Caleb Westphal hasn’t missed a Friday fish fry since 2013. Follow his never-ending adventures—sponsored by Miller High LifeHERE. This week, fish fry #543: The Elias Inn Supper Club in Watertown, Wisconsin. With U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin!

At their best, Friday fish frys are unifying. Fish frys are served in the blue bastions of Milwaukee and Madison, in solidly red rural areas, and everywhere in between. It’s itself unifying to know that someone you don’t align with politically is eating the same meal as you somewhere else in the state, but when people make the drive for a good fish fry, they often find themselves in restaurants eating alongside those with different political views, too. This can, at its least, help to humanize those with differing views as our own, and at its best, can lead to dialogue and the building of a better tomorrow for our state and country, something greatly needed in this time fraught with division.

Those who know me well know my political beliefs, and if you read my column, perhaps you can pick up on them. But my role here has not been, and is not, a political one. It is to inform you about fish frys and (hopefully) entertain you along the way. I write for Republicans, Democrats, and those who don’t identify as either, just as I’ve eaten fish frys alongside all of these people, and likely have eaten at restaurants owned by all of them, too. I eat fish frys in Milwaukee County. I eat fish frys in the WOW counties. This past Friday I ate a fish fry in Watertown, a city located in both Dodge and Jefferson counties.

If I was asked to eat a fish fry with a politician, I’d eat one with any Republican or Democrat who I agree with or disagree with on any number of issues, as long as they believe in democracy and maybe in basic facts needed for democracy to exist, like free and fair elections and the legitimacy of the 2020 election. Well, I was asked to eat a fish fry with a politician. U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin’s team reached out on March 1. As I understand it, the senator (or her team) came up with the idea for the fish fry because of the proclamation I received for Friday Fish Fry Day from Governor Evers and the subsequent interview I did with WTMJ-TV. The date for the fish fry was set for March 22. But more pressing matters came up, namely, Senator Baldwin had to be in Washington, D.C. to vote on appropriations bills to fund the government. Yep, that’s probably more important than eating a fish fry with some dude who is really only known by anyone because he’s a dude who eats fish frys.

I was considering reaching back out, but then Baldwin’s team beat me to it, and the fish fry was rescheduled for May 24. They must really want to do this, I thought. I proposed the Elias Inn in Watertown as the location (200 N. 2nd St.; 920-261-6262). I chose it not only because it looked appealing after reading about it in Ron Faiola’s book Wisconsin Supper Clubs – Second Edition, but because I wanted it to be a place outside of Madison and Milwaukee, a place in a red part of the state.

Just as I’ll go anywhere and everywhere for fish frys—to the big cities or the countryside, to restaurants in Democratic or Republican strongholds—Tammy Baldwin has a “go everywhere” strategy for campaigning, with hopes of reaching voters and being competitive in all parts of Wisconsin, including in small towns and rural areas. It was her strategy in 2018, and perhaps played some role when she handily won reelection and beat her Republican opponent, Leah Vukmir, by almost 11 percentage points. The other statewide races were much closer. For instance, candidate Tony Evers defeated Governor Walker by just over one percent.

This year, at the end of March, Baldwin embarked on a five-day “Dairyland Tour,” covering 14,000 miles and 19 counties, none of which were one of Wisconsin’s top five most populous counties. Some of the communities she stopped in were Superior, Ashland, Washburn, Richland Center, Wisconsin Dells, and New Glarus. It was in the spirit of “go everywhere” and the “Dairyland Tour” that I picked the Elias Inn and Watertown as our destination. In 2018, Baldwin lost Dodge County by about 14 percentage points and Jefferson by about four—this was red country. This was made all the more apparent when I walked by the new Jefferson County Republican Party headquarters shortly before I headed to the supper club.

The building that is home to the Elias Inn, located at the northwest corner of E. Madison Street and N. Second Street, was built in 1933 by John and Emma Powers and first operated as a tavern called Powers Inn. Their son Ray and his wife Ruth took it over next and had it until 1972, when Dale Wood and Kramer Rock made it into Wood’s Old World Pub. The Watertown Inn followed, and then in 1987 the building gained the name it has today, when John Elias, Tammie Probst, and Greg “Slim” Schroeder bought it. One of the new supper club’s features was an all-you-can-eat fish and chicken fry, which remains today, as well as a Friday take on the lazy Susan, which is similar to what is still served at the restaurant.

Wife and husband Lydia and Mike Sobol, who also own Sobie’s Restaurant in Oconomowoc, partnered with Nate Rupnow, who had been a cook at Sobie’s, and purchased the Elias Inn in February 2022. They did a few cosmetic and culinary changes such as remodeling the kitchen, bringing the original Powers Inn tables back (which were stored in the basement), modifying the fish batter, and switching to Broaster Company’s Chikite marinade and Slo-Bro Coating—which made their fried chicken Genuine Broaster Chicken. The Elias Inn is steeped in history and tradition, and by implementing some modifications, the owners made it possible for the tradition to carry on for a long time to come.

I strolled into the Elias Inn around 4:45 p.m., and for the first time ever in my hundreds of Friday fish frys said “I’m here to meet the senator” instead of “table for one” or whatever I usually say. I was directed to the back dining room, where I was greeted by the senator’s digital team. I took a seat in a booth in the far back corner. Facing the room entrance, I would see the senator as she arrived. Lydia introduced herself and gave me some history of the restaurant and let me know I was seated at one of the original 1933 tables that they had refurbished. She also introduced me to Nate, who came out of the kitchen to greet me. Then she asked me if I’d like an Old Fashioned.

On most Fridays, I sip a Brandy Old Fashioned Sweet while waiting for fish. On this particular Friday, I sipped while waiting for a senator. Then she walked in! I stood up and we shook hands. I was planning to be formal and greet her as “senator,” but was caught up in the moment and called her “Tammy.” She appeared pleased to have joined me, and said she was excited because this wasn’t something she gets to do very often—get a Friday fish fry. I told her that this wasn’t something I do very often either—get a Friday fish fry with a United States senator.

The senator asked how I like my Old Fashioneds made, and then ordered a Brandy Old Fashioned Sour. She joked that this was going to be our only disagreement of the evening. We raised our glasses despite the sweet vs. sour split. Finding common ground and building bridges is what we Wisconsinites do.

We both ordered the all-you-can eat fish fry ($19), which comes with fried cod, baked cod, broasted chicken, seasoned french fries, and a fish fry relish tray—a lazy Susan loaded with dishes of baked beans, German potato salad, American potato salad, Thai-vinegar coleslaw, traditional tartar sauce, dill tartar sauce, and rye bread. The Elias Inn’s other fish specials, which also come with french fries and the fish fry relish tray, are a fried shrimp dinner ($22) with seven pieces of butterflied, breaded, and fried shrimp, a perch plate ($21) with a half-pound of perch, and Canadian walleye pike ($26) either baked or beer battered.

During the short wait for our food, and throughout our fish fry, the senator and I took part in a wide-ranging conversation. Lighthearted but substantive, it was generally centered around Wisconsin. Some of the topics we covered were supper clubs, Door County fish boils, Spotted Cow, Wisconsin breweries, Top Chef, Laverne & Shirley, notable people from my hometown of Fond du Lac and from Wisconsin, Green County Cheese Days, our respective “go everywhere” campaigns, the senator’s recent “Dairyland Tour,” my views on fish frys as a unifying force during polarizing times, our fish fry experiences, the senator’s favorite type of fish, and Friday Fish Fry Day and the state proclamation for it.

The senator said that going out to eat at restaurants, for fish frys or otherwise, was not a big part of her childhood, attributing this to being raised by grandparents who had come of age during the Great Depression. I echoed that I also didn’t go out to eat much when I was growing up, but that if we did, it was usually for a Friday fish fry. She said that when she got older, some of the supper clubs or fish fry restaurants in the Madison area that she went to were Smoky’s Club and Avenue Club. As far as the senator’s favorite type of fish nowadays? It’s whitefish, caught fresh from Lake Superior.

Not only has the senator eaten fish frys, she’s campaigned at them; she said the issue with fish fry campaigning is that eating a fish fry during it usually isn’t an option. She recounted the time Tom Barrett mapped out a night of Friday fish fry campaigning for the pair on the Friday before Election Day in 2012, when she was days away from winning her first Senate race. She recalled stopping at four places. Their stop at Lakefront Brewery was the one memory she has of being at a fish fry that wasn’t altogether pleasant, because a guy tried to pick a fight with her and the mayor. (Who tries to start a fight at a fish fry?? Preposterous!) I asked her if she remembered any other of the places they stopped at, and she said Serb Hall was one of the spots. I told her Serb Hall has been a mainstay for fish fry campaigning for decades, and made a go at recalling some of the anecdotes about campaigners I wrote about in my Serb Hall article.

Door County came up twice, first in a discussion about fish boils, and then when the senator asked me if I ever take destination fish fry trips where I make the fish fry the centerpiece of the weekend. My trip to Door County earlier this year came to mind, when a visit to Sister Bay Bowl provided the focal point of the weekend. I suggested the senator check out this supper club and bowling alley when she’s up in Door County again.

Television in Wisconsin was another topic. First, yes, Senator Baldwin has started watching the new season of Top Chef. Second, did you know that her Senate conference rooms are named Laverne and Shirley? The larger one is Laverne and the smaller one is Shirley. When Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams passed away, the senator added plaques to the office walls in their memory. Shlemiel! Schlemazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!

I asked the senator about her “Dairyland Tour.” She said a late March snowstorm hit them on their first day, when they were way up north in Superior. I asked if this changed the trajectory of her travels, and she told me that her meeting with the chamber of commerce had to be cancelled (many of the folks who would have been at it had to stay home to watch their kids, who had a snow day), but that this gave her the opportunity to meet with snowplow drivers instead, and to bring them some donuts. I shared the story that the phone often rang in the middle of the night when I was growing up, because my dad was a snowplow driver for the City of Fond du Lac, and almost every time there was a snowstorm he would get the call. I know firsthand the hard work these employees do to keep cities safe and functioning.

There was no better meal to be having during such a conversation than a fish fry, and because of the high quality of the food, I was more than pleased that the Elias Inn was where we were at. Given that most of my focus was on trying to have a conversation with the senator, I didn’t take copious mental notes about the fish fry like I usually do. That being said, it doesn’t take much to remember the fish fry at the Elias Inn, because it has so much going for it.

First, let’s talk about this lazy Susan fish fry relish tray. There were seven dishes on it, small in size yet large in originality, presentation, and flavor. The one-two punch of American potato salad and German potato salad contrasted with, yet complemented each other. I might not (?) have had baked beans with a fish fry since 2018, which notably were also served on a lazy Susan. The slaw, I imagine, is unlike any that can be found in all of Jefferson and Dodge counties, and was the senator’s favorite part of the relish tray. My highlight was the tartar sauce, of which there were two kinds. At first I thought I liked the traditional one more. It was thick, and some of the sweetest, if not the sweetest, tartar I’ve ever had. But the dill tartar was no joke either. It soon occurred to me that the best way to eat them was side by side, with some of each going onto each piece of fish.

The rest of the meal was also served family style. The senator and I each had a piece of baked cod. While I’m no connoisseur of this un-fried variety, I was struck by how much flavor it had, which I imagined came in part from the herbs or seasonings that topped it. After first thinking I’d forgo the chicken altogether, I decided to ask for one piece when we put in our order. Although we had come for a fish fry, the senator and I agreed that the chicken was something special too. The fried cod had a light batter with the right crispness, and beneath it were slim yet satisfying fillets. I was more than pleased with it.

Our server, Annette Zubke, checked in on us from time to time, and provided superb service. When I wanted a beer to go with my fish, I ordered a Spotted Cow and told the senator I did so in honor of the time she brought Spotted Cow to Late Night With Seth Meyers. At some point Annette asked if we wanted dessert, and I said I didn’t, and that I might order more fish instead. When there was one piece of fried cod left on the plate, I asked the senator if she wanted it, and she offered it up to me. Soon after, I ordered more fish and was brought two more pieces. After finishing them off, the senator and I talked for a few more minutes as I finished my Spotted Cow. We had been at the table for about an hour. The senator then took a few photos in the front bar area, talked with some of the staff, and with that, was on her way.

While fish frys might not heal all political divisions or present concrete policy solutions to the great issues of our time, they exist on common ground and bring out the best of Wisconsinites. Maybe the only thing more patriotic than eating a fish fry in Wisconsin is voting. And just like how I’ll continue eating fish frys alongside Republicans and Democrats, I’ll keep voting alongside them too. Our state motto isn’t “Forward” for nothing.

Takeaways: Lazy Susan fish fry relish tray; two top-notch tartars and two potato salads; all-you-can eat Genuine Broaster Chicken, baked cod, and fried cod for only $19; politics and fish frys can mix.

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About The Author

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Originally hailing from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin—home of Walleye Weekend, the self-professed "World's Largest Walleye Fish Fry"—Caleb Westphal has not missed a Friday night fish fry since sometime in 2013. He plays saxophone with the surf-punk-garage outfit Devils Teeth. He also spins classic 45s and would love to do so at your roller skating party, car show, or 50th high school reunion.