Friday, July 15, 2016

Kegel's Inn - Milwaukee

On my drive up through northern Michigan and northern Wisconsin I became aware of the "Friday Fish Fry," it was on signs everywhere. It kind of dove-tailed with one of my goals on the trip which was to try walleye, a fish I'd never eaten before. I stopped and asked several places where I could find some walleye to eat and invariably they would say, such and such restaurant serves it Friday night at their fish fry. Well, unfortunately, I was not going to be in the area on a Friday night. In Eagle River, Wisconsin, part of the Land O' Lakes Region, it seemed like the perfect spot for eating walleye, so I asked at a gas station, at a place that sold smoked fish, and at a pub/restaurant that served fish, but no walleye. The pub people suggested a place five miles west of town, next to a lake, that they said would be serving it. So I drove out and found the place and was told they were serving walleye that night, but not for lunch.

Friday arrived and Judy, who had joined me mid-week, and I were in the Milwaukee area. I told her I wanted to eat the Friday Fish Fry somewhere. So she got on her i-Phone and googled the best Friday Fish Fry in Milwaukee and got a number of names of restaurants. From there we called several until we found two that served walleye and then picked the closest one: Kegel's Inn. We asked for a reservation and they said they were filling up and could not give reservations, so we drove over as quickly as we could. We arrived about 5:15 p.m., still very early, and cars and people were converging on the place like it was a Saturday afternoon football game. I dropped Judy off to get in line and parked about a block and a half away. Crazy. 

The place is huge, has a rock exterior and looks like it could fit in the German countryside. Inside everything screams German beer hall. Stained glass windows with beer hall motifs and steins and murals lining the walls. Incredibly, we had a 45 minute wait - at 5:15! A plaque on the wall noted that Kegel's was established in 1924 by John and Anna Kegel, Austrian immigrants. It was during prohibition, so it opened as a "soft drink parlor" but was actually a "speakeasy" with frosted windows to keep people from peering inside. They sold 20 cent whiskey and 15 cent home-brewed beer along with a free meal. The present building was completed in 1933 and prohibition was over, so stained glass replaced the frosted glass.

A nice article in OnMilwaukee gives some background on the Milwaukee Friday fish fry. Many of the European immigrants to Milwaukee were Catholic and consuming fish on Friday was a way of avoiding "meat" consumption. Milwaukee is right next to Lake Michigan, so fish is easy to get and cheap. Then, during Prohibition, "fish fries became a way for former alcohol-purveying establishments to stay in business. Many went so far as to conceal their illicit speakeasies beneath the intoxicating aroma of frying fish, offering free or low-cost fish to those who imbibed." Well, that is exactly the story of Kegel's Inn. 

A comment on Trip Advisor (which rates Kegel's as no. 74 out of 1,242 restaurants in Milwaukee) mentioned that many of the murals at Kegel's were painted by a German artist during the Depression for free food. 

The clientele was mostly older, except for us of course! We finally got seated and were given some wonderful salty and very strong rye bread along with some butter. I also ordered a cup of clam chowder that was quite ordinary. I ordered walleye and Judy ordered cod. Both were breaded and fried, over-cooked and tasteless. The walleye was better than the cod, but neither were very good. I loaded on tartar sauce and eventually catsup to choke it down. We also got potato pancakes along with apple sauce. The potato cakes were much different from any I've ever had - much less potato and more gooey and I did like them. 

After anticipating the Friday fish fry for days and then waiting for 45 minutes to be seated, I could not have been much more excited to eat a meal.  That excitement ended in a big thud. 

One of my partners who does a lot of fishing went to law school in Ohio and he says he couldn't stand to eat the fish there. He quit trying.  A gourmet eater I know, who travels all over the country to eat at fine restaurants, told me that people in the Midwest don't know how to cook. All I can scratch my head over is why all those people wait all that time to eat that food. 

Given the above, I must say that the walleye I had at The Old Fashioned in Madison was very good, as was the rest of that meal. We also did have some good food in other places on our trip, but also had some that was quite mediocre. 


  1. I think the fact you can only get fish once a week in the area should have been a warning:)

  2. The best things about the meal were the fun atmosphere and the rye bread, which tells me the German part is the best part.

  3. Must be more of a social thing than a foodie thing.