Dining and Drink

Friday fish fry is a nearly untouchable tradition

Food fads come and go, our tastes change, but...

Lent and the Catholic Church probably gave us the Friday night fish fry. In the upper Midwest it quickly became a fun get-together and sometimes fundraiser. When Prohibition threatened to put many a tavern out of business, the “all-you-can eat” fish fry soon became a lure for them to draw back customers. Since local lake fish was plentiful and cheap, the popularity of this Friday night out really took off during the Great Depression that soon followed.

The Esquire Club is Madison’s oldest restaurant in continuous operation at the same location and owned by the same family. Since 1947, the Kavanaughs have always featured a Friday night fish fry, and there’s still an all-you-can-eat option. That’s not to say that the fish fry concept hasn’t evolved over the years. Tornado Steakhouse serves a refined pan-fried walleye with a shallot and wine reduction sauce.

In the beginning, lake perch was ubiquitous. As its price soared due to restrictions imposed on commercial fishing of the Great Lakes, ocean fish such as cod and haddock supplanted its supremacy. Toby’s Supper Club always tops the lists of best area fish fries. Diners there don’t seem to mind the inevitable hour-or-more wait before digging into lake perch, baby pike, cod or catfish—most likely accompanied by its rightly regarded hash browns.

For a taste of tradition, no one beats The Old Fashioned. Piled plates of beer-battered cod, walleye or flour-dusted perch come with matchstick fries, coleslaw and rye bread—once a fish fry essential, but rarely seen around here anymore. In Milwaukee, potato pancakes are a must, as they are at Watertower Chop House in Sun Prairie. Its special Friday fish menu includes numerous kinds of fish and shellfish prepared every which way and served with a choice of a dozen sides, including potato pancakes and salad bar.

Food fads come and go, our tastes change, but going out for fish on Friday never seems to lose its appeal.

Fantastic Fish Fries

Three years ago, we tried to do the impossible. We attempted to give our readers a top Friday Night Fish Fry list to rival all others. Enlisting the help of writer Aaron R. Conklin, we gave you this top nine that ran the gamut from traditional to trendy:

Toby’s Supper Club
Kavanaugh’s Esquire Club
Green Lantern, McFarland
Brocach
Tipsy Cow
Dexter’s Pub
Seafood Center
Crandall’s Catering, Middleton
Picasso’s, Fitchburg

From the start, we knew there would be some readers faithful to a fish fry place not named; that’s why we also launched a “Fabulous Fish Fry” contest, asking readers to vote for their Friday favorites, in which Dorf Haus Supper Club in Sauk City came out on top.

What we want to know is whether this list is still worthy of being the list. What other places that do fish fry right have earned a spot since 2013? Tell us in the comments.

Readers’ Picks

An ever-popular category in our annual Best of Madison readers’ poll is Best Fish Fry. Here are the restaurants considered the catches of the year in the past four polls:

2013
Gold: Avenue Bar
Silver: Quivey’s Grove
Bronze: The Old Fashioned

2014
Gold: Dorf Haus, Sauk City
Silver: Quivey’s Grove
Bronze: Avenue Bar

2015
Gold: Crawfish Junction, Johnson Creek
Silver: The Old Fashioned
Bronze: Dorf Haus, Sauk City

2016
Gold: The Old Fashioned
Silver: Dorf Haus, Sauk City
Bronze: Buck & Honey’s, Sun Prairie 


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