16 Great Milwaukee Fish Fries

They all deliver on the promise of a good fry.

Anatomy of the Perfect Fish Fry

  • Cod – a flaky, dense fish – is encased in golden-light, not-too-greasy batter, often enhanced with beer.
  • Lightly breaded lake perch fillets are tender and crispy, and have a mild – but not bland – flavor.
  • An indispensable tartar sauce has the right level of pickly and tart flavors.
  • Coleslaw is crunchy and not drowned in mayo vinaigrette! Bonus points awarded for fresh dill and/or celery seed.
  • When the applesauce is homemade (not out of a jar), the fruit and cinnamon flavors stand out.
  • Fresh-baked rye bread, tender and enhanced with the anise-like flavor of caraway seeds.
The Truth About Perch

You think the fried lake perch you’re eating came from Lake Michigan? Not likely. According to wholesale fish buyer Paul Becker, there’s “next to no yellow perch” coming from our Great Lake. Over 90 percent of it is from Lake Erie, says Becker, of Two Rivers, Wis.-based Riverside Foods. A pernicious little foreign invader called the spiny water flea decimated the yellow lake perch population in Lake Michigan. “Yellow lake perch” refers to fish caught in the Great Lakes. Some eateries buy the cheaper “Euro” perch imported from countries like Poland, and while they can legally call it “lake perch,” they’re barred from using the modifier “yellow.” 

Milwaukee Fish Fry Guide

Lakefront Brewery Beer Hall

Three years ago, Lakefront took over the kitchen from an outside vendor, and while the fry was popular before, the quality of the fare didn’t hit its stride until the switch-over. The plump, tender cod – encased in a batter made with Lakefront’s Eastside Dark beer – is just terrific. A close second is the breaded (fried whole) smelt, served, traditionally, with cocktail sauce. This is not my favorite venue for perch, although the panko-crusted fish are a local product – raised aquaponically at Milwaukee’s Growing Power. The smelt is simply the perch’s superior – tender, with a subtle fish (not fishy) flavor. The fry comes with one side: for instance, tangy red cabbage (which reminds me texturally of pickled beets) and crispy (though greasy) potato pancakes with chunky, nicely spiced applesauce. There’s even kraut and German potato salad. Note: The seating is family-style, at long farm tables. Live music? Part of the charm! The Brewhaus Polka Kings perform every Friday, 5:30-8:30 p.m. $11-$15. Hours: Friday 4-9 p.m. 
1872 N. Commerce St., 414-292-0808

Erv’s Mug

Craft beer devotees keep the taps active at this busy suburban bar that also gives its deep-fryer a serious workout. Beer-battered cod is the specialty. The fillets are golden-crisp, the flesh almost creamy and the coating remarkably non-greasy. The thick, not-too-pickly tartar is a must with the fish, as are the crisp, thick, oniony potato pancakes. The slaw is just your standard cabbage-carrot-mayo rendition. Looking to try something different with your fry? Order the apple-pecan baked beans – thick, sweet, nutty and a welcome substitute for the common side offerings. $12-$18. Wednesday and Friday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. 
130 W. Ryan Rd., Oak Creek, 414-762-5010

Fritz’s Pub

One of the city’s most unassuming bars, with its dropped ceiling, stained-glass-shaded lamps, vinyl-covered bar chairs and a kitchen staff that fires up the stove two days a week – to serve Serbian dishes like burek and a tremendous fish fry only on Fridays. Fritz’s, which opened in 1978 (a year when TV’s “The Love Boat” was a must-watch), has kept its fry focus laser-sharp. The battered haddock (sometimes cod) is crisp on the outside, pillowy on the inside. It’s served with well-seasoned, delectably browned (and crusty) potato wedges; a slice of dense, moist baked-right-there caraway rye bread; a nice tangy tartar sauce; and one of the best slaws in the city – finely chopped, well-drained cabbage in a thick, sweet-citrusy sauce. Carry-outs are available, but this place can get slammed on Lenten Fridays. Open Fridays only, noon-9 p.m. $8.95-$10.95.
3086 S. 20th St., 414-643-6995

Wegner’s St. Martins Inn

A modest bar with a race-car theme seemingly in the middle of nowhere – that describes Wegner’s, situated in a country-ish former hamlet in the Town of Franklin. For fish lovers, Wegner’s is much more than a dive in the sticks. Its crisp breaded lake perch – flaky, tender and fresh tasting – is some of the best fried fish to be had. Chef/owner Dennis Wegner (whose background includes the kitchens of Mader’s and the late Grenadier’s) has been cooking for more than 45 years, impressive in any industry. Wegner’s beer-battered Icelandic haddock is a bit oily and heavy, but some of their sides are very solid: crispy-thin seasoned French fries, tangy slaw and a slice of buttered marble rye bread. $10.50-$16.50. Friday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 4-9:30 p.m.
11318 W. St. Martin’s Rd., Franklin, 414-425-9971

Kegel’s Inn

Consider the gorgeous murals, leaded glass and wooden beams additional side dishes to this top-tier perch fry. Notice I say perch – lightly breaded Canadian lake perch. The fillets are flaky and moist, with a mild flavor. Four to six pieces of battered cod is also an option, but the perch far surpasses it in texture and flavor. As for sides, the delicate, golden potato pancakes should be your top choice. The cabbage-carrot coleslaw is a tad wet for my taste, but I like the cup-of-soup inclusion to the meal, especially when you come in for lunch and it’s the splendid tomato-based Manhattan clam chowder. On Friday evenings, Kegel’s adds bluegill and walleye (both mild, freshwater fish) to the mix. Friday 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; 4-10 p.m. $11.50-$15.50.
5901 W. National Ave., West Allis, 414-257-9999

Stoneridge Inn

Better known as Diamond Jim’s Stoneridge Inn, the country-themed supper club received its more simplified moniker when new owners took over in early 2015. Stoneridge serves a fry six days a week, but the perch is available only on Fridays. Both the thick, beer-battered cod and delicate, breaded perch are tender and not terribly greasy, and worth ordering as a combo. Drizzle with plenty of fresh lemon. The lackluster potato pancakes are thick, slightly oval patties, but the seasonal fries are crisp, flavorful and addictive. The coleslaw is very creamy – good for dipping your fish into in place of the thinnish tartar. And there’s bread – fresh and soft. $11.95-$24.95.
11811 W. Janesville Rd., Hales Corners, 414-425-7777

Photo by Adam Ryan Morris


Readers’ Picks

Top choices reeled in from a recent online survey:

The Cheel

“Absolutely fantastic, perfectly crispy, with a lovely meaty fish called meagre [similar to sea bass]. The tartar sauce is also out of this world! Fantastic atmosphere and service, and even better food!” – Alyssa Nevis of Thiensville
105 S. Main St., Thiensville

American Serb Memorial Hall

“Because it’s classic, delicious and relaxed. The staff is also always on point,” says Jordan Zilk of Davenport, IA
5101 W.Oklahoma Ave.

Three Lions Pub

It has the “best fish and chips ever,” says Milwaukee’s Tracy Johnson, who adds that the “bit of tang” to the tartar sauce “makes my hair roots wake and tingle.”
4515 N. Oakland Ave.

Polonez Restaurant

Thin, light potato pancakes are a trademark of Polonez Restaurant, a favorite of Thomas Radoszewski of Milwaukee.
4016 S. Packard Ave., St. Francis

Country Squire Supper Club

This supper club earns raves from Greenfield’s Brian Bock, who likes to, er, tackle an order of deep-fried perch with potato pancakes. 
S72 W16373 Janesville Rd., Muskego

Illustration by Getty Images

Churches and Legion Post Fish Fries

Thanks be to cod! There are different, ahem, schools of thought on where to get a good fry. Churches and American Legion posts can be great catches, too. Here’s a selection of such venues to hit up when you’re feeling that Friday craving:

St. Anthony Catholic Church

Dine-in and carryout service on Fridays, 4-7 p.m., through May 5. Fry includes rye bread, coleslaw, potato salad or fries, and tartar sauce. Adults $11; children 5-12 $6
N74 W13604 Appleton Ave., Menomonee Falls, 262-251-5910

St. Paul’s Catholic Church

Select Fridays: Feb. 3, March 3, March 17, April 7: 4:30-7:30 p.m. Includes all-you-can-eat beer-battered, fried (or baked) cod, curly fries or baked potatoes, “crazy” coleslaw, a dessert and coffee or milk. Soda and beer available for purchase. Adults $10.50; children 5 and up $5 (ages 4 and under free).
S38 W31602 Wern Way, Waukesha, 262-968-3865

American Legion Post #331

Fridays, 4-9 p.m. Choice of cod, perch, bluegill, walleye or shrimp. $10.50-$15.|
4121 N. Wilson Dr., Shorewood, 414-961-2123

American Legion Post #449

Fridays, 4:30-8:30 p.m. Cod, perch or shrimp served with choice of potato, coleslaw, rye
bread and tartar. Live music. $8.99-$13.99
3245 N. 124 St., Brookfield, 262-781-0488

Polish Center of Wisconsin

Fridays (4:30-8 p.m.) during Lent, March 3-April 14. Includes fried and baked fish, pierogi, coleslaw, French fries, rye bread and coffee or tea. Cash bar. Adults $12; children 6-12 $7; children 5 and under free.
6941 S. 68th St., Franklin, 414-529-2140

‘Reel Time’ appears in the February, 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Ann Christenson has covered dining for Milwaukee Magazine since 1997. She was raised on a diet of casseroles that started with a pound of ground beef and a can of Campbell's soup. Feel free to share any casserole recipes with her.