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 #533: O’Brien’s Pub in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

It’s become a casual tradition of mine to get a Friday fish fry at an Irish pub or restaurant sometime around Saint Patrick’s Day. I don’t do it every year and there is no real reason for doing it, just as there is no real reason why so many Americans who aren’t Irish celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day by getting gassed on green beer and Irish whiskey. I did it in 2020 at Flannery’s Bar & Restaurant on the Friday before the holiday, right before restaurants across the state ground to a halt because of the pandemic, and I did it in 2022 at Mulligans Irish Pub & Grill on the day after the holiday.

This year I chose O’Brien’s Pub (4928 W. Vliet St.; 414-453-6200), which calls itself an “Irish American pub.” What makes a pub an Irish pub anyway? Does the name do it? You can’t get much more Irish than the name O’Brien’s, which its owners say is a “tribute to Ireland.” Do the owners need to be Irish? Brian Eft and Joel Klamann say they do “have some Irish roots.” Does the food have to be Irish? The menu at O’Brien’s has reuben rolls made with Jameson infused sauerkraut, Guinness onion soup made with “Jameson prime rib beef stock and Guinness,” a reuben sandwich, a New York corned beef sandwich, and shepherd’s pie made with beef simmered with vegetables in Guinness and Jameson, topped with Irish mashed potatoes and cheese. That’s Irish food…sort of. Does it need to sell Irish drinks? They have plenty of Irish beer, $7 Jameson cocktails on Saturdays, and $3.50 Jameson shots every day.

O’Brien’s has been open since 1998. Ironically, the building, which has been standing in the Washington Heights neighborhood since 1927, spent a few decades as a German restaurant, the Golden Zither, not as an Irish one, as Bobby Tanzilo so deftly recounted in his Urban Spelunking article about the building. The Golden Zither reigned between the early ’60s and early ’80s, and it was followed by a series of pubs in the ’80s and ’90s before becoming O’Brien’s.

Ample seating and a simple menu made things pretty easy when my fiancé and I walked in at around 5:45 p.m. The Friday seafood offerings at O’Brien’s are a cod sandwich or wrap with a side ($13), beer battered or broiled cod ($15), and clam chowder ($5). Potato choices are tots, strings, chips, potato salad, or pancakes. I ordered an Old Fashioned, the beer battered cod (obviously) with pancakes, and clam chowder.

The Old Fashioned came in a pint glass and was more smashed than muddled. Actually, it was more like there had been a fruit explosion that resulted in bits of orange and cherry being suspended throughout the glass. Despite its tall stature, I took it down quite quickly, and shortly after, the server gestured at me inquiring if I wanted another. I asked if they had a lighter Irish beer on tap. They had Smithwick’s, but he suggested Harp in a can might be more what I was looking for, so I went with that.

Ponder with me for a moment this age-old question: Will the chowder come out before the fish fry or with it? I’m a proponent of the former, but generally roll with whatever happens. But after I had finished my Old Fashioned and ordered the Harp, I couldn’t stop myself from reminding my server about the clam chowder, because it had been something like 10 minutes since I had ordered it. My gauche delivery betrayed what I already knew to be true: I’m a Friday fish freak with a chowder-addled brain who just can’t hold it together. My server responded curtly, telling me that he had put in the order for it. A few minutes later he came back and said it would be arriving at the same time as the fish fry. But then, moments later, the chowder came out before the fish fry.

I was slightly perplexed, but this was no longer the time to ponder age-old questions, for salvation awaited me. The chowder was thin and lightly seasoned, and yet had a little spiciness as it hit the back of my throat. It had a moderate amount of carrots and potatoes, softer in nature, with a comparable amount of clams.

As I was digging into the chowder, I saw a group of girls start to gather next to the bar, and then a lady in a green sweater got on a microphone. At just the moment they were being introduced as being from the McNamara McCarthy School of Irish Dance and started dancing, my fish fry danced out of the kitchen and to my table. What is happening here? Are Irish dancers what makes a pub an Irish pub? Is this what makes O’Brien’s an Irish pub? “It’s Saint Patrick’s Day weekend!” was my server’s response when I asked if Irish dancers were a regular occurrence at O’Brien’s.

As people began to give their attention to the dancers up front, I started taking pictures of the fish fry in front of me. As the dancing and clapping intensified, I intensified my efforts to finish off the chowder so I could move to the fish fry. The dancers were on their seventh stop of the day, and had two more to get to after this performance. I was about to eat my 533rd Friday fish fry in a row. The following week they’d be headed to Glasgow, Scotland, for the 2024 World Irish Dancing Championships. I’d be sitting in some bar or restaurant or church basement in Wisconsin stuffing my face with a fish fry.

The slaw was crunchy and mainly made up of green cabbage. It was somewhat juicy, but not overly bold in flavor. The two halves of marbled rye slapped together with butter were somewhat tough, perhaps from an older batch of rye being used up before a fresh batch arrived for the holiday. Lightly browned on the outside and soft on the inside, the potato pancakes were like so many others, but lacked nothing. Most of their flavor emanated from their exterior, while their interior provided textural nurturing.

Four fine pieces of chunky cod were covered with a beer-forward batter of moderate thickness, that wasn’t greasy, and had a moderate crispness. The tartar was of medium build in flavor and thickness, containing enough of a sweet and tangy balance to ride shotgun to the cod and not be kicked to the back seat.

The fish fry at O’Brien’s was almost exactly how I imagined it would be. Did I think I’d have the best or worst one I’d ever had? Of course not. I imagined I’d have a decent fish fry, drink some Irish beer, and go home satisfied, and that’s what happened. If O’Brien’s fish fry is reliable around Saint Patrick’s Day, chances are it’s reliable on any other week of the year, too. There just might not be any Irish dancing.

Takeaways: I ate a fish fry during an Irish dance at an Irish pub on Saint Patrick’s Day weekend; fruit explosion Old Fashioned; commonplace slaw and rye bread; pancake with a flavorful exterior and soft interior; chunky and crisp beer-forward cod.

Note: There’s just over a week left to donate to Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin in honor of Friday Fish Fry Day. Once you donate you’ll be prompted to vote for your favorite fish fry. The establishment with the most votes will be announced after the campaign!

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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.