When you're talking seafood, everybody knows that fresh is best. And when you're on the hunt for fried lake fish, you will not find any fresher, better or more expertly prepared than what is being dished up right now at Brennan's Fish House in Grand River. During the summer months, the nautical tavern gets shipment after shipment of fresh, never frozen, Lake Erie perch and walleye, which is sold in the form of sandwiches, combo platters and two different sized entrees. On a typical weekend day and night, the modest restaurant will fly through approximately 250 pounds of the stuff.
Order the perch dinner ($20.09) and you'll net a bushel of pristine filets that are barely breaded, flash fried and absolutely delectable in every way. The barely-there flour and cornmeal dusting gives the fish just a hint of texture while shielding the delicate flesh beneath. A total absence of seasoning, spice or even salt and pepper allows the flavor of the sweet, subtle, seasonal delight to shine through in all its glory.
Brennan's Fish House has been in the surf-and-turf business since 1973, but the building dates back to 1865, when its keepers provided beers and beds to weary sailors and fishermen. Current owner Sharon Hill bought the business from the Brennans more than a dozen years ago, and she's done a remarkable job of making sure that it remains a consistent asset of this close-knit community.
There are bigger, louder, flashier lakeside attractions — heck, Brennan's isn't even on the water; it's 200 feet from the Grand River —but the 100-seat tavern is authentic, family friendly and laidback in the best possible ways. Maritime decor like buoys, marine charts, brass lanterns, wooden ship wheels and antique diving helmets weren't purchased on eBay — or purchased at all, for that matter, according to Hill.
"I can't think of a single thing in here that I bought," she says. "It's all from the people in this community, who want their things here. I almost think of the place like a museum."
That stellar perch (or walleye) dinner includes a mountain of hand-cut fries, creamy shredded coleslaw and housemade tartar sauce. All it needs a spritz of fresh lemon and a dash of malt vinegar to fully come to life. Fried clams should be ordered whenever and wherever they appear on a menu and Brennen's does them right. A dark and crunchy breading encases firm but not chewy strips of flavorful meat (no bellies). There's a large appetizer portion ($10.29) as well as a full dinner option with the works.
Hill describes the house crab cakes as the opposite of "precious," which could not be more accurate. In place of fat lumps of pricy seafood is a wild mash of shredded crab, herbs, seasoning and spice. You can enjoy it straight up as a starter, but I think it works better as a sandwich ($10.59), where the zing and zest are balanced by the bun. Other seafood starters include clam chowder, steamed mussels and a simple shrimp cocktail ($9.69), which benefits from a kicky horseradish-spiked cocktail sauce.
In addition to the fried fish platters there are more elaborate seafood entrees like bouillabaisse, crab-stuffed shrimp, sauteed scallops, crab legs and shrimp linguini with sauce. Brennan's also goes through quite a bit of steak in the form of grilled 12-ounce Delmonicos from Certified Angus Beef. For dessert, there's banana cream pie, coconut cream pie and Key lime pie, all made here daily.
Unlike other summer destination joints, Brennan's doesn't expand and contract with the calendar. It's no smaller in winter than it is in peak summer months, but it does slow down. Longtime customers, who first dined here with parents and grandparents, arrive with young children to give them their first taste of Lake Erie's finest catch.
"Even though we're located at the back of beyond, people care about this restaurant," Hill says. "They are very loyal, they support us, and they want us to do well."
Hill purchased the business with her late husband Steve while she was a stay-at-home mom. She was working Friday night shifts at the restaurant as a hostess when she learned that the Brennans were looking to retire. She summoned the courage to jump in with both feet largely as a defensive move as she was terrified somebody would come in and change it, thus threatening the culture.
Now it's Hill's turn to retire — "My husband's passing really took the wind out of my sails," she admits — but the restaurant will remain in good hands. Mom is passing the establishment along to her oldest son, who will continue to run it with his siblings, maintaining the neighborhood fixture for the next generation of seafood lovers.