Catching a Friday Night Fish Fry

Twenty-five years ago, my husband introduced me to his Friday night dinner ritual. On those evenings, a distinctive aroma would waft into the house before he even opened the back door. Once in the kitchen, he would place a brown paper sack on the counter and begin pulling out his epicurean treasure purchased at his favorite seafood market in Ithaca – two large pieces of fried fish, wrapped in white paper, a side container of coleslaw and an order of fries spilling out of a red-checked paper boat.

Though the market is gone and we left the Ithaca area a dozen years ago, our Friday custom of a fish fry dinner continues. A menu staple across the Finger Lakes, this dinner, along with its sandwich counterpart, can be found at eateries large and small, inexpensive or upscale. In the winter months, it’s a favorite fundraiser meal offered in volunteer fire halls and church kitchens. Prompted by curiosity and my stomach, I decided to undertake an imperfect investigation on the meaning and measure of the Friday night fish fry dinner.
In his book Fish on Friday, Brian Fagan notes that from the beginning of Christianity, Friday, the day of Christ’s death on the cross, was established as a weekly day of penance for the faithful. Bread, vegetables and later fish, could be consumed, but meat was forbidden on pain of mortal sin. Meat was a costly food considered by some early Christian theologians to be responsible for inflaming passions and promoting gluttonous appetites, to do without it encouraged bodily and spiritual discipline. For more than 2,000 years, Catholics have observed meatless Fridays as a visible sign of their faithfulness and penance, especially during the 40-day period leading up to Easter Sunday known as Lent.

From the early 1800s through the first half of the 20th century, the Finger Lakes region saw an influx of immigrants from the traditionally Catholic countries of Italy, Ireland, Poland and the Catholic provinces of Germany. With the arrival of these settlers, Roman Catholic churches and parochial schools became commonplace, as did the obligation to abstain from eating meat on Fridays. The frying of fish for those Friday meals likely has roots in cuisine traditions stretching from the cooking fires of Caribbean-born slaves to the fishing shacks and camps found on every lake and stream throughout the Finger Lakes. But it would not be until the latter part of the 20th century that the omnipresent fish fry dinner we know today truly came into its own, for reasons that include everything from more women in the workplace to improved cooking technology to better methods for the packaging and shipping of fresh fish. Based on my conversations with a small number of area restaurateurs, this last detail – fresh fish – is crucial.

Daut’s Restaurant
Kevin Dautrich, owner and head chef of Daut’s Restaurant in Auburn, says the flavor key for his popular fried fish dinner lies in using fresh, 100-percent canola oil. Kevin serves his lightly breaded, deep-fried boneless, skinless haddock with homemade tartar sauce. When I asked about the most popular side dishes for the dinner, Kevin laughed and said, “Auburn is a French fries and gravy town.” Be sure to save room for one of the homemade desserts that are regularly prepared in Daut’s kichen. On the Friday night I visited, the place was filled with customers of all ages. The atmosphere is that of a small, friendly pub where people gather after work for a drink, a laugh and a reasonably priced meal. Though Daut’s has only been in business for seven years, Kevin said it’s gained a loyal, local following.

Parker’s Grille and Tap House
Sean St. Pierre, manager of Parker’s Grille and Tap House in Newark also cites fresh fish coupled with consistency as the key to a great fried fish dinner. Parker’s uses a beer batter made with amber ale to coat their haddock fillets prior to frying. The specific recipe was developed in the kitchen at the original Parker’s Grille and Tap House in Geneva. With its even, honey-colored crispy shell, the fish inside the battered layer remains firm and moist. Consistency, Sean says, comes in staying with a proven recipe, prepared the same way each week and buying from the same fish supplier. Though the restaurant only serves fried fish on Friday nights, Sean says it’s a popular favorite that brings in repeat customers from week to week. Parker’s has a casual, pub feel with televisions over the bar always tuned to a game. This is a restaurant that easily accommodates diners of all ages.

Phelps Hotel
For a change from the pub ambience, I visited the Phelps Hotel located in the center of downtown Phelps. The Hotel, an imposing structure, has been serving food off and on since 1868. After sitting vacant for almost decade, the Sullivan family bought the building in 1993 to save it from further deterioration.
In 2000, the family took over the restaurant business located on the first floor of the grand building. Joanne Sullivan, owner and manager, says they’ve been building a steady clientele ever since. As might be expected, the hotel’s dining room and bar harken to another era. The garnet-colored walls are lined with ornately framed photos of nineteenth century people and scenes. A bar area immediately adjacent and open to the dining room features a stained glass panel and lots of dark wood. Cod is the fillet choice for the hotel’s fried fish dinners. In addition to the fried fish, the head chef also prides himself on his fresh vegetable sautés and homemade desserts, including an award-winning crème brûlée. According to Joanne, it’s the one recipe that only the chef knows ... and won’t tell.

Glenwood Pines
Glenwood Pines, overlooking Cayuga Lake, is on Route 89 just a few miles north of Ithaca. It has been in the Hohwald family for 30 years. Three years ago, Matt Muraca joined Ken and Corey Hohwald in the ownership and management of the restaurant. When national food critic Michael Stern wrote a review for he made special mention of two Glenwood favorites, the Pinesburger and … the fish fry.

The Glenwood kitchen uses fresh not frozen, haddock fillets, lightly breaded then fried to a light, golden brown. Fresh fish and fresh oil, according to Muraca, are the basis for a perfectly done fried fish. Muraca also credits Glenwood’s abiding popularity with the restaurant’s consistency in its menu offerings, food quality and long-time staff. “When you come here, you know what you’re going to get,” he said on the afternoon we met. A casual atmosphere best described as comfortable tavern, the Glenwood is a favorite of locals. Pinball machines, a bowling game and full-size pool table are located in the front dining/bar area. A small dining room separate from the bar, as well as a lower-level dining porch, offer diners a fabulous view of Cayuga Lake.

Doug’s Fish Fry
April 1, 1982, Doug and Clara Clark opened a small business in Skaneateles that specialized in hot dogs, ice cream and fried fish, available seven days a week. Doug’s is a landmark in the Finger Lakes area when it comes to fried fish sandwiches and dinners. Though Doug is now retired, he franchised the business to his longtime associate, Mark Edwards. Mark started at Doug’s the second week it was open … and he never left. Both men credit the restaurant’s success to their unwavering commitment to fresh ingredients, regardless of price fluctuations.

Doug’s buys direct from a handful of Boston fish and seafood suppliers and has it delivered, fresh to the kitchen, five days a week. Starting with the hand cutting of the fillets, everything on Doug’s menu is prepared onsite – tartar sauce, coleslaw, hand-cut potatoes, onion rings, chowder and a host of other selections – by staff who have been with the restaurant for years. Doug says it takes a “feel” for the food from prep through cooking, draining and placement on the plate to produce a quality fish or fry every time. Doug acknowledges that mastering the techniques only comes with experience and mentoring.

In addition to the “feel factor,” the eatery uses only real butter, real cream, local fruits, dairy products and vegetables, as well as 100-percent peanut oil regularly filtered for freshness several times each day. While it may be tempting to coast on the restaurant’s laurels, Mark dismisses the idea. Doug and Mark agree, “You’re only as good as the last meal served.” Doug’s offers a friendly, family-oriented atmosphere with diners placing their orders and picking up their selections right at the “kitchen” counter, deli-style. Self-seating in the newly added dining room makes this a relaxed, casual dining experience. While there are other restaurants called Doug’s Fish Fry in the Syracuse area, Doug’s Fish Fry in Cortland is the only other establishment franchised by the original Doug!

The fish fry dinner – and the fried fish sandwich – is a regional food to be sought out and savored. Restaurants, pubs, taverns and all manner of roadside bars offering a Friday night fry abound in the area. There’s a price, atmosphere and flavor to suit everyone’s tastes. I suggest exploring them all in search of that perfect piece of tender, flaky fish, moist and smooth, perfectly fried. What could be a better pursuit on a cold and blustery Lenten night? And remember, as that first bite tickles your palate, not only are you indulging in an act that warms the body, according to ancient ritual, this meal will also soothe your soul.

Daut’s Restaurant
10 East Genesee Street, Auburn
Open 7 nights a week for dinner and for lunch on Fridays and Saturdays

Parker’s Grille and Tap House
206 South Main Street, Newark
Open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner
Parker’s in Geneva
100 Seneca Street, 315-789-4656
Parker’s in Auburn
129 Genesee Street, 315-252-6884

The Phelps Hotel
90 Main Street (NYS Rte. 96), Phelps
Open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner

Glenwood Pines
1213 Taughannock Blvd. (NYS Rte. 89), Ithaca
Open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner

Doug’s Fish Fry
8 Jordan Street, Skaneateles
206 West Road, Cortland
Open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner

by Jan Bridgeford-Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Jan is a freelance writer and pastor’s wife currently living in Newark, New York.

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