Locals looking for a good fried fish this Lenten season will have to cast their nets outside of Arlington.
People won’t have to travel far to indulge in Fat Tuesday — which is today — whether it’s King Cake at Bayou Bakery or Cajun food at Ragtime. But getting to a fish fry might involve a drive to Falls Church or Fairfax County.
Catholics and some other Christian sects fast on Ash Wednesday (tomorrow) and on certain days during Lent, the 40-day period leading up to Easter. Traditionally, this involves abstaining from flesh meats, such as chicken, beef or pork, on Fridays.
Over time, the tradition of fasting evolved into church fry, often led by a local Knights of Columbus chapter for the benefit of a charity or parish to support their various ministries. The menu typically includes baked and fried fish, fries, coleslaw, mac and cheese, other assorted sides, and dessert.
But Midwest and Northeast transplants in the DC area have noted that their beloved fish fries aren’t as popular in and around DC.
“I found that the fish fries were mostly up north, because I have a lot of family there,” says Myles McMorrow, who serves on the board of directors for the Arlington Knights of Columbus chapter on Little Falls Road. “[For] I, personally, have never heard of a fry in the DC metro area and grew up here.
He says local Knights are observing Lent by removing meat meals from their council restaurant menu. Some local churches in the Diocese of Arlington hold meatless soup suppers, including St. Agnes Catholic Church in Arlington.
Those who are Catholic, curious, or culturally nostalgic are told that their best bet for finding a fry is to drive deeper into Virginia.
Fish fries are primarily a Midwestern and Rust Belt phenomenon, as European Catholic immigrants relied on the abundance of Great Lakes fish to observe their religious fasts. Over time, the tradition may have intermingled with an African-American tradition of gathering for fish fries, which began on the plantations and continued after emancipation as families moved to the North.
Churches in the Diocese of Arlington had to sacrifice Lenten gatherings in 2020. In 2021, options were few, but this year a number of parishes resurrected fish fries and soup suppers.
The closest for Arlingtonians is hosted by St. James Catholic Church in Falls Church. It was started in 2010 by a group of parishioners that included a homesick Ohio native.
Hand-breaded fish and homemade potatoes, hush puppies, coleslaw and carrot cake draw pilgrims from DC to Fredericksburg every year. People can buy T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan of the year, which is always a pun. (This year is that the 13th annual fry “is the trout of this world.”)
“I remember this couple driving up from DC,” says parishioner Karen Bushaw-Newton. “They said, ‘We just heard there was a fish fry and we came to check it out. We know a lot of parishioners who come — and we have a lot of regulars and families — [and] we have people like this couple who just wanted to see what a fried fish looked like.
When COVID-19 hit, the fry turned into a drive-thru that, on some Fridays, served more than 1,000 meals in three hours.
“I strongly encourage everyone to come. We don’t ask for your faith when you walk through the door – it’s just a way to come and celebrate,” Busshaw-Newton said.
For those who want to go further, there are a number of other Northern Virginia fish fries, although each would require a longer drive in Friday rush hour traffic. Below are some of the options.
St. James Catholic Church at Falls Church (830 Broad Street West)
- Every Friday of Lent (March 4, 11, 18, 25 and April 1 and 8)
- Time: 5 p.m.-8 p.m.
- Limited in-person seating at St. James Catholic School, drive-thru option available
- Suggested donation: adult, $7, child, $5 or the whole family, $25
- Distribution of food for families in need: March 4 and April 1
Our Lady of Good Counsel in Vienna (8601 Wolftrap Road)
- Every Friday of Lent
- Time: 4-7 p.m.
- Sit-in and take-out options, online ordering available
- Price: $10-15 for combo trays
Our Lady of Good Hope in Sterling (46639 Algonkian Drive)
- First Friday of Lent
- Time: 5-7 p.m.
- In person
- Suggested donation: $18 for adults and $8 for children
St. Lawrence Church in Alexandria (6222 Franconia Road)
- Every Friday of Lent
- Take away only
- Time: 5:30-7:00 p.m.
- Price: $12.00 for a full platter, $8 for a half
Saint-Timothée church in Chantilly (13807 Poplar Road)
- Every Friday of Lent
- In person at the cafeteria of St. Timothy Catholic School
- Time: 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
- Voluntary donations