Walking into the restaurant, you see your friends sitting around the table with a seat reserved just for you, and smell the food—the golden delicious fried fish, the tanginess of the tartar sauce and even a faint smell of lemon. It’s how you know you’re at a fish fry.
While fish is enjoyed all over the world, there’s something special about fried fish in the Midwest. It’s not just a meal; it’s a tradition. Whether you’re meeting friends for lunch at a local restaurant or gathering with family for an evening at a supper club, fish fries are known to bring people together.
Today, the fish fry is as Midwest as friendliness, state fairs and soda “pop.” And for good reason: It’s a meal that will transport you back to the family table. Learn what’s on a typical fish fry menu.
The Midwest is scattered with thousands of lakes, and fishermen quickly learned that bluegill, perch and walleye made for tasty and filling dinners, especially when fried. Near the Mississippi River, catfish were popular. As fish fries caught on and more restaurants, taverns and supper clubs added fish fries to their menus, they began to look toward the more abundant ocean-caught fish, like cod and haddock, to satisfy their guests’ cravings. Today, no matter the type of fish used, the flaky filets are coated in a light, homemade batter before being fried to a crispy golden-brown.
Fish Fry Fact #1
From 1920-1933, Prohibition prevented taverns from selling alcohol. To keep customers coming to their businesses, Midwestern tavern owners sold meals of fried fish.
Tartar Sauce & Lemon Wedge
Tartar sauce and a lemon wedge accompany almost all fried fish in the Midwest. Tartar sauce is made with a base of mayonnaise and, while recipes vary, often includes pickle relish, capers and olives. It’s the perfect tangy dipping sauce and is paired with fish to balance its savoriness. Similarly, the acidity of lemon juice complements the saltiness of fried fish, so squeezing a lemon wedge over the fish fry amplifies the flavor.
A fish fry is as much about the sides as it is about the fish. In fact, the standard fish fry menu includes three sides, though the potato often takes center stage. In line with another Midwestern tradition—that of warm hospitality—many restaurants offer multiple potato options, so you can choose how you’d most like to enjoy your spuds. Some of the most popular forms are French fries, baked potatoes, mashed potatoes, hashbrowns and potato pancakes, which are shredded potatoes fried in a pancake shape.
Fish Fry Fact #2
German and Polish Catholic immigrants settled in Milwaukee in the 1860s and began the tradition of the Friday fish fry. During Lent, they didn’t eat meat on Fridays, instead eating the fish they caught in Lake Michigan.
Nestled between the fish and potato in a fish fry, you’ll probably also find a small dish of coleslaw. While many different coleslaw recipes exist, each and every one is made with cabbage. Some are made with a creamy dressing, while more traditional German, Polish and Dutch coleslaws are made with a vinaigrette. In addition to cabbage, coleslaw may also contain carrots, onions or peppers for a colorful and crunchy dish.
Fish Fry Fact #3
Supper clubs rose in popularity during the mid-1900s, and their Friday fish fries became a tradition for many Midwesterners.
Bread & Butter
A fish fry is a meal made of comfort food, and there is no food more comforting than bread. A fish fry is typically served with butter and dinner rolls or rye bread—whether it’s a slice of dark, light or swirly marbled rye.
There are few things as traditionally Midwestern as a fish fry menu. As anyone who’s been to a supper club, church fundraiser or local restaurant knows, it’s a special experience. So gather together your family and friends for a fish fry near you to enjoy a delicious meal—and their company. Or, if you’re feeling inspired, download this classic homemade fish fry batter recipe and host your own fish fry.