Wisconsin’s Friday Night Fish Fry and the Best Place to Get It

 

Words by Northerly Collective. Images by Jenna LeRoy.

Every week, folks in Wisconsin gather in neighborhood VFWs, church basements and traditional supper clubs for their favorite weekly tradition: Friday night fish fry. The food is more or less the same wherever you go – beer-battered fish, French fries or German-style potato pancakes, coleslaw and rye bread – but what really makes the tradition special is the people you share it with.

One of the best places to get it? The 5 O’Clock Club, a fourth generation owned and operated family restaurant with 89 years of fish fry experience, on Pewaukee Lake, about a 30-minute drive outside of Milwaukee. The original owner, Mary Theresa Kizivak, purchased the property during prohibition and sold fish, chicken and bathtub gin to just a few tables on the weekend. Not much has changed since then. They still make a delicious fish fry, but now the liquor’s legal.

Owner Jeanine Knutson and a friend

But what’s a fish fry? It’s a Wisconsin thing. The meal itself is a lot like fish and chips, but with regional freshwater fish – lake perch, walleye and bluegill – instead of cod. It got its start in the 1800s when thousands of Roman Catholic Europeans emigrated to Wisconsin, bringing with them the Catholic tradition of “meatless Fridays”. Then, during Prohibition, Friday night fish fry got a boost when taverns offered a free meal of local fish while selling alcohol under the table. Now, though most Catholics don’t observe the ritual year-round, Friday night fish fry has become as ingrained in Wisconsin culture as cheese and football. (Not at the same time. Usually.)

The 5 O’Clock Club has a friendly atmosphere. It feels like walking into your grandmother’s house for a family meal. The building is an old farmhouse and inside the walls are paneled with knotty pine and peppered with family memorabilia dating back to the 1930s.

Richard and Jeanine Knutson took over in the ’80s and expanded the space to accommodate more friends and guests. Their son Jason is the 4th generation to carry on the family’s tradition, working alongside his parents as head chef. Jeanine greets everyone with a smile and a call of “Come on in, honey!” It’s the kind of place where the wait staff quickly remembers your name and your “usual.” Regulars can even keep an open tab.

Everything is homemade, including Jeanine’s lemon bars and her mother-in-law’s raspberry rhubarb cake. Every Friday they serve around 500-700 fish fry plates, so if you don’t get there early, expect a wait. They don’t take reservations, but on a warm day you can enjoy lake views from the deck while you wait and sip on their signature old fashioned cocktail.

 

Of course, The 5 O’Clock Club isn’t the only restaurant that does a traditional fish fry. Everyone has their own twist that connects it to Wisconsin’s heritage. Here are some other favorites.

American Serb Hall, Milwaukee
Why we love it: They serve about 2,000 pounds of fish each Friday. And you can get your plate through their drive-thru if you wanted.

Bent’s Camp, Land O’ Lakes
Why we love it: Lakeside atmosphere in a historic log cabin. Meal served with sides of beans, coleslaw, and rye bread on an old-fashioned enamel plate before your meal arrives.

Lakefront Brewery, Milwaukee
Why we love it: One word: polka. That’s right. A live traditional polka band on Friday nights.

Schwabenhof, Menomonee Falls
Why we love it: The old school German feel and that their fish fry also includes broasted chicken and all-you-can-eat sides.

Red Pines Bar & Grill, Onalaska
Why we love it: A serene and rustic lakeside atmosphere. Also, beer-battered shrimp.

The Avenue Club, Madison
Why we love it: Neon-lit supper club vibe with vinyl booths and great old fashioneds.

Deep Lake Lodge, Iron River
Why we love it: It’s lakeside in the heart of Wisconsin’s beautiful Northwoods, and they serve fresh Lake Superior whitefish.

 

Becca Bartling and Elizabeth Gering are the curators of Northerly Collective, a social media-based Adventure Guide and Journal with a focus on Wisconsin’s Northwoods. Based in Manitowish Waters, they use their love of the Northwoods to inspire you to enjoy the simple moments in everyday life, connect with the people around you, and explore wherever you find yourself in this world.