In the pages of many of the great American road books, like Travels With Charley: In Search Of America, On The Road, and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test—some of the most inspirational road books for me over the past two decades—the meat and juice of the story is found not at the destination, but during the journey. Steinbeck wasn’t looking for a location on a map, but for the people and country he wrote about in The Grapes Of Wrath and Cannery Row; Kerouac and Cassady saw the road as an oyster to open, containing not only kicks, but spiritual enlightenment; and while Kesey and his Merry Pranksters were on their way to New York early in Tom Wolfe’s chronicle, most of the trip—and tripping—takes place inside their bus, Further, with Cassady once again behind the wheel.
Last Friday’s fish fry was at the Stagecoach Inn, just south of Fort Atkinson (6396 County Line Rd.; 608-868-3850). Besides its natural allure as a supper club shining like a beacon in the desolate night, the Stagecoach Inn was chosen because its location made it easier for my cousin to meet me and a mutual friend for a fish fry. While we all made a journey to get there, the destination and purpose were clearly defined at the outset—unlike in some of those great road books. Still, if everyone’s ultimate destination is a fully lived life—one that wasn’t completely wasted and had some purpose—the journey to this end obviously should be dotted each week with a fish fry, and the Stagecoach Inn provided another stop on that journey.
Beyond this, the Stagecoach Inn was once a rest stop for stagecoaches, a place to pause while on a longer journey. In Wisconsin Supper Clubs: Another Round, Ron Faiola details this history and the restaurant’s own journey:
Situated on the border of Rock and Jefferson, the Stagecoach was built in the early 1900s as a rest stop on the northbound stagecoach line. During its first five decades, the building was used as a residence, a general store, and then a gas station that served sandwiches. It became a supper club in the 1950s when owner John Krizan opened Krizan’s Steakhouse. Twenty years later, Tom Gimmer Sr. and his wife Lucy purchased the building and opened the Stagecoach Inn. Tom Sr. ran the bar, and Lucy was the hostess. When Tom Sr. died in 1993, his son Tom Jr. took over the management of the Stagecoach, but when his mother died the following year, he decided to sell. As it happened, he was out mowing the lawn when Sean Shinkay stopped by and asked if the Stagecoach was for sale. They quickly made a deal.
I had made a reservation for 6 p.m. My friend and I arrived at 6:05 and checked in with the host, who said we could be seated at our table right away or wait at the bar for our dinner companion. What struck me was just how relaxed the atmosphere was, devoid of the usual frenetic Friday energy. This could have been because it wasn’t overly packed (which itself struck me), but this also felt intentional, as if to align with the traditional laid-back mood of a supper club. We found a seat at the bar without trouble, and a Brandy Old Fashioned Sweet ($5.50) was in order. The bartender asked if I’d like fruit, and then created the non-muddled beverage and topped it with a skewered pineapple chunk and cherry. It was light and sweet with the essence of cherries shining throughout. By this time my cousin had arrived, and moments later a worker came up to us and asked, “Party of three for Caleb?” perhaps after noticing we were all there.
We were seated in the small four-table nook off the bar area, which is perhaps a third of the size of the main dining area, and quickly had menus in hand. The “Friday Evening – Fish Fry” section lists deep fried cod, broiled cod, and lake perch ($17.95), each coming with coleslaw, potato, rye bread, and tartar sauce. When ordering, we asked about the portion sizes and were told the cod comes with four large pieces and the perch comes with five pieces, not quite as large (both ended up being apt descriptions). While the entrees on the rest of the menu included “choice of potato,” it simply said “potato” under the fish fry section. We had wondered what this “potato” might be, and had envisioned a solid potato plopped on a plate. To dispel this image, we asked, and were given three answers: cheesy au gratin potatoes, baked potato, and hand cut fries.
We also looked over the entrees on other parts of the menu, and found many fish and seafood options not listed in the Friday section. There is the Canadian Walleye Fillet under “Specials of the Inn” for $19.95 that comes with salad, choice of potato, and rolls and butter. There is the Canadian Walleye Fillets under “Dinners” for $29.95 that comes with a relish tray, soup or juice, choice of potato, crackers, and rolls and butter, and the boiled cod under “Dinners” for $21.95 that also comes with a relish tray, soup or juice, choice of potato, crackers, and rolls and butter. The broiled cod in this section raised the question of why the fried fish wasn’t listed here and couldn’t be ordered with these sides. Although, I never asked, and maybe it could have. Finally, there is a “Dinner Additions” section which lists six non-fish seafood options—crab legs, fried lobster, lobster tail, shrimp, and deep fried and broiled scallops—which can be added to a meal. It was a lot to digest, so I threw my hands in the air and surrendered to the perch and hand cut fries. I couldn’t find any soups listed on the menu, but they did have clam chowder, so I ordered that, too.
The cup of chowder looked more like a bowl to me, and so did its price, ringing in at $3, although it wasn’t a deep bowl. It had a balanced amount of clam, potatoes, and celery, and sporadic slivers of ham or bacon. Mellow yet flavorful, it was soothing, not jarring, an astute companion on a cold wintry night.
The come-as-you-are paper cup presentation of the coleslaw and tartar may seem divergent from the refined spirit of some supper clubs, but in actuality it added a streak of authenticity. It is true there wasn’t anything remarkable about the slaw, but there it was, obviously homemade with care, hearty and hefty, and not peppery or spicy. The thin and light marbled rye was cut in half, buttered on one side, and sandwiched together. Don’t let the self-effacing appearance of the rye fool you—it packed a punch, presumably because of its caraway-draped edges. The hand cut fries weren’t imaginative, as the cheesy au gratin potatoes might have been, but they weren’t lacking either.
The most salient component and star of the meal was the lightly crisp, melt-in-your mouth beer batter. Distinct, and the epitome of what homemade batter should look, feel, and taste like, it was sweet and flavorful, almost buttery, and well beyond the quality of batter found almost anywhere. Under it were petite but satisfactory perch. They were on the mild side, and although they were overshadowed by the batter on account of its sheer exuberance, they were not swallowed up by it. The tartar was thick with a fair amount of relish, but not overpowered by it, and its thickness allowed it to fasten itself to the crevices of the batter, filling it in. When a cup of tartar is finished, it is a sad occurrence, but when it is a paper cup, there is at least some satisfaction in squeezing every last drop out of it. While both the perch and tartar were satisfying in their own right, I couldn’t stop gushing about the batter to those around the table, and asking them how they liked it. They weren’t quite as enthusiastic as me, but they did enjoy it.
I was still a bit hungry after the meal, but we declined dessert and after-dinner drinks. But our whole experience had moved along so quickly—a rare occurrence for a supper club—that we wanted more time to talk, and we decided to go somewhere else for another drink. We chose the Fireside Theatre, a place the three of us had gotten a fish fry at in May 2018. This time we went straight to their sunken-down lounge area. I ordered a Mai Tai, which was garnished with a cherry and pineapple, just like the Old Fashioned earlier in the evening. Even more interesting, I looked back at the article I had written about the Fireside, and saw I had ordered a Mai Tai from the same spot the last time I was there.
After an hour or so of conversation, it was time to get back on the road. The roads were still a bit precarious from the last snow, snowmobiles were still darting about, the temperature was something like 12 degrees, and the electric vehicle I was in said its battery would be well below 20 percent power by the time we got close to Milwaukee. But there was a steady hand at the wheel, I was pointed towards home, and I had a fish fry in my belly. The road goes on forever and the fish frys never end.
Takeaways: Crisp, melt-in-your mouth beer batter of the highest order; petite perch; thick tartar in a paper cup; pineapple and cherry garnishes; many seafood options; relaxed atmosphere. RECOMMENDED