As the week draws to a close, Wisconsin’s restaurants and bars fire up their fryers for a ritual drawing on century-old food traditions.

By Jennifer Billock; Photographers: Bob Stefko and David Nevala
February 23, 2015
Colony House Fish Fry
Colony House Fish Fry

It feels like all of Trevor, Wisconsin, has piled into the white-sided farmhouse-turned-supper club on this Friday night. Diners shout their names to the girl at the front desk of Colony House, signing up for an hour-long wait. Near the kitchen, a tantalizing scent hangs in the air: onions and potatoes meeting in a pan. Waitresses in flowery Colonial-style dresses weave between tables while balancing shoulder-high platters. They lean in to hear guests speak, but at least part of the order almost goes without saying-of the Colony House's 300 or so Friday-night orders, two-thirds are the fish fry. Then it's just a matter of the particulars: deep-fried fillets of cod, perch or walleye? Side of fries, or potato pancakes? Tartar sauce and a lemon wedge are givens, as are the coleslaw and rye bread. The drink of choice is the Wisconsin-style old-fashioned-a sweetly powerful concoction of brandy, bitters, sugar, soda, muddled orange and a maraschino cherry.

At taverns and supper clubs and churches, in big cities and small villages across Wisconsin, the scene plays out like a show on repeat: Groups of friends and family crowd into dining rooms and linger over a meal, celebrating the start of the weekend. There are subtle variations, to be sure. Perhaps a relish tray laden with olives, carrots and breadsticks kicks off the meal. Or maybe an order of baked fish arrives, served with a look of bemusement but still, technically, fish fry. Because, here, more than the food, the phrase is about the event, as common and festive as barbecue in the South and an enduring Dairyland tradition.

"When I go to a fish fry, I feel like I'm dining with the whole state," says Terese Allen, coauthor of The Flavor of Wisconsin. "I get a very strong sense of connection with my past and my Wisconsin culture. There aren't many food traditions, except for the ones in the home, that are that way anymore. It just feels like something we all get to do together."

The roots of the Friday-night staple lie in two common, if uneasily wed, elements of Wisconsin life: religious observance and stiff drinks.

First, the church influence. When Wisconsin was young, Irish, German and Norwegian immigrants flooded the state, bringing with them a Catholic observance for meatless Fridays. In an effort to make Lenten meals easier and to foster a sense of community, Catholic churches in lakeside Milwaukee and Green Bay began holding Friday fish dinners. The church chefs fried the plentiful and inexpensive fish and served it with old-world favorites: potato pancakes, rye bread and coleslaw.

Alcohol joined the story line in 1920 with the arrival of Prohibition. To stay afloat after their primary source of income dried up, Wisconsin tavern owners parlayed the church's successful fish fries into their own Friday-night attraction. If a few drinks were sold under the table during dinner, who would be the wiser? Enter the old-fashioned. Low-quality bootlegged hooch did not have the refined flavor drinkers craved, but enhancing the standard old-fashioned cocktail with more sugar, muddled fruit and lemon-lime soda created a palatable, even enjoyable, libation.

By 1933, when Prohibition ended, old-fashioneds and fish fries were inextricably intertwined at what was, by then, a weekly appointment in Wisconsin. That's not to say you can't find Friday-night fish fries in other states-indeed, you can in Minnesota, Indiana and Iowa. And the meal of fried fish, fried potatoes and tartar sauce will look familiar. But what makes the Wisconsin fry stand out isn't necessarily the food (although you'd be hard-pressed to beat a plate of fresh Lake Superior perch); it's the love.

"People talk about fish fry in Wisconsin more than any meal," says Karen Stevens, Colony House's owner. "‘Where do you go for fish fry?' ‘Where do you go for fish fry?' People bring the kids, the aunts and uncles, and the grandparents. It's a big social event. People can count on getting together on a Friday and having their fish and being happy."

In the Colony House's dining room, the conversations follow the casual, easy-going cadence of good friends. At one table, a group of women discusses the benefits of retiring to Florida over Arizona. At another table, a discussion of the made-for-TV-movie Sharknado (about a tornado filled with sharks) leaves a family laughing, kids' giggles rising above the rest. People linger in the golden light of the tavern to order another round of fish or drinks and the conversation moves on. As tables empty and fill again, the ritual begins anew with a familiar order: Fish fry, please.

Get Your Fry On

Friday-night fish fries pepper Wisconsin. Here are five restaurants offering the traditional experience.

Aunt Mary's Hooterville Inn, Blue Mounds It isn't fast and it sure ain't fancy, but locals in this town 30 miles west of Madison are quick to recommend Aunt Mary's Hooterville (named after the town in the 1960s TV show Petticoat Junction). Walk to the bar to find the hostess and get on the long waiting list. It can take 30 minutes to get your order of fried cod once it's placed, but an appetizer of melty cheese curds makes the wait a pleasure. (608) 437-5444;

A waitress serves platters of fish at Avenue Bar.
A waitress serves platters of fish at Avenue Bar.

Avenue Bar, Madison A Madison staple since the 1970s, this neon-lit bar channels its supper club neighbors when it comes to fish fries. The drink menu features classic old-fashioneds (and several variations, including a New Fashioned, with wine-based pisco brandy). Kick off dinner by ordering a relish tray covered in veggies and pickles, then dig into generous portions of flaky walleye, cod or lake perch. (608) 257-6877;

Football, hockey and wood paneling set the fish-fry mood at Colony House.
Football, hockey and wood paneling set the fish-fry mood at Colony House.

Colony House, Trevor Just 20 miles west of Lake Michigan (and 45 miles south of Milwaukee), this upscale restaurant with an old-fashioned feel serves perch, bluegill and smelt, as well as cod, for its Friday-night fish fry. The meal begins with crackers and cheese spread and, if you haven't truly indulged in the all-you-can-eat portions of fried cod, might end with crème brûlée. (262) 862-2076;

Deep Lake Lodge and Steakhouse, Iron River Knotty pine panels the walls; wooden tables and chairs fill the dining room; and blue carpet covers the floor of this old-old-school supper club on the banks of Deep Lake (43 miles south of Bayfield). Enjoy lake views while you nosh on one of several kinds of fish; try the Lake Superior whitefish (if it's available), or the perch. (715) 372-4236

Toby's Supper Club in Madison serves a classic Wisconsin-style old-fashioned, made with brandy, not whiskey.
Toby's Supper Club in Madison serves a classic Wisconsin-style old-fashioned, made with brandy, not whiskey.

Toby's Supper Club, Madison This supper club opened in the 1940s and continues to serve meat-and-potatoes meals in a laid-back setting. You'll find a relish tray and dinner rolls waiting at your table. We recommend adding the optional crunchy jumbo fried shrimp to the side. (608) 222-6913;