When we went to Milwaukee on a mission to eat its best fish fries, Roadfood friends Jessica Zierten and Brad Warsh, both lifelong Milwaukeeans, insisted that any significant expedition needed to include a visit to their favorite tavern in the Riverwest neighborhood, Klinger’s East. We’re glad they recommended it, because this shadowy bar is not one that we would necessarily feel obliged to enter. It doesn’t look like a great place to eat.
The swinging door opens onto concrete stairs that lead up and inside. “These five steps take you to northern Wisconsin,” Brad declared as we came in off the sidewalk late one Friday night. He said he was reminded of summer places far from the lights of Milwaukee every time he stepped up into the beery air. It is so dim that we saw nothing other than a few neon window signs when we walked in; ambient light at our table under a corner television seemed to go from noon-bright to twilight and back again as the TV’s image flickered light and dark.
Despite the fact that half of Klinger’s East is a pool hall and the bleak décor shadowed by the dining room’s dropped acoustic tile ceiling includes a sickly green rug and tables covered with matching green oilcloth, it’s a cozy place to eat, even for out-of-towners like us. Customers include wholesome-looking families you’d never see dining in such an establishment in other parts of the country. In Milwaukee, taverns aren’t just for drinkers; they are community centers.
The fish fry is brilliant. Of course cod is on the menu, sheathed in a crunchy coat of beer batter. You can also get smelt, which Brad informed us is properly pronounced “shmelt.” It is a fish-lover’s fish with vivid oily character – a heap of crunch-coated two-inch sprats well-accompanied by a short stack of silver-dollar-size potato pancakes. Bartender Tammy Galioto wanted to know if we agreed that the fish was fantastic. “People say it should be patented!” she exclaimed. When we asked how to I.D. her when we wrote about the tavern, she pondered a moment and said, “How about ‘An East Side Sicilian Icon?'” But she didn’t kid around when we asked her to describe Klinger’s East. “You are in a neighborhood tavern,” she declared. “This is what makes the city of Milwaukee what it is.”