Four Fabuloulsy Frugal Fish Fries
It’s the original value meal and began in church basements as a meatless Lenten dinner. During Prohibition, many taverns closed and others survived by serving food. Traditionally, Friday was payday and the fried fish special became a successful lure for customers with cash in their pockets. Back then, nothing was cheaper than fresh-out-of-the-lake fish—perch, bluegill and walleye. Today the fish fry is an upper Midwest phenomenon and end-of-week ritual. Here are four of the best fish deals in town (unless otherwise indicated, the fish fry special is available only on Friday night). —DC
Toby's Supper Club
The Situation: Despite its name, this hole-in-the-wall place is more bar than restaurant. On Friday nights, Toby’s is packed tighter than a can of sardines; everyone’s there for the fish specials. Dinner orders are taken while standing at the bar, but incredibly cheap drinks should ease the pain of an inevitably long wait.
The Deal: Lightly breaded and deep-fried cod (also available baked), catfish, baby pike or lake perch. All come with a choice of salad, coleslaw or cottage cheese and a choice of potato, including the house specialty, crispy hash browns.
The Price: Cod, $8.95 (two pieces) or $10.95 (three pieces); catfish, $9.95; baby pike, $11.95; lake perch, $12.95.
The Rating:* Four fish
The Old Fashioned
The Situation: This postmodern tavern pays homage to the best of Wisconsin’s bounty. Outrageously popular, the downtown rendezvous spot recently expanded, adding much-needed additional tables and a second bar. Wait or not, The Old Fashioned’s namesake drink is a must—made with brandy, of course.
The Deal: Beer-battered cod and walleye or flour-dusted lake perch; served with poppyseed coleslaw, matchstick fries, homemade lemon caper tartar sauce and—like they do in Milwaukee—rye bread. Portions are, not surprisingly, quite generous.
The Price: Cod, $9.95; perch, $12.95; walleye, $13.95; combo platter (all three), $14.95. Order of cheese curds to share, $6.95. (A lake perch–only version is available on Wednesday night.)
The Rating: Three and a half fish
The Situation: The Avenue began in the 1950s as a neighborhood tavern with a couple of pool tables. When the Zach family took it over twenty years later, they added three nightly specials, including the city’s first fish boil. Now two large dining rooms accommodate diners who flock here from all over town on Friday for both the fish boil and fish fry.
The Deal: The fish boil is cod steamed with potatoes and carrots and served with drawn butter; fish fry is a choice of beer-battered cod or house-breaded lake perch. All three come with a choice of soup, salad, coleslaw or cottage cheese, plus a choice of potato.
The Price: Fish boil, $12.95; cod, $12.95; perch, $17.95. Cup of clam chowder, $3.25.
The Rating: Three fish
The Situation: Madison’s longest-running single family-owned restaurant also started out as an unassuming watering hole. The Kavanaugh family opened the Esquire in 1947 and still own it today. They’ve always been known for their Friday night fish fry—I went there as a kid for the $2.99 all-you-can-eat lake perch! Much has obviously changed, but its weekly special is still all-you-can-eat.
The Deal: All-you-can-eat battered and fried ocean perch comes with fries, coleslaw and bread; served family-style. Cod (either fried or broiled) or fried shrimp or lake perch dinners come with a choice of baked potato or fries, coleslaw and bread.
The Rating: Two fish
*Rating is based on the overall dining experience and value.