Feeling a little down, with Pure Oldies 106.9 on the radio, I steered towards New Berlin. A week or two back a friend had asked me if there were any good fish fry places in or around the city. Off the top of my head I couldn’t think of any. The only place I’ve gone in New Berlin for fish in recent years is the Rainbow Restaurant, and that was over four years ago. Before that it hadn’t been since March of 2016, when I went to Matty’s Bar.
The road was dark and so was my mind. Andy Williams’ “We Need A Little Christmas” came on. Yeah, I need a little Christmas, and by Christmas I mean a good fish fry. Moments later, the maroon and yellow glow of the Varsity Club‘s exterior sign came into view (12400 Beloit Rd., 262-797-6400), sparkling like a Christmas light on a Frasier fir. Would this be the place that would bring me a little Christmas? Would their Old Fashioneds and fish fry unwrap like a pretty present and lift my spirits?
Located on the northwest corner of 124th Street and Beloit Road the Varsity Club is owned by Mike and Karlyn Teipner, who opened it in May 2004. The building had previously been home to Susie Q’s for a few decades, and prior to that to many other bars, such as Crash’s Corner, Kremer’s Tap, Bob & Lee’s Tap, and Butts & Moose. Today it’s a sports bar with black and white and color photos of every sport imaginable hanging on its walls, and it claims to have “the best pizza in town.”
When I arrived, the nine or so tables appeared full or almost full, but I found a seat at the base of the bar, which takes the shape of a space rocket on a launch pad. Its perimeter was largely dotted with baby boomers drinking out of pint glasses. A fryer for fish and other foods is up front by the bar, and the kitchen is past a door behind it, through which fish fry plating can be seen when the door is open.
I saddled up for an Old Fashioned. It was lighter on bubbliness, heavier on brandy, and had a gently jostled orange slice and cherry at its bottom. Although the Varsity Club’s online menu lists perch, they don’t serve it, and cod ($13.95)—either fried or baked—is their only Friday fish offering, with shrimp ($12.95) being their other Friday special. Potato choices are pancakes or fries. Naturally, I went with the fried cod, and since the pancakes were just the frozen kind, I opted for the fries. I rounded out my order with a cup of clam chowder.
The chowder was thin, with a humble amount of clams and potatoes. What it lacked in clam contents it made up for in clam flavor, living up to its name. In fact, it was some of the clammiest-flavored clam chowder I’ve ever had. “Perfect timing” said the guy who had been frying fish and bringing people their meals, as he set a fish fry in front of me, right after I had pushed away the chowder cup after lapping up its final remnants.
You’ve seen thick rye bread, but have you cut it in half, buttered it, and stuck it together? It’s as thick as a cheeseburger! That was the case with this double-thick, light marbled and buttered rye. The four-stabs-and-it’s-gone slaw was juicy and tilted towards the pungent side. The french fries: You know them. You’ve had them. You kind of like them.
Three pieces of cod were covered with the thinnest and lightest of batters, but it did not lack in flavor, being impeccably peppered, salted, and seasoned. Thick and meaty, ribbed and supple, the cod was simpatico with its coating, and had a fair amount of its own flavor—a considerable feat for such a usually unassuming fish. Topping it off was a little cup of salty and sweet tartar.
Are there any good fish fry places in New Berlin? My guess is there are at least a few, and the Varsity Club is one of them. Their fish fry isn’t transformational, but transformation is not always needed. But you know what, the malaise I walked in with had subsided by the time I was ready to leave. I didn’t need a Christmas miracle for it to happen. All I needed was a little Christmas, and by little Christmas I mean an Old Fashioned, a cup of chowder, and a fish fry.
Takeaways: The clam chowder tastes like clam chowder!; rye bread thick as a burger; pungent four-stabs-and-it’s-gone slaw; lightly battered and aptly seasoned hunks of cod; sweet and salty tartar.