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 #531: Sister Bay Bowl in Sister Bay, Wisconsin.

I’ve never waited for the green flag to wave at the Daytona 500, and I’ve never been part of a cattle call for a play or film, but I have arrived at Sister Bay Bowl (10640 N. Bay Shore Dr.; 920-854-2841) a half hour before their dining room opens on a Friday night. It had started out as most Fridays do, with an attempt to arrive before there would be a long wait—before peak dinner time and what I assumed would be a possible bump in fish fry activity due to Lent. But I hadn’t done my homework, and when my fiancée and I arrived around 4:30, we found that the dining room didn’t open until 5.

I’m not sure I’d ever been present for the opening bell of a Friday night fish fry before, but the table was set for it. I asked at the bar if I had to put my name in. The bartender, who sounded more like Charlie Berens than Charlies Berens, without a hint of affectation, told me there was no need to, and that I should watch for a line to start forming and then get in it. With that, I ordered a Brandy Old Fashioned Sweet ($8), and my fiancée and I found seats at a small high top table conveniently situated between the bar and the dining room.

The Sister Bay Bowl is considered an institution in Door County and has garnered legendary status there and beyond for its fish fry, and because of the memories that generations have formed there while dancing, bowling, socializing, and drinking. It was built as the Sister Bay Hotel in the early 20th century. The original hotel burned down in 1912, but was quickly rebuilt. There were a number of owners over the next three decades; one of them, Henry Koepsel, added a dance hall in 1930. Louis Willems started operating the hotel in 1943, and it has been in the Willems family ever since.

Louis’s son Earl married Rita Baeten in 1947, the same year he became a chiropractor and set up shop in Sturgeon Bay. By 1950 the couple had two young children, and Earl, who wasn’t finding the success he wanted as a chiropractor, told his father he wanted to run a bar. Louis told his son he could start running the hotel or the Rock (now Alexander’s), an establishment he had built and also owned. Earl and Rita chose the hotel, and Louis started leasing it to them for $100 a month.

When Earl and Rita took over the Sister Bay Hotel, it had 13 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms. The bar was in operation, but there was only a small dining area, not the large dining room and restaurant of today. In 1958, they tore down the dance hall and installed a six-lane bowling alley; automatic pinsetters were installed in 1959. Earl and Rita closed the hotel portion of the business in 1964 and opened the supper club. The Sister Bay Bowl that still stands strong 60 years later had arrived.

It’s not easy to condense the early history of the Sister Bay Bowl down to the length of time it takes to drink an Old Fashioned, but there you have it. The Old Fashioneds at the Bowl are simple and smooth. Brandy and soda go in, as does a secret mix. They are garnished with a cherry and a small orange slice. I could drink them all night, but at about 4:48 I went up for a second one and closed my tab.

By the time I got back to my seat a line had started to form, and moments later we got in it. I overheard the couple behind us talking to another couple and saying they had been coming to the Bowl for 40 years. A few minutes later I asked the guy if they had been coming for the perch all those years, and he said they had. He said the perch never changes, and he suggested I get the perch dinner instead of the perch fish fry, because it includes a salad and comes with more fish.

There were about seven people ahead of us and around 15 behind the last time I turned around to check. The anticipation was building. It was Friday night in Wisconsin and I was at Sister Bay Bowl. How much better could life get? Not a moment after 5 the first diners were let in, and we were seated by 5:01.

As I was told while in line, there is a distinction between the fish frys and fish fry dinners. All perch on the menu is listed as market price. The perch fish fry currently clocks in at $23.95 and comes with four butterflies. Walleye, whitefish, and shrimp are also in the fish fry section, available for $18.95. Potato choices are potato salad or french fries, or a baked potato for an additional 50 cents. Bonus: the fish frys are also offered on Tuesdays.

On the dinner side of the menu I found options for a light portion or full portion of perch, with three butterflies or five butterflies, which are currently going for $24.95 and $28.95. Side choices are french fries, baked potato, broasted potatoes, or vegetables. Hash browns are an option except for on Tuesdays and Fridays. The dinners come with a house salad instead of coleslaw. Other available seafood dinners are breaded shrimp ($18.50/ five piece or $21.95/ eight piece), scallops ($18.50/ seven piece or $23.95/ twelve piece), whitefish ($18.50/ light or $22.95/ full, blackened or topped with french fried onions), salmon ($22.95, broiled or blackened), and surf & turf ($31.95 for choice of two of perch, whitefish, shrimp, scallops, ribs, sirloin steak, or prime rib; an extra $5 for prime rib). The fish frys and fish fry dinners come with a small loaf of bread that is baked in-house. Perch tacos and sandwiches are also available, as is broasted, broiled, or blackened whitefish ($14.95) with a choice of potato. Perch and shrimp are also on the children’s menu.

Sister Bay Bowl serves one other type of fish fry, but it is not listed on the menu: the Clyde. The late Clyde Casperson, an old friend and customer at the Bowl, was told by his heart surgeon that he could no longer eat fried foods, but that he could still eat all the fish he wanted. The Clyde was born. It consists of “double perch, no garbage,” which translates to eight butterflies of perch—with an extra butterfly thrown in to make it nine—with two tartar sauces, two lemons, and no slaw or potato. The Clyde served Clyde well, because this member of the Greatest Generation and World War II veteran lived till he was 93. If I had known about the Clyde when I was ordering, maybe I would have gone with it, but I did not. I almost went with the full portion perch dinner, but settled on the perch fish fry with french fries. While the soup of the day was not clam chowder, given the ubiquitousness of whitefish in Door County I couldn’t pass up a cup of the “whitefish with vegetables” soup ($4.50).

Where does the white bread end and where does the rye bread begin? The answer can easily be ascertained when spending just a little time with a homemade loaf at the Bowl. From the top there is a clearly visible demarcation to this bread binity, the color difference is apparent too, and when flipping it upside down, seeds are noticeable on the rye side. A fresh loaf of bread of any form is a blessing, but Sister Bay Bowl goes a step further by baking two kinds of bread into one. It’s a heck of a way to start off a fish fry. The soup came out while I was still eating the bread, and paired well with it. It was tomato-based, loaded with vegetables like zucchini, and had a bit of heat and hearty chunks of whitefish.

The moment I had been waiting for since I strolled in with an eager pre-fish fry bounce arrived. First, let’s look at the “garbage” that can’t be found in the Clyde, but which came with my fish fry: the potatoes and slaw. The crinkle-cut fries were firm and close to unsalted. They weren’t far from filler, which magnified the perch, but they were somehow satisfying, too. The slaw was vinegar based, but not the drippy kind so often found in cups. No, this cabbage of composure sat upright, retaining its flavors without letting its juices run over the plate, all while still retaining its crunchiness. Buttressed on one side with a radish and a carrot stick, the slaw was augmented with small cuts of celery and thin green onion slices.

What was supposed to be four butterflies of perch turned out to be four and a half, as if Clyde himself had smiled down upon me. While the fish weren’t large and didn’t have as robust of a perch flavor as I was expecting, make no mistake, these petite perch were meaty and of the highest stature. The breading was light and held onto the perch perfectly, and had a gentle crispness. There was some flavor to the breading, just as there had been with the fish, but it too was understated. The strongest components of the perch were its texture and quality, evident in both the fillets and in the breading that covered them. The perch was good enough to be eaten on its own, but the saucy tartar sauce zapped it into another direction, creating new horizons of flavor. While the tartar didn’t seem overly exciting by itself, when it landed on the perch, they achieved something together.

“Did you get the perch?” the man I had talked to earlier asked me, as he walked past and towards the exit of the dining room after finishing his meal. Although I hadn’t had the dinner, I did get the perch fish fry, so I gave him two thumbs up, with what I’m assuming was a big dumb smile on my face. In my estimation, the lure of the perch at Sister Bay Bowl is not so much because of a flavor that rises above all others, but in the texture, delivery, and consistency. The flavor is not as striking and singular as Wendt’s, which I consider to be my pinnacle of perch, but it can swim in the same circle, while most perch cannot.

The story could end here, but there was no way I was leaving the building without bowling. The cost is $20 an hour. While a lane is acquired by talking to a bartender, they don’t hand out bowling shoes—bowlers get them off shelves themselves. There aren’t fancy machines to figure out who is winning or losing—something called math is done on an actual piece of paper. Above-ground ball returns add in even more enjoyment. Bowling doesn’t get any more real than it does at Sister Bay Bowl.

Much has changed in the world since Earl and Rita opened the supper club portion of Sister Bay Bowl in 1964. In the early 1980s, they turned over operation of the Bowl to their four children: Gary (“Belgie”), Steve (“Barney”), Penny, and Sharon. Earl and Rita stayed involved until their passing in 2008 and 2019. All the kids have worked at the Bowl in some capacity over the years, and all have played some role in keeping it going and in it staying in the family. Gary and Sharon ran it starting in the 1980s. In the mid-2010s, there was talk of selling it, but Penny and her daughter Paula decided they were up to the challenge of managing it, and have done so since January 2016. I hope it stays in the family for generations to come.

At a time of the year when much of Door County is dormant, the fish fry line forms and the bowling balls roll at Sister Bay Bowl. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to think this is the best fish fry experience in Door County, not just for the meal, but for everything that goes along with it. If I’m up in Door County on a Friday again, there’s a good chance I’ll be back at the Sister Bay Bowl. Next time I’m ordering the Clyde.

Takeaways: Arrive before 5 to get in line; mini loaves of homemade bread; coleslaw of composure; likable standard crinkle-cut fries; upstanding lightly breaded perch; many fish and seafood options including one not listed on the menu; fish fry also offered Tuesday nights; an hour of bowling for just under the market price of a perch fish fry.

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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.