By Kristine Hansen | Pictured: Essen Haus, courtesy Travel Wisconsin
Nearly every Wisconsin restaurant offers a fish fry on Friday. But some — pardon the pun — float to the top by providing excellent service, a unique environment and a memorable meal. Traditionally, a fish fry consists of battered or breaded fried fish (often perch or cod) with some combination of sides that include coleslaw, applesauce, French fries, rye bread or potato pancakes.
Why are fish fries a thing in Wisconsin? Many of the state’s earliest immigrants were Catholic and gave up meat during Lent. Thankfully, the tradition stayed past Easter, and for several decades since.
ESSEN HAUS, MADISON
Wisconsin’s German roots reign at this downtown Madison eatery, where on Fridays, there’s live polka music and German beer from 16 taps served in Old World-style, half- liter steins, adding cultural flair to a Friday fish fry. There’s even an all-you-can-eat fish- fry option. Staff proudly wear lederhosen and dirndls, making you think you might have hopped the pond to Germany for the night. essen-haus.com
TOBY’S SUPPER CLUB, MADISON
Family-owned for five decades (and counting) on Madison’s south side, this is a rare place where you can sip a key lime pie martini with your fish fry. All fish fries come with a relish tray (a supper club staple), dinner rolls, potato, and choice of salad or soup.
THE PACKING HOUSE, MILWAUKEE
For a true throwback experience — paired with live music in the lounge on Friday nights — head to this institution (founded in 1974, now on its second generation) near Mitchell International Airport on Layton Avenue. Locals line up in the drive-thru for fish fries to-go but the supper-club vibe inside — plus drinks ranging from a Brandy Old Fashioned (Wisconsin’s most famous cocktail) to French Champagne — is worth experiencing. Each fish fry order comes with clam chowder. packinghousemke.com
HARBOR FISH MARKET & GRILLE, BAILEYS HARBOR
Hugging the Lake Michigan shoreline, and tucked into a building dating back to 1908, this fine-dining restaurant’s wall of windows overlook the waterfront. Although the restaurant debuted in 1999, new owners took over in 2022. For the Friday fish fry, perch and whitefish (a local specialty in Door County) are sourced from Baileys Harbor Fish Company. For a unique twist on a fish meal, the restaurant also hosts lobster boils on Friday nights. harborfishmarket-grille.com
POPEYE’S ON LAKE GENEVA, LAKE GENEVA
With 600 seats (including many outdoors) and a perch along Geneva Lake, this is a popular fish fry in downtown Lake Geneva and has been in the same family since 1971. In addition to wine and beer, the restaurant specializes in tropical-inspired drinks making this a fun spot to sip a Mai Tai with a Friday fish fry. Breaded and fried Great Lakes yellow perch is Popeye’s take on a fish fry, served with tartar sauce and lemon wedges. popeyeslkg.com