The squat, brick building on my hometown’s main drag had the sturdy, flat-topped appearance of the men who frequented it. On most days, they sat around a square bar drinking whiskey, Blatz and Miller watching the ballgame or the news on a single 25-inch Zenith mounted on one wall. Next to it hung the results from that week’s football pool, golf league or whatever they had money on.
Occasionally, two guys would be shooting pool with crooked sticks at the coin-fed table near the jukebox with its mix of oldies and country tunes.
Things were different on Fridays, though. The town turned out for the fish fry: teachers, neighbors, cops, little old ladies, kids from school, parents.
My father and aunt manned the fryers and the grill. My mom filled orders and kept things organized. My grandmother waited tables. A host of others did a little bit of everything from washing dishes to manning the cash register.
My sister and I did our best to be a part of the action, hanging around the kitchen, helping to clear tables, getting cans of pop from the cooler. Eventually we’d get bored and beg for quarters to shove in the jukebox.
There was a full menu of burgers, chicken, deep-fried fare and sides, but mostly people came for the fish dinner. For $6.50 you’d get hand-breaded cod, freshly made coleslaw, bread, butter and either macaroni and cheese (which my aunt made at home on Thursdays), french fries or cabbage and noodles (my favorite).
The dining room was small but boisterous — maybe 20 round tables and a long, rectangular one in the back for the big families. It was the kind of place that needed an extra chair or two at every table so you could just plop yourself down for a few minutes of catching up with a relative or classmate or bowling buddy.
Overhead, the occasional electric crackle meant the ventilation system was clearing the fog of cigarette smoke and fryer burn. Even then, the fried fish smell would linger on your coat for days. (If it was gone by Monday for school, you were lucky.)
After I left for college, I’d venture home for an occasional fish fry, calling ahead to make sure someone set aside a dinner, because they often ran out.
Though their Friday fry ended a few years back, the women of VFW Post 3767 ran that kitchen for more than 30 years, taking home little more than a few bucks in tips. What they built was a tradition.
The VFW was my first thought as I read through this month’s guide to Northeast Ohio’s Lenten fish fries (see “Fries that Bind,” page 72). Maybe it’s also one of the reasons I’ve always been a fan of the Friday ritual.
Or, like my 11-year-old son points out in his magazine debut this month, maybe it’s because I just really like fish (and a good, strong cocktail sauce).
If you do too, be sure to make a stop at St. Mary Romanian Orthodox Cathedral on Warren Road. It was one of the first fish fries I was introduced to on the West Side.
Work at St. Mary’s fish fry starts on Thursday, and the help starts young. “When we were little, we hung up the signs,” says 16-year-old Bethany Avramaut. “If we were really good, they would let us help clean up. Only if we were really good, though.” Now Bethany is serving some of the city’s Lenten fare.
We’ll do the same by featuring 12 other fish fry destinations from churches, restaurants and, yes, even a VFW post in Fairport Harbor.
But we know there are more out there, so visit clevelandfishfries.com and tell us about your favorite. Or just stop by to find a new spot for this Friday, because Fridays still mean fish.