“It just kind of snowballed. I moved down here in the beginning of 2012, and it dawned on me later: ‘Wow, there are probably more fish frys here in Milwaukee, at least Friday night ones, than anywhere else in the world.'”
That was Fond du Lac native Caleb Westphal back in 2017, talking about his then-three-year streak of eating a fish fry every Friday night. Soon after, Westphal began writing a weekly column for Milwaukee Record, which began with his 170th consecutive Friday fish fry (Chuck’s Place) and ended with his 435th (Belly Up Bar). But the column’s indefinite hiatus hasn’t put an end to Westphal’s impressive record; he still hasn’t missed a Friday fish fry, and he will celebrate his 500th consecutive meal this week.
Before that momentous occasion, we spoke to Westphal about life, the universe, his other artistic pursuits, and, of course, his favorite fish fry spots of 2023.
Milwaukee Record: When we first met you in March 2017, you had eaten 168 consecutive Friday fish frys. Did you ever think you’d eventually make it to 500? What’s kept you going all this time?
Caleb Westphal: I suppose I thought making it to 500 was possible, but I never really thought about it or thought that far ahead. I usually only think about the next Friday. The milestones are fun when they arrive, but that’s really just because it gives me an excuse to invite people together to hang out and eat fish.
What’s kept me going? Actually, it reminds me of an article you wrote where you reflected on “the things that fall away and the things that hang around forever” and “small (good) moments.” Or, it’s like that Guy Clark song, “Stuff That Works,” that often plays in my mind, and that I referenced in my write-up about Mibb’s & Viv’s. For me, fish frys are the small, good moments that hang around, and they are stuff that’s real, stuff you feel, and the kind of stuff you reach for when you fall. But they’re more than that. After close to 10 years without missing a week, Friday fish frys have done this to me and for me:
They’re not just food anymore, or even a place visited—they’re a state of mind. They’re a metaphysical space I go to each week, where however bad the week was, things feel okay and I smile. They’ve been with me through the ups and downs—family members and friends have died, love has grown and faded (and grown again), jobs have come and gone, and I’ve moved four times. They’re a weekly reset. They’re consistent. They’re the friend that never lets you down. They’ve helped me organize my life and remember the things I’ve done between the Fridays. They’ve taught me a lot about how to be more reflective, what it means to be human, and how to be more grateful. They’re home. All of this, that’s what keeps me going.
MR: Incredibly, you kept your streak alive during the height of the pandemic, getting takeout and delivery from various places, and even catching and frying your own fish. What are your most vivid memories from that period? Was there ever a time when you thought about skipping a week or two?
CW: There are a few fish fry memories that come to mind when I think of those pandemic times. The trips to The Packing House come to mind: the eight-minute drive there, coming down the hill along Mitchell Airport Park and turning right onto Layton Avenue and getting into the drive-thru line, the eight-minute drive home, and then eating the fish fry in probably no more than another eight minutes. I did that many times during 2020 and early 2021.
Another memory was the day I cast my way around the Humboldt Park lagoon hoping to catch fish to fry, but mainly caught chubs and almost fried myself in the sun instead. I then settled for freezer fish. The fishing and fish frying took up the bulk of the day. Later that summer, after I put a pause on the column following an obligatory Culver’s fish fry, my then-roommate and I rented a canoe from Al’s Bait Shop and spent five hours on Upper Nemahbin Lake and Lower Nemahbin Lake catching panfish, and I did catch and fry my own Friday fish fry.
There was never a thought of skipping a week. If anything, my resolve to continue the streak increased. In my write-up about Villa Tap just before the pandemic enveloped America, I referenced the E.B. White letter where he wrote, “I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.” My resolve in the months that followed was about doing my part in a small way, to wind the clock in a topsy-turvy world, by saying, “I shall go out on Friday night and pick up a fish fry, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.”
MR: You put your weekly column with us on pause in May 2022. Since then you’ve been free to make repeat visits to your favorite spots instead of seeking out a new place every week. What are your go-to places these days? Any frontrunners for Best Milwaukee-Area Fish Frys of 2023?
CW: I went to Randy’s Neighbor’s Inn three times during the early months of the year, before they closed, in an attempt to ingrain their heavenly fish fry in my mind for the rest of my time on earth. I’ve made trips to old favorites like Pat’s Oak Manor and Clifford’s, newer favorites like Dicken’s Grille & Spirits, and returned to some places I wrote about years ago like the Polish Center of Wisconsin and St. Augustine of Hippo Parish. I’ve been dating a vegetarian for over a year, so an interesting turn of events is I’ve been going to a lot of fish fry places that also serve beet salads. And let me tell you, there are a lot.
My frontrunners so far for 2023 of fish fry spots around Milwaukee that I’ve never been to before are the Sawmill Inn Restaurant & Pub in Richfield and a place I ventured to last Friday, The Jail House Restaurant outside of West Bend. Another one might be Lulabell’s Dockside in East Troy.
MR: What are your plans for the big 500?
CW: I’m gathering a group of some close friends—some of whom have shared many a fish fry with me—and heading to one of my favorite spots. There will be old fashioneds and all-you-can-eat fish and it will be glorious.
MR: Fish frys aren’t your entire life, of course. You play in Devils Teeth and you recently started a DJ business where you spin only vinyl 45s. Tell us about that!
CW: I’ve been spinning 45s out at bars for about five years, but wanted to increase the frequency of how often I’m spinning, as well as expand on the types of places I’m doing it at. I built and launched a website, ordered business cards, and did a lot of behind-the-scenes work before I started reaching out to a number of places. Now I’ve been getting gigs at a few breweries and cideries, and I’ve got some gigs coming up at farmers markets. I’ve also been working to line up gigs in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, and hope to do more events like class reunions and anniversary parties.
What I think makes what I’m doing unique is, like you said, I only use vinyl 45s. I don’t bring a computer along, but instead my PA and turntables and usually 700 or so 45s. And I’m not just trying to blast the most obscure music at people, trying to one-up them with my musical knowledge. Sure, I’ve got the somewhat more obscure stuff like the Replacements, the New York Dolls, and the great Arthur Alexander, but I’ve got Chicago, Dolly Parton, CCR, Sam Cooke, Johnny Cash, Elvis, the Supremes, the Beatles, and Neil Diamond, too. I have a wide range of genres, from early rock & roll to soul, from country to punk and garage rock, and I cover ground from the mid-1950s well into the 1980s. And I’m organized. I’m not just saying, “Oh, what can I bring along tonight?” and stuffing a disorganized pile of records in a crate. I’m bringing the whole dang library. I bring song lists along too, so people can have a say in what I’m playing—so I’m essentially a free jukebox for the night for whoever wants to participate. My hope with the whole project is to bring joy to others, just as how the songs have brought joy to me.
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