When my friend suggested that we make a pit stop for lunch on our way to his family's cabin in Port Clinton, I said "sure thing." After all, it was summer, and this was a road trip, and impromptu stops and improvised routes are precisely what give road trips their appeal. And then he said the name of the joint—Jolly Roger Seafood—and I immediately assumed that he'd dipped into the "weekend bag" when I wasn't looking.
Picturing a pirate-themed eatery with bandana-clad waiters, faux shipwrecks and plastic swords, I was more than a little relieved when we pulled up to the building. It's as nondescript as a casual seafood shack should be, no larger than the neighborhood ice cream stand, and more important, it was within sight of the water.
Inside, a "breading pit," set behind a pane of glass up front, featured an automatic fish batter-and-breading machine that cranked out a never-ending supply of the day's catch. It needs to because the line at Jolly Roger, especially during peak season, can stretch clear out the door. Not long after ordering, paying and taking our seat in the sparsely decorated dining room, a server dropped off our food. On the tray was a pile of golden brown fried fish, waffle fries, and some tartar sauce. The fish—fresh Lake Erie yellow perch—was crispy, sweet, summery and delicious. Eating the seafood just yards from Lake Erie's shore managed to do in 10 minutes what the hour-and-a-half drive from Cleveland could not. It toggled our frames of mind from work-mode to vacation-mode.
Pulling out of the parking lot, grease-stained and grinning, I wondered how many other amazing joints I've blown right by because I was too busy, too full or too put off by a cheesy-sounding name. Mission firmly in place, I vowed to fill future visits to the Lake Erie islands and shores with as many gloriously unpredictable pit stops as possible.
Not long after that trip to Port Clinton I was on Kelleys Island for the weekend. I had long discounted that island's most famous eatery, The Village Pump, not because it sounds like a gay bar, but because it dispenses gallon upon gallon of Brandy Alexander, a non-kosher concoction of brandy and ice cream. The Pump also is one of those joints that seems to expand every time you turn your head, adding another room per year to accommodate swelling crowds. But sure enough, the fried perch basket, while pricey, was every bit as good as the regulars claim.
Put-in-Bay is more famous for the drinks and depravity than good grub, but that doesn't mean you can't score a decent platter of fish. Goat Soup and Whiskey seems to validate the maxim that asserts the farther away from the main strip you go, the better the food and service. A half-mile from the harbor, the Goat is laid back, family friendly and committed to putting out quality fare. Get the perch tacos, flour tortillas stuffed with fresh-fried fish, cabbage slaw and house-made taco sauce. Cocktails here benefit from fresh-squeezed fruit juices, a rarity in these parts.
There's another rule that states the more a seafood restaurant looks like a retail fish market, the better the seafood will be. That's certainly the case with New Sandusky Fish Company, a carryout joint that some say is just as good as Jolly Roger. Pick up a couple fried perch sandwiches and enjoy them at the picnic tables along the shores of Lake Erie. If you happen to have your own fresh-caught fish, the folks at New Sandusky will be happy to clean and cook them for a fee.
On your way home, do yourself a favor and save breakfast or lunch for the ride back to town. Lemmy's—an acronym for Lake Erie Monster, our version of Nessy—is a roadside diner in Huron that won't win any décor awards. But it does serve one of the best breakfasts around and, if it's lunchtime, a wonderful fried perch platter. You won't find many tourists on their way to or from Cedar Point or Put-in-Bay, but rather neighborhood folks who know a good thing when they taste it.