Enjoy Every Fish Fry: Kegel’s Inn catered fish fry to my wedding – Milwaukee Record

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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 #538: Kegel’s Inn…at Caleb’s wedding!

Once it dawned on us that having our wedding on a Friday had to mean a fish fry wedding, my wife Melissa and I never really considered getting married on any day but a Friday. While I briefly floated the idea of having the wedding at Pat’s Oak Manor—a place that conveniently has a Friday night fish fry and a wedding chapelSouth Shore Park Pavilion (2900 S. Shore Dr.) soon came to mind and appealed to both of us, and we settled on it shortly after.

The South Shore Park Pavilion was built in 1933 using relief labor, and is part of a legacy of projects undertaken as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal that still benefit Americans today. Unassumingly magnificent, it has stood the test of time, like one might hope their marriage would. It was the perfect spot for us for a number of reasons. First, we had met at the South Shore Yacht Club parking lot on our first date and had walked through South Shore Park. Second, another venue on the shores of Lake Michigan with such a striking view of the city’s skyline almost assuredly doesn’t exist, especially at such a reasonable price. That the money goes back into Milwaukee County Parks was not lost on us either. Now we needed to find the right fish fry to go along with the venue.

There were a few criteria that had to be met. For one, it had to be a place that could cater dinners for more than 100 people to the lakefront, with many of the dinners being fish frys. For another, not just any fish fry would do. It had to be one I knew to be singular and distinct, one worthy of a wedding day. Fritz’s Pub was gone, so whether they catered or not was irrelevant. The Packing House doesn’t offer off-site catering at the needed capacity. Pat’s Oak Manor perhaps still could have been pursued, but it didn’t take long for Kegel’s Inn (5901 W. National Ave.) to come to mind. They have one of the best fish frys in Milwaukee County and their website confirmed they did catering. But could they cater a fish fry? They hadn’t before, but they quickly agreed to do it.

Like the pavilion, Kegel’s Inn has stood the test of time. The fourth-generation West Allis restaurant, owned by Julian and Stephanie Kegel, is celebrating its centennial year. Julian’s great grandparents John and Anna Kegel opened Kegel’s Place as a “soda pop parlor” in 1924 and were at the helm until 1947. It became Kegel’s Inn in 1933 and was expanded into a restaurant. Julian’s great uncle and aunt John Jr. and Ruth Kegel ran the business from 1947 until 1955, when Julian’s grandparents George and Audrey Kegel took over. They ran it until 1966, when John Jr. and Ruth stepped back in. Two of their sons, Rob and Jim Kegel, ran the business from 1982 to 2016. Julian, their first cousin once removed—the son of their cousin Chris—then took over with his wife Stephanie. While we chose Kegel’s to cater our wedding because of the quality of their fish fry and their ability to cater it, it felt even more fitting starting our family with a meal prepared by a long-standing family business.

Kegel’s is relatively new to the catering game, having done it for only 18 months. The operation is run by Jess Regner, who has been with the restaurant for seven years. Jess was a real joy to work with throughout the whole process, being personable, responsive, and in tune with the vision we had. She made sure to itemize the pricing of everything, so we knew exactly what we were paying for. She emphasizes that Kegel’s wants their catering to be customizable to the wishes of clients—whatever a client is envisioning they’ll work to make happen. This was ideal for us because, well, it’s not every day that Friday fish frys are catered. In fact, our wedding was Kegel’s first off-site fish fry. I doubt it will be their last.

It was a clear and sunny spring day, and the wedding went about as smoothly as could be. It was officiated by none other than Milwaukee Record co-founder Tyler Maas, who imbued the ceremony with all the heart and humor we had hoped. A 45 of Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” spun as we walked out after the ceremony. Perfect.

After the main room cleared and the guests entered the front room for drinks, Kegel’s got to work transforming the main room for dinner, while the wedding party went outside for some pictures. When we came back in, I went to the bar for a Brandy Old Fashioned Sweet, and was handed my first Old Fashioned as a married man by none other than Julian Kegel. Brandy was the only liquor Melissa and I purchased for the wedding. While gin and tonics, vodka seltzers, and Jack and Cokes might grace most wedding bars, it was Friday night and a lot of our guests were priming up for a fish fry, so we helped to keep them focused. We had picked up seven 1.75 liters of Korbel and 12 2-liter bottles of 7 Up, the soda not only being for Old Fashioneds, but for Kiddie Cocktails. Kegel’s provided the oranges, cherries, bitters, and other fixings, and they premixed the Old Fashioneds on site.

While brandy was the only liquor served at our wedding, we did have other drink options. Kegel’s brought along bottles of wine, and Melissa and I had purchased seltzer water, two 30 packs of Miller Lite, a 30 pack of Hamm’s, a 30 pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and a boatload of bottles of Miller High Life. Milwaukee Record kicked in a few cases of Spotted Cow, Happy Place, and leftover N/A beer, and one of my friends, who had helped transport the alcohol to the venue for us, and who has been on a Blatz kick, snuck a case of one of Milwaukee’s other iconic beers onto the wedding beer menu.

The doors to the main room opened back up and guests began filtering in and finding their seats. Sam Cooke’s Live At The Harlem Square Club, 1963 played on one of the turntables. I went for a piece of the rye bread that was wrapped in a cloth napkin in a basket on the table. While this was a fish fry wedding for me, we did offer other choices. There were vegan tacos on corn tortillas—Melissa’s choice because she’s a vegetarian and eats gluten-free—as well as chicken breasts with green beans and mashed potatoes. For the record, fish fry won out with a majority of the votes! I audibly cheered each time a fish fry choice came in on the RSVPs. The count was approximately 61% fish fry, 22% chicken, 13% tacos, and 4% kid’s meal (a legit footlong frankfurter and macaroni & cheese). Oh, and one of my new stepsons got his own Rocky Rococo pizza delivered for the occasion (the other two boys got fish frys). Way to go, guests!

Not only were Julian and Stephanie Kegel both on hand—we had met them both months earlier for food tasting, at which Stephanie had prepared the dishes for us herself—two of Kegel’s Inn’s long-time employees, Lisa, celebrating 40 years at the restaurant, and Sonja, who’s been there for 29 years, were present, and were in charge of asking guests what their food choice had been and handing out the dinners. While this was both Kegel’s first catered fish fry and fourth catered wedding, the South Shore Park Pavilion might as well have been their permanent site, because from where I was sitting, the smoothness of their operation could have convinced me that was the case. Did Kegel’s Inn also serve their fish fry at their West Allis building at the same time they were serving it at my wedding, so that anyone who wasn’t invited to the wedding could still get a Kegel’s fish fry that night? Yes, they did. Glorious!

Those who chose the chicken or tacos started out with a side salad, but for those of us on team fish fry, we were presented with a cup of clam chowder. I ended up having two cups because one of my stepsons didn’t want his. I’m all in with being a stepdad, and if that means I need to eat a second clam chowder, you can count on me.

Ace line cook Wyatt Jones fried up the cod in a fryer in the Kegel’s food truck, which was parked out front of the pavilion. Because I insisted on having potato pancakes instead of french fries, we needed to rent a second fryer. The fish frys came with four pieces of the restaurant’s signature breaded cod. What I found notable about the meal, particularly when it came to the cod, was that it tasted exactly like what Kegel’s serves in-house. The singular and distinct fish that I had wished to have for my wedding had come to be. The fish and its breading, as well as the tartar, chowder, rye bread, potato pancakes, and coleslaw were all close to flawless. More than one person came up to me telling me how great the fish fry was, adding credence to what I already believed.

Photo: Shea Frevele

While I could have made a groom’s request to have an eight-piece fish fry, or likely could have walked back to the kitchen to see if there was any leftover fish, I was content sticking with the four pieces. Maybe it was the seriousness of the day that kept me from wanting to overindulge, or maybe it was the double chowders, but most likely it was because Gilles was coming with a custard bar for dessert and Classic Slice was bringing pizzas during the dance.

For perhaps the first time in the past decade, a fish fry played a supporting role in an occasion, and was not the occasion itself for me. And while I enjoyed the meal immensely (enjoy every fish fry), I didn’t meditate over each component or take notes about them. The day had a blurred pleasantness to it, and at times felt surreal or like an out-of-body experience. This is in part why I’m not going to dig into additional specifics of each component more here. More about Kegel’s Inn’s fish fry and the history of the restaurant can be found in an article I wrote in early 2019. But if you really want to get the full picture, you’ll just have to go to Kegel’s and have their fish fry, or maybe you can just have them bring it to you, because they do that now.

Throughout the day I was overcome with a profound sense of gratitude because of the support and love shown by family and friends, many of whom contributed their time, talents, words, and financial gifts to make the day not only possible, but memorable. But much credit for the day’s success must also be given to Kegel’s Inn. Thanks to Jess for so deftly executing the catering operation, to Julian and Stephanie for retaining the historic nature of their business while taking risks to expand it in innovative ways, and to Lisa, Sonja, Wyatt, and the whole crew for making our dream come to fruition! Weddings, like fish frys, are an affirmation of life. Long live Kegel’s Inn, long live South Shore Park Pavilion, long live fish frys, and long live this marriage!

Photo: Hannah Toldt Photography

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