Saved by the Laurel Tavern’s fish fry

A decades-old tradition the author looks forward to all week.
Laurel Tavern Mural
(Photo by Julie Furset)

People find ports in the pandemic storm.

Early on, for me, it was walking the Arboretum. Lately I’m on my bike, wearing out the Capital City and Military Ridge state trails.

And books. This has been a season of rereading some of my old favorites and finding “new” writers who aren’t new at all, except to me.

One of those authors, an Australian crime novelist named Peter Temple, is breathtakingly good. He may be best known for his four novels featuring the roguish lawyer Jack Irish — they were made into films starring Guy Pearce — but better to try “The Broken Shore,” which won the United Kingdom’s Gold Dagger Award for best crime novel of 2007.

Better yet, try to forget it once you’ve read it.

For my wife, Jeanan, and me, there has been one other constant throughout the virus upheaval. Every Friday at 4:15 p.m., we call the Laurel Tavern and order their fish fry to go, designating a 6:15 pick-up.

I get the fried cod, with hash browns, tossed salad and rolls. Nothing fancy, just delicious.

The Laurel, at 2505 Monroe St., is a 15-minute stroll from our house. Sometimes we stop for a drink at an outdoor table at Everly on the way back. It’s become a ritual we look forward to all week.

It turns out that as beneficial as those Friday evenings have been for us, they’ve meant even more to the Laurel.

“Without the fish fry right now, I’d be in bad shape,” Laurel owner Dianne Zilley told me recently. “I would say business is down 60%, but we’re hanging in there. The fish fry to go is keeping us going.”

I knew it was popular. We generally get a busy signal when we first call at 4:15. One week I got through on my 47th attempt.

“I’m telling people to call earlier in the day and place the order for a certain time,” Zilley says.

Anyone with a sense of Madison and Wisconsin history should appreciate both fish fries and the Laurel Tavern.

This year is the 40th anniversary of Zilley running the Laurel. She and her husband, Peter, who died in 2011, bought it from John Forrest in 1980.

It’s a beloved anchor of the Monroe Street neighborhood, popular with residents and a magnet for Edgewood and West High School alums when they return to town.

For many years, the Laurel’s employees, regular customers and neighbors painted Easter eggs and hid them in nearby Wingra Park for a Sunday morning children’s hunt. It became a casualty of its own popularity. One year the Laurel hid 250 dozen eggs.

“It just got too big,” Laurel bartender Julie Furset told me, after the hunt was discontinued. Like many who work at the Laurel, Furset has been there many years.

“Without my employees,” Zilley says, “I’d be lost. They’re like my family.”

For some people, even better than the egg hunt is the ongoing Laurel tradition of opening on Christmas night — a blessing for those who have enjoyed as much family togetherness as they can stand.

Zilley did a major remodeling of the Laurel starting in 2000. It included brightening the dining room adjacent to the bar by taking out a wall and adding a window and a striking Monroe Street mural by local artist Mark Kramer.

“Everybody loves the mural,” Zilley says. “It was one of the best things we did.”

Zilley believes they began the fish fry shortly after the remodeling, which means it now has its own history going on two decades.

The Laurel’s fish fry began too late to be included in Madison writer and illustrator Jeff Hagen’s 1999 ode to Wisconsin fish fries, “Fry Me to the Moon.” Jeff has since decamped to Indiana. But when the book came out, he told me his absolute favorite fish fry was at a neighborhood bar-restaurant in Green Bay called Maricque’s.

“I had a fish sandwich and it came on great rye bread with a big slice of onion,” he says. “Like something you’d have gotten in the ’50s. My girlfriend asked if she could have silverware and the waitress said, ‘Are you from out of town?’ It’s a finger place. They found her a plastic fork in the kitchen.”

Zilley told me she has never really known the history of the Laurel Tavern, beyond owning it for 40 years.

I did an old newspaper search and learned the Laurel is one of Madison’s oldest eating and drinking establishments. It was started by John Forrest’s grandfather, William Forrest, who was born in England in 1879 and came to Madison in 1907.

The first mention I found of the Laurel Tavern in Madison was an advertisement in the Wisconsin State Journal in 1933. The second mention, on July 8, 1933, was also an ad. It read: “French Fried Fish TONIGHT. 7 p.m. to closing. Good Beer on Tap. Laurel Tavern. 2505 Monroe Street.”

The Laurel fish fry: A good thing 87 years ago, even better now.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.