St. Louis has barbeque. Chicago has deep-dish pizza. And Madison, thanks in no small part to the hordes of Germanic and Roman Catholic settlers who decided to pitch their tents in the Driftless Area back in the 1800s, has the Friday night fish fry.
Over the centuries, Wisconsin's restaurants have perfected the art of the fry, taking advantage of expanding fish markets to move well beyond perch and cod.
But as fish fries have proliferated in Madtown and the surrounding area like fans on a food-trend bandwagon—heck, even fast-food chains are fronting them these days—the truly interesting and delicious ones are finding ways to set themselves apart, by focusing on clever or comfortable ambience, investing in a higher grade of fish or paying careful attention to issues like the sustainability of the seafood they're serving.
Whether you want to take it home, hang with friends at the neighborhood watering hole or bask in the full-on Wisconsin supper club experience, you're going to get your fish's worth at any of these great fry spots. Pass the tartar sauce, willya?
Toby's Supper Club
Things have always run a little differently at Toby's Supper Club, tucked a couple of stones' throws away from the traffic rushing past on Stoughton Road. For starters, your first stop is, by default, the bar: Friendly waitstaff take your fish fry order while you enjoy a beverage or two—may we recommend the key lime martini? Once the food's ready, you're led to a table where your entire meal awaits you. In this case, it's probably cornbread-battered, wild-caught Canadian lake perch, a salad, maybe a baked potato or some cottage cheese. Toby's fry began with lake perch, but when that fish population crashed in the 1970s, Atlantic cod joined the menu and quickly took hold.
Catch owner Roxanne Peterson at a slow moment, and she might spill on some of the modest club's outsized and storied history, how what's now the kitchen area used to be a barbershop, or that Prohibition-era bootleggers used to run illicit gin from the very spot where you're chomping hash browns. Or when the staff used to pan-fry every order. Seriously.
Toby's thrives on tradition, consistency and word of mouth and, as is probably apparent, airtight organization. "We've stuck with what we've always known," she says. "What works for us, works for us." And for her customers, too. (3717 S. Dutch Mill Rd.)
Kavanaugh's Esquire Club
The long-timers know it like they know the threads of their favorite flannel shirt: The Esquire, owned and operated by three generations of the Kavanaugh family, combines two of Wisconsin's most honored traditions—the supper club and the Friday fish fry. Bucking more modern trends, Kavanaugh's fry hasn't changed from its original 1950s focus on ocean perch. Cod and a single-serving plate of lake perch have joined the menu options over the years, but the hand-breaded ocean perch remains the main draw. It might have something to do with the fact that, in defiance of another modern trend, it remains all-you-can-eat.
"I go back to the days when fish fry was $1.25 a plate," says John Kavanaugh, the gracious and affable owner, as he surveys the large bar that forms the centerpiece of the club, where groups of regulars nurse seltzers and old fashioneds.
All-you-can-eat is a little pricier today, but this is a tradition worth the price. "We encourage people to want seconds," says Kavanaugh. "We had one customer come in and eat twenty-two pieces of fish. If a guy can do that, I'm happy for him." (1025 N. Sherman Ave.)
Okay, so the gorgeous view of Lake Waubesa is slightly less compelling when it's buried under ice and the gray clouds of winter, but it never dampens the vibe at The Green Lantern, McFarland's signature good-time neighborhood bar and supper club.
"Sometimes, it's during inclement weather when the customers come in the most," avers chef John Disselhoff, who's been plying his fry since moving to Madison from Florida four years ago. Indeed, it's common to stroll up the sturdy wooden entrance ramp on a Friday night and discover the crowd two deep at the bar, with a trio of host-stand staffers managing the line as it stretches back toward the pool table, video slots and jukebox. Disselhoff says it's not unusual to see upward of five hundred people truck through on a typical Friday night.
Tradition rocks the boat in this building, which once served as an ice depot a hundred years ago. The fish fry is anchored by Atlantic cod, either coated in beer batter or lightly breaded. And a side of hash browns, naturally. It's a winning/tasty formula that stretches back several decades.
"There's a reason we've been doing it so long," says Disselhoff. "We know what we're doing. We're kind of a juggernaut here." (4412 Siggelkow Rd., McFarland)
It's difficult not to appreciate a good fry when you're eating it with a full wall of Irish whiskeys looming nearby. Even if you don't manage to arrive early enough to score a coveted spot in a cozy snug, Brocach's Monroe Street location nails the intimate neighborhood vibe.
Recently hired chef Chris Swenson knows that haddock is traditional Scottish dinner fare, and his take on the fry gives it all the historical due it deserves. For starters, your appetite doesn't remain unwhetted for long: Well before the fish hits the table, you're presented with a rectangular plate crowded with sweet pickles, a tower of rye bread slices and a bowl of cider coleslaw. A few scant minutes later, you're staring down the barrel of twelve sizable ounces of fried haddock, four enormous pieces surrounded by fries, mashed potatoes or German potato salad. The key to the experience is in the batter, made with a hoppy English pale ale homebrewed and sold on-site by Brocach's barmaster.
If fried isn't your thing, Brocach's baked cod is a delish alternative. Just know it's not going to match its fried brethren's mouthwatering visual impact. "It's not a fair fight," admits Swenson. (1843 Monroe St.)
On any given Friday, you could stroll down Main Street and encounter as many as four—yes, four—different sandwich boards advertising fish fries. The one you want to pick is the one camped at the corner point of Main and King—that'd be Tipsy Cow, where tasty, beer-battered Atlantic cod is served in a cozy atmosphere that never feels cramped, despite its unusually shaped triangular space.
Toiling away in the Tipsy's basement-level kitchen, chef Bob Kulow and his staff jack the beer batter with New Glarus's Spotted Cow ale and a garlic- and serrano-pepper-seasoned flour that adds a noticeable (but not overwhelming) kick to the proceedings. Tip: Trade the tartar for the signature Tipsy Sauce, the Cow's tasty take on Thousand Island dressing.
Not surprisingly, the lunch crowd rivals the dinner rush on Fridays, but the staff always manages the schools of hungry customers. "You can get in and out of here," says co-owner Sue Kirton. "We do fish fry fast, but with really good flavor." We'll second that. (102 King St.)
The fish fry at Dexter's has been a neighborhood staple since the pub opened under its new name five years ago, and a few minutes inside the door are all you need to understand why, with owner Nick Zabel and food manager Joe Burbach treading the boards behind the bar, chatting up the locals and welcoming the newcomers.
A few months ago, Zabel and Burbach got a visit from a British gentleman with a company called Bering Bounty, and now an already awesome local fry sports a socially responsible angle. Dexter's Friday fish fry now centers on Bering Sea cod, a fish caught in the regulated waters of the Bering Sea, where anglers have agreed to abide by limits that keep key fish populations sustainable.
Not all of Dexter's customers are aware they're eating socially responsible cod, but they definitely track with the taste of the fish and the scrumptious batter, made with Ale Asylum's Ambergeddon ale. The fish is pillowy and smooth, but the batter holds it all together, whether you're opting for the cod or going with walleye, bluegill or lake perch. Staff hand-cut the cod portions each day, and the slaw and tartar sauce are also made on-site. If you really want to bring it all together, splurge for a cup of Dexter's clam chowder.
For Zabel, it all comes down to a question of quality. "Either we do fish fry right, or we don't do it," he says. No worries here. (301 North St.)
Edging your way through the crowd toward the glass-case counter at Seafood Center's modest main west-side location, you may think you're near the waterfront in Boston. Maybe it's the rows of fresh swordfish, mackerel and salmon. Maybe it's the thick fishing ropes that snake around the walls. Either way, for more than thirty years they've been rocking a takeout fry that focuses on Alaskan cod, a choice that's both sustainable and deeply delicious.
Manager/fresh fish buyer Susan Shebilske has been behind the counter for twenty-six of those years, and she's succinct as she explains why the recipe's stayed the same for all three decades: "If it isn't broken, you don't fix it."
The batter's both delicious and cornmeal-based, starting with a breading that helps the batter stick to the fish. (For around $6, you can buy both to fry at home if you're so inclined.) The fried cod outsells the catfish and perch, to the tune of one hundred pounds on Fridays during Lent.
Word is that Seafood Center is mulling the possibility of opening a new takeout fry location on Madison's east side. Keep your tartar sauce–stained fingers crossed it comes to pass. (712 S. Whitney Way)
The only real ambience Crandall's offers visitors is also the most revealing. That'd be the long line of cars clogging the drive-through loop at the catering company's modest University Avenue location.
Nearly seventy years after the physical restaurant first opened on the Square—back then, they advertised steak, not fish, as their primary specialty—Crandall's is still serving the same fish fry recipe that's worth waiting in the que to score. The fish, of course, forms the backbone of the experience—fried Atlantic cod, haddock and perch, with baked options, too—but the potato options are what bring it to another level. If you're smart, you'll opt for the roasted reds, covered in a cheese sauce that makes 'em the perfect complement.
Ivan Pimentel, who's owned Crandall's since 1994, now offers the fry every weeknight in addition to his business's catering services. On typical Fridays, his staff will box up an average of three hundred orders, a number that leaps as high as 450 during Lent. Given the weekly volume, Pimentel has learned to plan for any eventuality. Three years ago, he ran out of cod and perch and had to switch to a different fish. Customers noticed—and revolted. "I learned not to run out," he deadpans. "I invested in a walk-in freezer." (6401 University Ave., Middleton)
The sign above the door says "pizza," not "perch," so you'd be forgiven for not realizing that one of Madison's better takeout fish fries is located in a place that makes most of its profit margin off mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce.
Fried cod and perch were already on the menu when owner Chad Leppien bought Picasso's thirteen years ago, and he only briefly thought about spiking them; instead, he upgraded the quality of the fish, a move that's kept the fry a popular staple, whether you take it out, have it delivered or dine in. It's easy to understand why: One of the main ingredients in the beer batter on the Norwegian cod and perch is New Glarus's Spotted Cow (continuing a local-beer batter trend we're only too happy to encourage). The result is a crispy batter that goes just about perfectly with the homemade capers-and-lemon-zest tartar sauce.
Leppien divides his staff and kitchen space to accommodate multiple operations (the cod's available only on Fridays). That organization effectively solves the conundrum of whether pizza and fish fry can happily coexist.
"It's not even a question," says Leppien. "It's become too easy." (5266 Williamsburg Way, Fitchburg)
It used to be that restaurants (and customers) didn't care much about where the fish that went into their Friday fries came from; as long as the fish was tasty and the customers kept buying it, all was beer-battered and well. But one of the things that's apparent in our latest swing through Madison-area eateries is that the issue of sustainability is becoming more prominent. Whether it's local taverns like Dexter's choosing to pay a little more for cod that's been caught in waters where fish populations are regulated, or sustainable fish options like pollock and walleye showing up as alternatives to less-sustainable fry standbys like perch and Atlantic cod, it's clear this is an issue that's going to continue to gain steam. Meanwhile, there are reasons for Wisconsinites to feel good: Urban aquaculture operations are taking root in the Badger state, providing a renewable source of key fry staples like yellow perch.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: February 25, 2013 An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the Driftless Area as "glacier-flattened."