the tartar sauce is a homemade house recipe as well. On any given Friday night, Dougherty and his staff serve upwards of 500 guests. It is an all-day event starting at 11 a.m. with a typical lunch crowd of more than 150 people. Also on the menu is perch, frog legs and other fish like walleye, salmon, mahi-mahi, shrimp and scallops. Plus, Mark’s offers a fresh fish feature that changes weekly.
Van Abel’s of Hollandtown in Kaukauna, which is celebrating its 170th anniversary this year, serves up Canadian pan-fried walleye, fresh lake perch, pike, shrimp, scallops, cod and their famous fish puffs Tuesday through Friday. Fridays are the busiest night of the week, so General Manager Chris Koenen recommends dining on a weekday for shorter wait times and a more relaxed pace. “Something unique we offer is our country-style fish. It’s perch, pike, fish puffs and cod in an all-you-can-eat format,” Koenen says. Items are served family style in bowls with unlimited refills. “It’s not a basket, it’s more like a dining experience,” says Koenen, who is a fifth generation employee of the restaurant. “We have employees whose moms and grandmothers all worked here,” he says. “We are a multi-generational and multi-family group.”
Drinks and Fish Fries
Brandy old fashioned or beer? You decide.
Menasha’s Club Tavern is the epitome of the classic Friday fish experience, serving everything from perch and pike to salmon and swordfish. If you arrive after 5 p.m. on a Friday, chances are the bar and tables will be full. The protocol goes like this: approach a table with food and ask for dibs on the spot when they leave. The table may already be spoken for, but you can ask the lucky party-in-waiting for dibs after them. Depending on the day, you may end up going two or even three parties deep. Never fear, grappling for tables is actually part of the fun. The bar features an eclectic selection of draught and bottled beer to keep you busy while you wait. Pro-tip: Go on Wednesday or Thursday for the same menu, but less people.
With 15 beers on tap and another 125 bottled craft varieties, Houdini’s Escape Gastropub in Appleton is the fish fry spot for beer aficionados. The restaurant received the 2017 Golden Fork Award for Best Happy Hour, which runs 3 to 6 p.m. every day according to Assistant General Manager Justin Stilt. Perch is king at Houdini’s – every Friday morning, the chef team hand-breads their supply. The perch is served in a few creative ways. The perch lunch includes two butterfly fillets and a side. The perch dinner comes with three fillets, chef’s vegetable of the day and a choice of side. For something different, try the perch tacos topped with pico de gallo, avocado, lettuce and chipotle ranch served with corn or flour tortillas.
One Fish, Two Fish
When it comes to variety, these spots offer the best
Out-O-Town Supper Club, Kaukauna: Owned by Brian and Lisa George’s family for almost 35 years, Out-O-Town Supper Club offers perch, haddock, pike and bluegill. They serve this array of fish every night of the week, but on Wednesdays and Fridays it’s on special. On those days, the fish is served with coleslaw and tartar sauce, both of which are homemade. The epic salad bar is an extra $2 per order, but it’s worth the money to try Out-O-Town’s popular chicken gizzards which are included on the bar.
Camelot Bar & Grill, Appleton: From the outside, Camelot Bar & Grill doesn’t look like much, but don’t let that fool you. The Wisconsin Avenue establishment serves one of Appleton’s most beloved fish fries from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesdays and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Fridays. Choose from perch, haddock, baby pike and sunfish, in addition to scallops, shrimp and frog legs. Owner Brian Striegel says the bar goes through 200-250 pounds of haddock a week, because he only buys the best.
Scuba’s Pourhouse, Appleton: According to owner Steve Van Frossen, Scuba’s offers made-to-order, hand-battered fresh lake perch as well as unique offerings like pan-fried or blackened mahi-mahi, Bourbon Street-style haddock or tilapia and Mardi Gras shrimp. Van Frossen says the most popular option is the blackened haddock. Scuba’s doesn’t take reservations, and from 5 to 9 p.m. there is a pretty steady flow of patrons. The restaurant’s 18 TVs broadcasting the sporting event of the moment will provide entertainment while you wait.
Lake Park Pub, Menasha: Lake Park Pub offers lightly breaded or beer battered fresh lake perch, Icelandic haddock, bluegill, baby walleye pike and tilapia at their award-winning fish fry. (They have won accolades for Best Fish Fry in the Post Crescent’s Best of the Valley Readers’ Choice Awards for the past seven consecutive years.) Haddock is the most popular choice and comes either broiled, beer battered or lightly breaded. According to server Candy Godden, Fridays get very busy so plan to come for an early or late dinner to avoid long waits.
Feel-Good Fish Fry: Harvey Pierre VFW Post 2778, Appleton
The Wisconsin Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) has a tradition of serving veterans, military families and their local communities. To this end, the Harvey Pierre VFW Post 2778, which is named for the first Appleton soldier killed in World War I, serves an iconic Friday Fish fry with proceeds benefiting local veterans. The VFW serves perch, scallops, haddock, shrimp and walleye starting at 11 a.m. on Fridays. According to VFW Bar Manager Bailey Morton, many vets come and share their stories during the Friday fish fry. “The people [who] have been coming for years love this place and have been making memories here,” she says. “It’s just a traditional place to come for Friday fish fry.”
Worth the Drive: Wendt’s On The Lake
When time is no issue, consider a leisurely trip to Wendt’s On the Lake, a year-round destination for fish fry fanatics. The restaurant is located in Van Dyne on Highway 45 between Fond du Lac and Oshkosh, overlooking Lake Winnebago – about a 40-minute drive from Appleton. The establishment was purchased in 1962 by Fritz and Cynthia Wendt who made it Wendt’s Bar and would serve Friday fish on folding tables. Today Wendt’s serves a full lunch and dinner menu Tuesday through Sunday in addition to their famous lake perch which is coated and fried in a secret recipe batter. “We use a lighter breading than most places,” says Shawn Wendt who belongs to the third generation of Wendt’s to oversee the restaurant. “A lot of people say it’s good with the light batter because you can actually taste the fish.” The restaurant serves about 600 people each Friday, so be prepared for a wait. “There’s a little lull between 2:30 and 3:30 p.m. but then it picks right back up,” Wendt says.