A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece recalling my own fish fry memories of Western New York, and just how embedded the scent and taste and aura of that entire experience became within my sense of being part of this region.
I asked readers if they felt the same way, and if they had their own powerful memories of fish fries in greater Buffalo and beyond.
To put it mildly, there was some passion to the response. Here it is, with light editing.
You hit the nail right on the head, taking me back as a boy in a family of eight. We lived in Kensington Heights (also known as " The Projects").
My dad worked at Bethlehem Steel and mom at Marine Midland Bank. Mom's check helped out a little, but all of us looked forward to dad's coming in, every two weeks. We didn't own a car, so all eight walked to the corner of Fillmore and E. Delavan to a place called Strinka’s Bar & Grill.
Dad enjoyed his draft of Simon Pure, Mom and us kids a pitcher of Iroquois Birch Beer. The anticipation was overwhelming, the shuffleboard kept us occupied, and when the fish fries finally arrived, it was heaven on a plate.
Thanks for bringing back a nice memory for me.
To: The Buffalo News
My fond memories date back to the early 50s when my father, on his way home from the funeral home where he worked, stopped at the corner tavern. It was late. Sometimes my mother gently awakened me and the three of us sat at the kitchen table, the dinners served on greyish pressed paper plates, covered with wax paper, wrapped in newspaper.
I miss the cold beet slices that accompanied the crunchy beer battered fish. One of my favorite childhood memories.
Carol Thrun Nowicki
I read and enjoyed your April 1 article regarding a WNY seafood tradition, the fish fry. The next day, I suddenly realized I was thinking about the first fish fry I remember eating. The details were fuzzy, but the more I thought about it, the more clear the memory became. A school chum had an aunt and an uncle who owned a corner tavern that was located in the Fourth Ward in Dunkirk.
For several days, I struggled to remember the name of the place. I was pretty sure it started with the letter "S." Then it just popped out of some corner of my brain: Sek's Restaurant.
My friend Allan and I had developed an interest in professional wrestling and would regularly drive from Silver Creek, where we lived, to Floral Hall at the county fairgrounds. We saw all the big names: Yukon Eric, the Gallagher Brothers and Ilio DiPaolo, etc. As much as we enjoyed that sports charade, our pre-event dinner became even more special.
Sek's Restaurant served up the classic fish fry. It was a little neighborhood place, filled with "shot and a beer" regulars. We were always put at a table near the kitchen. The food was fabulous and the fish was perch, freshly caught from Lake Erie. We were too young to wash down dinner with a Koch's lager and had to settle for a Coke. That didn't diminish our enjoyment.
If there was anything better than the food, it was the price. Because we were "family," we never paid. What a deal! Free fish fry, then off to watch Bobo Brazil deliver a "coco butt" to the dastardly Fritz Von Erich.
As an aside, I had not seen or talked to Allan in 35 or 40 years since he retired to Florida. Today, I got his phone number from his son who is local and called him. We had a wonderful chat and recalled those memorable Friday nights of fish fry and fake wrestling.
Thanks for your article, for jogging my memory, and indirectly, for the impetus to contact an old friend.
Enjoyed your Friday fish fry article.
A caveat: The fish of choice in Dunkirk back in the day, was not haddock, but yellow pike or perch, if the establishment had access to Helwig’s (a lakefront fish market) or a friend with a boat.
My grandparents used to talk about blue pike, but that predates this member of the Boomer generation. And some of us liked our perch or pike pan-fried, rather than beer battered.
The Koch's beer brought back happy memories of a family I knew well. You might like to know that the eldest son who ran the brewery when it was sold is alive and well in Florida at age 97, John D. Koch.
I thought that you might find this interesting, in light of your recent fish fry article and request for input. I'm not sure in what part of WNY you currently live, but I live in Kenmore. For many years there was a good restaurant and pizza parlor on the west side of Colvin Boulevard, just south of Kenmore Avenue called Pepe's. Predominantly take-out, but with a nice small eat in space as well. It just recently closed and is now run under the name Sammy's II.
The point of interest is a framed newspaper article that hung on their wall for years. It talked about the man, Fred Heitzmann, who apparently accelerated the fish fry craze, if nothing else. I'm sure that I asked at least once and was told that it was a relative of the owner. I always found it interesting and finally took snapshot of it, although with the glare of the glass, it didn't come out great. I had searched online more than once to try and find this article to but with no luck.
Because it says The Buffalo Sunday Times with no date, maybe you would have better access to the archives. Or if interested, maybe it is still hanging there on the wall. Either way, I think that you will be able to read parts of it and enjoy the tale.
Good luck, and I'd certainly love to hear if you are able to track down any more details.
As someone who grew up in Dunkirk, I enjoyed your article greatly. You nailed it. From the Koch’s and Genny to the homemade tartar sauce, Dunkirk’s fish fry culture is not to be equaled. I recall one of my former students - I taught at Mayville Central for most of my career - telling of a great fish fry quest.
Several of the graduate assistants in the bio department spent every Friday evening seeking the best fish fry in the county, a great way for "foreigners" from all over the state to adopt a local community.
To: The Buffalo News
My husband Mike always talks about the Mindszenty High School fish fry sophomore year, when he noticed me. He even remembers what I was wearing! White angora cowl neck sweater, high-waisted navy and white polka dot pants ... he told his friend Bruce Tarnowski he wanted to “marry” me … of course, that is before he actually married me! Who’s sorry now?
Nancy Ronan Dudek
Having read yesterday's Gusto, I need to set the record straight on the Buffalo fish fry. Its origin and tradition is not one where beer batter was used. The Buffalo fish fry was breaded – not battered. Beer batter started to be used here in the '70s as more of a novelty. "They use REAL Beer!!" It caught on.
Think fish 'n chips like in the pubs in Ireland and the UK. Some popular local restaurants like McPartlan's hold steadfast to the true fish fry. Coleslaw was usually prepared in vinegar, not in the mayonnaise way common today, which I suspect is outsourced. In some neighborhoods, fish fries were served on Saturdays and on Fridays.
Buffalo had a large German population and many of the people who looked forward to the weekly treat were Lutheran. With no meat restrictions on Friday, they often enjoyed German potato salad in lieu of French fries, which was laced with bacon.
Today, with few exceptions, haddock is the fish used. In early days, blue pike and yellow pike were served, right from our own waters – the former now sadly extinct. Neither are pike, of course. They were and are perch. At the foot of Ferry Street, two taverns, Roy's and Sargent's, just across the bridge, served fish fries daily and they served it family style.
Perhaps the best Buffalo fish fries were found at the Schupper House on Niagara Street. At least it was best version I ever had. The place is long gone.
Thanks for the article,
To The Buffalo News:
Here’s a (stupid) fish fry memory:
I was quite young. I was probably around eight. And Tommy would’ve been about 16. Tommy and Dad and I went to the Legion Post 62 for a fish fry on a Friday night. We sat down and immediately ordered. We must have been hungry because it seemed to take forever.
Anyway, after what seemed like a really long time, my father got up and walked over toward the kitchen to ask what was going on. Now that I think of it, he was probably going to get another beer. But anyway , he came back and declared, “The boat got stuck out on the lake. The motor quit and wouldn’t start. But they just got it fixed and so they’re on their way back from the lake and we’ll have our fish pretty soon.“
I, of course, believed him.
John Ronan, raised in Dunkirk
To The Buffalo News:
No story about the Buffalo fish fry is complete without the sad saga of the blue pike, which is the original star of the Buffalo fish fry. In the 1950s the great lakes were producing up to 26,000,000 pounds of blue pike per year. The abundance of the blue pike is what created the reputation of the Buffalo fish fry as a "bargain" dinner, an expectation that continues today.
Around 1970 the blue pike declined to extinction over a period of just a few years. Sadly, despite its importance to the local economy, nobody knew much about the species other than they were really delicious and there were really a lot of them. There are many theories about their disappearance; "invasives" through the St. Lawrence Seaway, pollution, overfishing etc. But no one knows for sure.
The haddock was the next best replacement in the Buffalo fish fry. Actually, the yellow pike (walleye) is the best replacement from a gourmet standpoint but, never as abundant as the blue pike, they fail the "bargain" test.
Hello Mr. Kirst:
Just a note to say that your Friday fish fry article was so enjoyable. Your recollections so delectable! It is heartwarming to hear that you and your wife continue the ritual.
Saving your story to reread.
Antoinette Ferrino, Stockton
To: The Buffalo News
Brought back memories of the Dog House fish fries in Dunkirk and takeout orders wrapped in the Buffalo News or The Dunkirk Observer. A similarity of this story is that my wife Chris, from Greece, and I, a townie, met at Fredonia – although the event that cemented our relationship wasn’t a fish fry, but a beer blast on campus! I can attest that Rochester has a long tradition of fish fries on Fridays.
The local newspaper recently did a month-long survey on the best fish fries in Rochester. There are a couple of decent places in Fairport, but the #1 rated in Rochester can be had at The Winfield Grill, on Winton Road – a short walk from our old house.
Dear Mr. Kirst,
My husband and I decided I needed to send you my fish fry story after seeing your article in the Gusto section of the News.
I grew up in Rochester and my grandparents lived on Clifford Avenue near the Conkey Grill. My father told me that during the late 30s my grandfather bought a bar to run. My grandmother was to make the food, my father was to tend bar and my grandfather would greet the patrons at the end of the bar.
My grandmother made the greatest French fries and Fridays they would serve a fish fry. Back then, being Catholic was not popular in Rochester and it was one of the few places that served a fish fry. They were extremely busy!
Unfortunately, my father was a senior at Edison Tech and tending bar till all hours the morning got to be too much, and my grandmother got tired of doing all the cooking and kitchen work. It lasted about a year before they sold it.
My dad swore it wasn’t the Conkey Grill, even though it’s the only bar in the neighborhood. Personally, I think because it became such a rough and tumble place, he wouldn’t admit to it.
I cannot verify any of this information. My one cousin only remembers grandpa sitting at the end of the bar!
But I judge every restaurant by the quality of the fries they serve!
I really enjoyed your story about Friday night fish fry traditions in this morning’s paper. Though I live in West Henrietta, south of Rochester, I frequently buy The Buffalo News, and quite frankly, the fish fry banner caught my attention when I was walking out of Wegmans.
Like you and your wife, I, too, am a graduate of SUNY Fredonia, the class of 1975. Originally from Long Island (yeah...I was one of those kids!) I was not familiar with fish fries as we know them here in WNY. Living on campus we really didn’t venture out to many of the local restaurants other than those with college connections for subs, wings or pizza. I still miss Lena’s Pizza on Water Street to this day!
However, one Friday evening, I joined a number of my friends and dorm mates from Eisenhower Hall in venturing down to The Kosciusko Club (aka Dog House) in Dunkirk. At first, I was more intrigued by the 25¢ beers, but that massive piece of crisp, beer battered haddock sure made an impression on this newbie. I can still somewhat remember our waitress ... an older woman in a white uniform, speaking with a definitive Polish accent! (I’m sure she wasn’t all that amused to be serving 10 of us college kids).
Needless to say, I was hooked and l continue to enjoy a fish fry once or twice a month with the family .... regardless of what time of year it is! There are a number of good ones here in the Rochester area.
Thanks again for jogging my memory! So what’s for dinner on Friday????
Augie Flotteron, West Henrietta
I enjoyed your article in today's Gusto. Brings back memories of the good old days, way before McDonald's opened its first restaurant on Ridge Road in Lackawanna. My family was on a tight budget, too.
My parents bought a house with a 15-year mortgage a few years after getting married. The monthly mortgage payment was more than a week's take home pay. So we didn't have a car until the mortgage was paid off. But in those days, when Bethlehem Steel was booming, there was a corner bar serving fish fries within a few blocks' walking distance no matter where you lived in Lackawanna.
My father worked the swing shift and all the overtime he could get. So on those Fridays when he was off or worked the day shift we might go for a fish if the budget allowed. Zigzag a few blocks through the neighborhood streets to Warsaw Street, turn right and there - a few blocks away - was Mazur's at 3 Seal Place on the banks of Smokes Crick next to the Warsaw Street bridge.
The closer you got the stronger the aroma of fish fry coming out of the kitchen vent fan. Enter through the side door "family entrance" into dining room, pick an empty table and have a seat on an ancient dark brown bent wood chair that had probably been there since the original bar opened in the early 1900s.
The hostess, Eleanor Mazur, would take your order. She'd pass the order on to her mother, Lottie Niedziela, in the kitchen and get our drinks. A glass of draft beer for dad and a glass of pop for the rest of us. The pop came out of glass quart bottles in those days. I usually had birch beer served in the same kind of glass as the old man's draft beer.
I believe the pop was Visniak made by the "Saturn-Visniak Beverage Co." in Sloan, New York. And then the food arrived with the huge slab of fish overhanging the plate on top of the fresh cut french fries, macaroni salad, cole slaw and a slice of seeded rye bread (probably from one of those famous Jewish rye bread bakeries in Buffalo).
Sometimes for a change of pace it was "shrimp in the basket" instead of fish. If I needed a refill of my birch beer I could belly up to the bar and ask Harry Mazur for a refill. From the corner of the bar you could look into the kitchen and see Eleanor and her mother working at a frantic pace dipping haddock fillets into batter, cutting french fries, hoisting baskets of fish and fries out of the deep fryer and filling up the plates with food.
Harry and Eleanor Mazur and Lottie are long gone, along with my dad and younger brother. The building where Mazur's was located is still standing, with the bar vacant. The neighborhood is quiet and fish fry-aroma free but the memories live on.
To: The Buffalo News
Your article in today’s paper really rang true with me. First, we must be close in age because all of the references that you used are the same time-frame as mine.
I was born and raised in Lockport and our family went to a small gin mill in Pendleton named Brauer’s.
I could use the same description for this tavern as the one you detailed in your history. The only thing that you left out was the small (8 ounce?) glasses of orange pop that the seven kids in our family always ordered. Since our family was so large, I still don’t know how my parents afforded this extravagance, even if it was only a few times during Lent.
Here’s the kicker: I do not and have never liked anything that I would call “seafood.” To this day, I will not touch lobster, clams, or any other fish except haddock.
I do continue to go out for the traditional Friday night fish fry here in Lockport at a new favorite restaurant, Kalamata’s on Transit Road. I even order a takeout for my mother (93 years old) who is in a nearby nursing home since I know it is her favorite, too.
Thanks for such a truly genuine article written by a person who gets being a Western New Yorker.
P.S. I have a 2-liter bottle of orange pop in my refrigerator right now. Every time I drink some it reminds me of Brauer’s in Pendleton.
Jim Timkey, Lockport
To: The Buffalo News
My most vivid memories of a beer battered fish fry for me were formed at the Frank Acquavia Post in Dunkirk. I may be wrong, but it seems like that was the only place we ever went as a mob of eight and we loved it. Of course, the fish was the star, but I vividly remember the potato salad AND the Shirley Temples! You are all right – the smell of the frying fish caused immediate and profuse salivation! One never really hears about beer battering anything down in here in Music City. What a wonderful memory!
Love to all,
To: The Buffalo News
I am proud to say that I am a Buffalonian. Where else can you click on the local news website and find not only a “Pothole Map,” but a “Fish Fry Map.” What a combination—you will be able to dodge those potholes and eliminate wasting any time getting to those fish fries.
A recent article in The Buffalo News by Michelle Kearns indicated that “if any dish has a chance of surpassing chicken wings as Buffalo’s signature meal, it might be a plate of steaming fried haddock—Buffalo’s fish of choice for fish fry—with a heap of potato salad, coleslaw and a roll.” Lovers of this Buffalo culinary staple will be dismayed to learn that the “Atlantic haddock haul is down,” which means the price for partaking of this tasty dish will no doubt go up.
Is nothing sacred? First gas, then milk, and now haddock fish fries will make us dig deeper into our pockets to satisfy our needs?
Fish fries are a part of Buffalo life.
When I was a kid, growing up in the 50s and 60s on the east side of Buffalo, it was a rare occasion when our family went out for dinner. When it did occur, we would usually head to a local gin mill. The “Family Entrance” would be reached by heading down a narrow alley. There never seemed to be a waiting line, and shortly after ordering, our fish fry would arrive. The meal would be washed down with either birch beer or orange pop. Their coleslaw was the best—German-style made with vinegar and a bit of sugar.
Of course, these family dinner outings always took place on a Friday. At that time, Catholics could not eat meat on any Friday; that restriction is now only required during Lent.
My sister and I rented an apartment in the late 70s in Hamburg, and discovered a treasure trove of establishments that offered this traditional dish. My favorite was The Cloverbank Hotel. It was almost a given that you would have to wait at the bar, or on the front porch for a good half-hour or so before you could secure a spot inside the dining room. The wait was worth it, though, when a plate laden with fish, fries, and coleslaw was set before you.
I admit that I sometimes strayed from my loyalty to the fish fry at The Cloverbank. Their chicken wings were decadent—dripping with butter.
The craving for fish fries continued after Doug and I were married. One Good Friday, after working on our house in Eden, we visited The Armor Inn in Hamburg. We were starving after observing the Catholic rule of fast and abstinence on that day, which dictated that we could only have one full meal. A fish fry would tease our minds all day, and we ignored the growl of our empty stomachs until dinner. Of course, there was a long line of people also waiting for that one full meal. We endured the delay by enjoying a beer at the bar.
I kept wondering if the church allowed the drinking of alcohol on Good Friday, but what better appetizer to prepare the way for that fish fry? Actually the words “fish fry” are usually accompanied by the word “beer.”
We said goodbye to the haddock fish fry when we moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. Cincinnatians commit an act of blasphemy when uttering “fish fry.” Catfish does not belong on a fish fry plate. We lived in Ohio for 14 years and were never able to find a true haddock fish fry.
We experienced fish fry withdrawal that could only be relieved by visiting Buffalo—OK, we did go back to visit family, too. My dad was a lifelong member of the VFW Leonard Post, and he would always treat us to a dinner (on Friday, of course) when we returned. He understood the deprivation we endured, and he also liked to show off his grandchildren to his friends. We were thankful for the much-needed antidote.
The Clarence Center Volunteer Fire Department always has their fundraiser fish fry on Good Friday. Tickets are sold in advance and go quickly. If you wait until the actual day of the event, you could be turned away at the door (fish fry rejection—very sad). It became a family tradition to gather together at 6038 Long Street and walk down the street to the fire hall. We enjoyed a delicious dinner and saw neighbors and friends. We felt like part of the community. I miss the tradition and the community.
Over the years, I have developed a number of “pet peeves” regarding the fish fry:
- The worst way to ruin a fish fry is to chomp on bones. From that moment on you tentatively poke through your fish to avoid another encounter. This is not enjoyable.
- A fish fry deserves to be served on a bigger plate. I do not appreciate dissecting my meal to look for the macaroni salad and coleslaw. I do not enjoy trying to retrieve food items that are about to fall off my plate on to a paper placemat or a questionable oil cloth. Could you please give each food item a little space to breathe?
- More places need to offer a half-fish alternative. Many of us do not want to consume a piece of fish the size of an oval plate. In my opinion, leftover fish never tastes good; plus my cats do not get table food.
- You really need to go to a bar for a great fish fry. It’s tradition, and must be part of the German culture.
You will have to excuse me now. I need to check out that “Fish Fry Map.” Suddenly I am very hungry.
P.S. I found a bone in my fish!
I just read your fish fry story and enjoyed it so much. Your descriptions are so perfect for the experience. I loved how you framed the narrative with asking your wife out to eat. The ending is just perfect. That is a ‘wondering piece’ I am sure so many Western New Yorkers will enjoy today. It certainly makes me smile and reminisce as I sit here drinking my coffee.
You asked for our fish fry memories. My memory is similar to yours:
As you said, decisions of this sort were solely within the jurisdiction of my mom. On Friday nights, when a look of weariness at cooking dinner for five children flashed across her face, she might get a gleam in her eye and say to my dad, "How about a fish fry?"
For us, we'd mostly get takeout. It was too difficult shuffling five kids out the door. My dad would always agree; soon after he'd return home laden with Styrofoam containers. The smell preceded them. Popping open the lid to the sight of that enormous fried fish made me feel joy.
Maybe it was because with five kids, we were always eyeballing the last piece of food, but, like the loaves and the fishes in the Bible, with the fish fry, there was somehow always more than enough for everyone. Crunching through the exterior with my fork and reaching the flaky white fish within was always a pleasure point in the experience.
Thank you for writing such an enjoyable piece!
To: The Buffalo News
My very earliest memories: American Legion Post 62 in Dunkirk, before it was "remodeled" as part of Urban Removal in the 1970s. I recall battered fish, the pinball machine, the bar, the stools where my dad would sit with Louis Gadina, Jeff O'Connell, George Burns I (the WWI version) ... then there was old Claude Sharpe (made the landings in Normandy) ... and Jerry Carroll, St. Mary's Academy '44, belly-gunner in a B29, shot down (twice I think) in Pacific in the Big One ... who graduated with dad and was a frequent drinking buddy of dad's after they used to work Cardinal Mindszenty High School Bingo. But I digress: Back to fish fry.
After the hazy memories of pre-urban destruction Post 62, the Ronan clan (those who were in still in town) switched to Acquavia Post, which was in Fredonia by St. Joe's church (Frank Acquavia was killed in WWII).
While that was our regular spot the remainder of my days back home, I remember CMHS fish fries as well, but I recall their having pre-made (frozen) fish-sticks, or rather patties .... shaped like trapezoids? Didn't matter. It was CMHS, the greatest place in the world because my five siblings had all gone there.
As I write this, I realize how insipid was the $15 "Tunacado" panini sandwich I just wolfed down at a juice bar on Madison Avenue. I would gladly take a 1-hour subway ride and pay $50 for another Dunkirk fish fry, or a sloppy Joe at St. Mary's for that matter (though not today) ....
Once again, an article that catches the pulse of WNY living. Superb. But I question your mother’s verbiage - “Maybe we should do fish tonight?”
Of course I’m not mainstream here - German Lutheran heritage - but we ALWAYS said “fish fry.” Fish was too ambiguous. Fish fry, sort of akin to the Oxford comma, settled any uncertainty.
Then again, my public school cafeteria experience was no meat on Fridays - ever. As my mother explained: We are in a Catholic community - Irish, Italian, whatever - and it doesn’t hurt.
Oh, and your family had a car! You were rich.
I can’t share any Buffalo fish fry memories, because you have described them all in your article. OMG, we must have led parallel lives right down to every fishy detail.
You see, I am from South Buffalo and met my wife from Rome (N.Y.) at Fredonia State over 50 years ago. I too lived off-campus, on Greco Lane, but was never a real townie. While we would visit Point Gratiot, we actually met at SUNYs bar, and frequented places like the Colonial, BJ’s, Fountain Grill and of course the Caboose ... sometimes between classes.
Funny, I don’t recall ever getting a fish fry in town during our time at Fredonia, but believe me, we truly miss the experience now.
You see, we moved to work in San Francisco over 25 years ago, and then retired near Las Vegas. Two extraordinary locations, both with many restaurants that would fulfill any culinary desire.
However, in this world of “fillet of sole”, they have no idea what a WNY fish fry is all about. While some restaurants claim to serve a fish fry, Alaskan pollock and overdone fries definitely do not work. What? No coleslaw, no macaroni salad, no potato salad, not even the obligatory slice of bread, and definitely no Koch’s Beer?
After reading your article, I’m ready to book a flight home, just to savor that wonderful meal in any of the great little dinners or vets posts that I remember. Perhaps even a visit to Fredonia or Dunkirk. That’s where the real people live.
Thanks for the memories,
We used to go as a family either to Hoak’s Armor Inn (since closed, now the Armor Tap Room is located there) or Hoak’s Lakeshore, both great options for fish fries. My parents still rotate Fridays between Hoak’s on the Lake and the Water Valley in Hamburg. Love the Friday fish fry tradition.
Good afternoon Sean,
As I close in on my 72nd birthday, I enjoy a fish fry as much as anyone. But it was not always so.
The fish fry of my childhood was not haddock or cod. It was blue pike (now extinct), yellow pike or perch. These freshwater fish, even when filleted, are boney. We often got our fish fry at Brownout's on Elmwood near Hodge. It was a takeout place.
The ride home was perhaps twenty minutes. The boney, cold, greasy fish was anything but a treat. I hated it. Mom insisted that a slice of buttered bread be at the ready in case a bone got lodged in somebody’ s throat.
Haddock fish fries became the norm at Scotty’s or the Turf club around 1960. I think the price was around $0.50. Sometimes they had babbaluchi, small black snails cooked in tomato sauce. That was my personal Friday treat.
In 1976 my wife, myself and our infant daughter moved from Tampa to Syracuse. We assumed that we would find plenty of taverns offering the ubiquitous Friday fish fry. Syracuse is a Catholic city with similar ethnic mix. No such luck.
My current favorite is The New York Beer Project. It is cod. Also like the Hayes Fish Market. That’s the classic haddock.
James P. Julian
Dear Mr. Kirst -
I so enjoyed your ode to the past, and to fish fry as both a memory and a meal. Thank you for sharing!
You asked for others to share. I don't know that this really qualifies as a memory of fish fries, as I honestly do not much remember eating the actual meal. It is a memory of going out for fish fry, though.
I am in my late 50s, and would like to share the experience of going to the Scharf's Schiller Park Restaurant in the mid-to-late 1960s. My younger brother and I would go sometimes on a Friday evening with our mother, and her mother and sister, when my dad was traveling for business.
The restaurant was a two-block walk from my grandmother's house. What a treat it was! While the adults would sit and talk over their glass of beer, my younger brother and I would each get a small bottle of (cherry) soda and a small bag of potato chips or pretzels to keep us happy while we waited for our dinners.
Heaven. And then, at some point in the evening (usually while we were eating our meal), the balloon man would show up. He was an elderly man, black suit, white shirt, black tie, and a black fedora. To me, he looked like Jimmy Durante, partly due to his outfit, and partly due to a certain memorable facial feature that the two shared!
This wonderful gentleman would stand at the front of the restaurant, and create balloon animals for all the kids that were there. He would be mobbed as soon as he walked in, and would immediately begin pulling long balloons out of his suit pocket, blowing them up, and shaping them.
I was too young to remember his name (or maybe no one knew it?), and whether he ever sat down afterwards to eat or have a drink. All I remember is the joy of my brother and I being able to get one of those toys, made just for us, right in front of our eyes.
At that point, the meal was of little importance, and we would rush through dinner so as not to miss him. I'm sure that's why I don't remember the actual fish fry - which I'm sure was excellent, as Scharf's was a busy neighborhood bar and restaurant. We were too excited about the "entertainment".
So, thank you for providing the trip down memory lane. I hadn't thought about this in a very long time.
Here's hoping you and your wife enjoy many more years of Friday fish fry together!
In 1979 I was drafted by the Buffalo Bills. As a Southern gentleman who played for the Richmond Spiders and lived in Virginia most of my life, all I knew about Buffalo was that O.J. Simpson had played for the Bills and that just two years earlier, the people of WNY survived the “Blizzard of 77.” The fact that some people didn’t survive was unsettling and worried me about leaving my southern comfort for what I perceived was the year-round frozen tundra of Rich Stadium.
I knew nothing about the Buffalo cuisine scene, but I found out quickly that beef on weck was to die for, and that if you really wanted to go to heaven, chicken wings and blue cheese would surely get you there. Those two staples, along with New York style pizza, were the main courses .... but then I found paradise in a fish called “haddock.”
Down south, the only seafood dishes that were really popular were southern fried catfish, crab cakes, shrimp and crawfish (a small freshwater lobster) Not my cup of tea. If I wanted to have something that would tantalize my taste buds, I would have to buy the more expensive fish, like flounder, halibut and swordfish. Those meals could set you back about $20 - and that was a lot for a college student-athlete back in the late 70s.
That all changed when I came to Buffalo and had my first beer-battered haddock fish fry at a place called the Big Tree Inn. Back then it cost me about $6 to get a huge piece of fish, coleslaw and french fries. The Big Tree is where all the guys would go after practice.
Danny DeMarco, the owner, would treat us like kings. When we all sat down at the table the feeding frenzy would begin. It was like a scene right out of "Game of Thrones," hands all reaching at the same time for a wing, or a slice of pizza, or a slab of beef, or beer-battered fish. And of course, the beer was flowing!
Back then, I thought to myself, who was the genius who said: “Let’s have the beer cooked right into our food!”
Forty years have passed since then .. and I still get excited when Friday rolls around. Sometimes we eat at home and my wife cooks us fried fish in a huge cast iron skillet. She has promised to take her seasoning secrets to the grave – as she should.
We found a great place to get a fish fry – The Hamlin House. Almost every Friday I pick up a fish fry on my way home from work. These days, I have gone from the beer-battered to a breaded haddock fish fry. My playing days are long over…. and now I have to watch my figure.
TGIFFF – Thank Goodness It’s Friday Fish Fry!
Buffalo Bills Free Safety (1979-1984)
Quick note from a Kenmore Boy now in Massachusetts who still thinks he made a wrong turn on the Thruway many years ago (story for another time).
When we were first married and living in Buffalo while I was in graduate school and my New England wife was teaching in the local schools, we always went for fish on Friday. What else would you do before the Bison and later Sabres games?
Through friends, we settled on a place on the East Side (am sure you knew it) and went for years. Then we moved to Massachusetts, but always went for fish when coming home for visits. Fast-forward to having our daughter.
Some of the first words out of her mouth were "I want a Visniak" when we would prop her up on the bar. Also made our own tartar sauce with the relish and mayo the staff brought to the table. But the best story was the time somebody asked us where we had been (hadn't been in for awhile). We said that we had moved to Boston.
The person looked a little perplexed and then said, "Well ... that's not so far. Just out by Alden, right?".
Can't beat it.
To: The Buffalo News
As I grew up in the Polish heart of Buffalo, indeed fish fries are part of my heritage. My wife and I still search for these special Lenten meals here in Texas now, but not to be found yet. However, my grandest FF memory is from our favorite East Side tavern, JR's, which was located next to St. John Kanty's church, on Broadway, near Bailey.
JR's was so classic; you described it to a 'T' in your synopsis. When you walked in that front door, boom! The aroma of frying fish. Now, let me tell you that my folks weren't the types to go out much. I only recall ONCE that we actually ate IN the restaurant. It was all takeout.
My dad and I would walk up to the bartender and give him our name and we would wait a bit until our order was ready. JR's had a regular fish fry, a large filet of haddock, but they also had my choice, THE GIANT. This piece of haddock hung 4 inches off each side of the plate!
Ok, so through the years, sometimes I would go pick up our takeout, sometimes my dad alone. But as I grew, my favorite thing was getting a cold small glass of Genny as I - or we - waited. My dad was not a drinker, so he enjoyed his favorite, a ginger ale!
Now, as the years progressed, grand kids (my kids) and wives, etc., sometimes we picked up as many as eight meals! I recall the bartender handing us tied-up plastic bags, each holding three styrofoam encased meals.
When those bags were coming, we'd quickly finish our drinks, put a big smile on our faces and head back to my mom and dad’s to enjoy this meal. My dad would get upset when we got back, because like scavengers, everyone started pulling at the bags, searching for their meal, some had extra fries, some had extra coleslaw, mine had ‘The Giant!’
It was all good, mom sorted things out and we gathered around the antique dining room table, said grace, and then you heard the moans of culinary delight.
Those days are long gone. These great memories happened for me in the '70s through the early 2000s. Mom and Dad have long passed, the "little ones" are in college and our family is in different parts of the country. But Fridays in Lent will always send us back in time.
My family owned a funeral home in Evans Center and my father was an elected official of Angola for over 20 years. I distinctly remember piling into the station wagon (which also served as the flower car) on Fridays to visit the local places.
Our mother felt it important to go to a different place every Friday, so one week was a fire hall, next a VFW, then a church function; but I can tell you that I still remember those days fondly. Communal tables, meeting people, making friends and just being a normal family.
My favorite stop was the VFW, seeing guys drinking Genny out of jelly jars, looking at memorabilia hanging from the walls and listening to strangers call out my dad’s name as they may have served together.
We were a family of five boys; inevitably, my dad would break away from my mom and I would follow him to the bar. “Pop” was not a big drinker, but he would pick me up on one of the worn stools and let me sit there. I had my first Shirley Temple there and the only rule was to listen and not be a PITA ...
Your story brought back those memories, I live in New Jersey and have traveled the world, but those Friday Lent fish fries are still some of the best meals and memories I have.
The fish fry article on April 1 was so well written, so spot-on, that I (a retired male) just about had teary eyes just reading it.
There are no fish fry places here in my chosen retired location of New Mexico. They don't know what a fish fry is here. Heck, they barely know what fish are in this land of 8" of annual precipitation.
In Niagara Falls, the usual spot for us was the American Legion hall, and true to your article, everybody had a clue as to who everybody else was.
We are visiting my daughter in Tonawanda for Easter, and they asked us while still here, actually me, where to go for a fish fry when we get there. They knew if they picked wrong, they would "get into trouble," so if the fish fry is not up to snuff, I would shoulder the blame. Pretty smart kids. (We're going to the Sheridan Park Volunteer Fire Department).
So thanks for the article. It truly made my day.
Is it too much to say that fish fry is part of our collective soul? When I was a teenager and dating my late husband, my family lived on Wendel Avenue and at the corner was Meyers Tavern. It was a treat on a Friday if we could scrape together enough cash to walk up to the corner for fish fry.
Meyers (the name has changed over the years) was what every corner tavern should be--a dark, wood-paneled bar in front, and an equally dark dining room in back (that ladies could enter from a side door). The dining room was tightly crowded with wood tables, cozy with candles, and on a Friday, packed wall to wall. If there were menus, I never saw one.
Waitresses squeezed through the narrow spaces between tables, huge trays held aloft, the air perfumed with haddock. That golden beer-battered fish languidly draped over the edges of the plate, and a basket of fresh rye bread that was the perfect accompaniment.
Our Western New York Friday fish fry is one of the few rituals that remains intact in the face of more trendy cuisine. I've lived in Rochester for many years and, fortunately, they also embrace the fish fry culture.
Last week my daughter, granddaughter, and I went to Foster's in Hilton. We sat at a booth in the bar, where it's noisy and busy and the servers are refreshingly normal middle-aged women, and the fish is great. Friday fish fry makes you feel life is good.
We even have a fish fry song, sung to the tune of "If I Had a Hammer"--if I had a haddock, I'd fry him in the morning, I'd eat him in the evening, with lemon and....You get the idea.
To: The Buffalo News
…the opening photo.
Both my wife and I are Buffalo at heart, Connecticut by chance. Both born and raised in Buffalo, both who say we come back to see family, but, in fact, we come back for the food.
As a kid growing up in Kenmore I made dozens of runs on my bike on Friday to a place called Kenmore Fish, stood in line, stole some french fries from out under the serving line, doubled up on the tartar sauce because of my dorky sisters and their habit of dipping fries into it, family fish fry meal wrapped in white paper and placed in brown bag.
In the end, it wasn’t strictly about the fish fry, it was more about it’s Friday, it’s Lent, and for those Fridays in Buffalo, aka Kenmore, it was Fish Fry that brought our entire family together for a meal (even the dorky sisters).
Beef on weck, Mighty Taco, “smorgasbord,” Ted’s, custard ice cream.
Good gawd man, we miss Buffalo Eats.
Here we have "Lob-Stah” … whoop-de-do.
I’ve been wracking my brain for the name of the fry place of my youth and it finally came to me: Pennisi's, longtime family-run place. Don't recall where the original was located but prior to closing it had moved to the end of Teall in Syracuse, I think.
I do remember that my Mom always ate it with ketchup instead of tartar...a habit I'd consider sacrilege today! ;>}
My current fave is CJ's.
When we first moved to the village of Williamsville my mom would order fish fries for us six kids from Chicken Delight, which is now Apple Wood Café. There were no takeout containers in those days. The fish was put on a thicker paper plate with all the fixins'. Then another plate was put over top of it and they were stapled together with a fork, napkin and salt & pepper. The fish fry was $1.25.
I'm sure your story will be great.
My mouth is watering! There is nothing that compares to a WNY fish fry. Our extended family always gathered for Thanksgiving, but I think what we all looked forward to more than that meal was when all of us (maybe anywhere from 15-20+) would meet at the Attica American Legion the next night for a fish fry.
It quickly became a wonderful tradition that those of us who do not get “home” much anymore really miss. Thank you for another great article.
Sharon Potter, Watertown
Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or read more of his work in this archive.
Story topics: fish fry