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 #539: Will’s Northwoods Inn in Chicago, Illinois.

The Chicago Honk—an erratic yet predictable sound disturbance that cuts through what’s left of tonal peace, and which exists for no apparent or obvious reason—blended with other Chicago Honks into a Chicago Honk cacophony. If all of the caterwaulers behind its existence were on their way to a Friday fish fry, maybe they’d have an excuse. But I knew they weren’t. Here I was, a Milwaukee man in near-standstill Chicago traffic at 5-something on a Friday night, white knuckling it as I crawled through the Windy City, not because I couldn’t handle the honks, but because it was quickly approaching 6 p.m. and this was no time for a hot dog with sport peppers and pickle spears. I had to get to a fish fry.

I was on my way to Will’s Northwoods Inn (3030 N. Racine Ave.; 773-528-4400), and in all reality I wasn’t too worried about making it in time for a fish fry. When I was last there, on July 8, 2016, for my 132nd consecutive Friday fish fry, I was with a group for my cousin’s bachelor party, and we hadn’t arrived until around 9 p.m. I was more on edge that night, with much less time to spare, and everything had turned out just fine. While that was a bachelor party night, on this Friday I was having my first fish fry since my wedding, which by coincidence the same cousin had been a groomsmen in. My wife and I were meeting friends at Will’s, and what the internet had told us was to be just over a half hour drive ended up being over an hour.

Will’s Northwoods Inn is a Wisconsin-themed bar located in the Lake View neighborhood. In 1987, Jon Bunge bought the building that housed Palmer’s Pub. A La Crosse native who spent the summers of his youth in Hayward, Jon decided to transform Palmer’s into Will’s Northwoods Inn, in tribute to his upbringing and as a nod to the north woods of Wisconsin, opening it on April 1, 1991. Where does the name Will come in? Jon Bunge was the great grandson of Wisconsin native William Wheeler, and Jon’s son Will was one of the original bartenders when his dad opened the bar. Jon passed away in 2018, but his legacy lives on with the bar he built.

Will’s is a Packers bar, but also a Badgers, Brewers, and as I found out, Bucks bar. Besides the numerous taxidermied animal heads and fish, most of the items hanging on the wall are devoted to the Packers or Wisconsin. Will’s holds Musky Fest every year, and on most years they host Packerpalooza on (or around) the NFL draft, with current and former Packers making appearances. Not only do they have a fish fry on the menu, they also have walleye pike bites, fish tacos, fried cheese curds, a Merkts cheddar bacon burger, a Badger burger (made with Wisconsin cheddar), and a beer brat. In true “Midwest nice” fashion, there are still indicators that hometown fans are welcome: there’s a Moose head wearing a Cubs hat, a Blackhawks pennant hanging from the ceiling, and a Bears flag flying outside.

Will’s was packed when we arrived. It was Friday night and we were walking into a Wisconsin wonderland, so it was to be expected, but unbeknownst to me, the Bucks were also playing the Indiana Pacers in game 3 of the first round in the NBA playoffs—and Bucks fans had turned up in force. We walked through the front bar area and past the second main bar area (no one was staffing the third bar area by the bathrooms), and met our friends, who had managed to secure a table in the area out the back door, in an enclosed section that’s considered a biergarten in the warmer months, that has ample seating and a long bar with flatscreens behind it.

Food and drinks are ordered at the bar at Will’s. Since there is only one fish fry on the menu, ordering was easy: a Brandy Old Fashioned Sweet ($8) and a cod fish fry ($15). The red-hued cocktail, mildly-muddled and garnish-free, was like so many others I’ve had, and was particularly welcomed after a rush hour drive through Chicago. I had barely dipped into it when the fish fry arrived.

Carrot slivers in green cabbage formed the contours of the coleslaw, which was lightly sauced but heavily seasoned with…something. Is that what gave it its unique flavor? It was clearly visible, and I was clearly ignorant. The slaw was neither exciting nor off-putting, but I kept eating it anyway, getting to the bottom of the cup, and trying to get to the bottom of what was in it. The peak of the meal may have been the rye bread. Lightly toasted with an impeccable chew, it had a natural sweetness; I slathered butter on it, but it wouldn’t have needed it. Straight-cut fries rounded out the sides. With skin on and sparsely sprinkled with large grains of salt, they were crisp where they needed to be, but also soft where they needed to be.

The raison d’etre for the meal (and for life?), the fish, consisted of three pieces of cod with a delicately golden tint. The slightest of beer flavor came through with the otherwise mild batter, and the cod below came from just as good of waters as any. The tartar didn’t boost the fish much, or move me greatly, but I used it just the same.

The fish fry at Will’s doesn’t stand noticeably above Wisconsin tavern fish frys, but it doesn’t need to. Being able to get a fish fry similar to many of those on the other side of the border is notable enough. If you find yourself in Chicago on a Friday and are looking for a fish fry, some Wisconsin sports, and a respite from all the damn honking, Will’s Northwoods Inn is your place.

Takeaways: Packers/Wisconsin sports/Wisconsin bar in Chicago; yes, you can get a Brandy Old Fashioned Sweet in Illinois; alluring rye bread; seasoned slaw; straight-cut fries done right; delicately golden and mild-flavored cod.

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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.