“I’m SO jealous of this activity,” said my friend Hannah in a group text upon learning I was at a fish fry—I was happily waiting for my fried shrimp platter in St. Bernard’s Clairvaux Hall at the time. Another friend, Emily, echoed that sentiment, “I miss the sense of community, but, oddly enough, I also reaaaaaally miss a good fish fry mac and cheese. And a slammin’ fish fry dessert selection.”
All of us are from Indiana, Pa., and we grew up knowing one of life’s greatest secrets—that the best place to be on a Friday night during Lent is in a packed, noisy social hall with a 1,200-calorie greasy fish sandwich on the plate in front of you. Now, Emily lives in Seattle and Hannah lives near Hilton Head, where there are practically no fish fries to be found.
Fish fries are generally associated with Catholicism, but here in Western Pennsylvania, they have grown beyond the Church to become part of our very culture—you can find fish fries in various denominations of churches, as well as bars, restaurants, VFWs, fire halls and more. This is not the case in other parts of the United States, or even in other countries. And we are lucky to have some of the best, most authentic church-basement grandma’s-cooking fish fries right here in Mt. Lebanon.
For this reason, we at Mt. Lebanon Magazine are going on a local Lenten Fish Fry tour. Just yesterday, Merle Janz wrote about his Ash Wednesday visit to St. Winifred Church, and now I’m going to tell you about my personal favorite—St. Bernard Church (I have to say that because I’m a parishioner, but I believe I would be saying that anyway because it really is fantastic).
St. Bernard Church- 311 Washington Road
(The fish fry is in Clairvaux Hall, which is located beneath the main church).
Lunch: 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Dinner: 4 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Dates: March 8, March 15, March 22, March 29, April 5, April 12
Call 412-440-2697 for takeout.
*All proceeds of the St. Bernard’s Gourmet Fish Fry benefit St. Bernard School.
St. Bernard Church calls its fish fry “gourmet,” which is no exaggeration. The food is excellent, and I’ve been to restaurants with fewer menu choices. They also have a different food special every other week. This week, it’s Pasta Fra Diavolo (a type of shrimp pasta), but you can see a full list of the weekly specials here.
I went to lunch for the purposes of this review, but I have been to the St. Bernard fish fry for dinner many times in the past. First of all, it’s worth noting that the fact that they are open for lunch is unique in Mt. Lebanon. During lunch hours, the kitchen is staffed mostly by school parents, and they have production down to a science. I ordered the shrimp dinner for myself and a baked fish sandwich for my editor, Susan, and I waited less than five minutes for our meals. A large line began to accumulate in the time that I was there (see the photo above), but it was moving very quickly.
I ordered the fried shrimp dinner for $10. It came with six large pieces of shrimp, french fries, cole slaw, a large dinner roll and a side of mac and cheese. It was good and hot, thanks to how quickly the food was being made, and I appreciated the nice, thick cut french fries. Altogether, it was so filling that I may not need to eat again until Sunday.
“It was a good-size portion of mild white fish, probably 2 1/2 inches thick, perfectly done and nicely browned on top – delicious,” said Susan about her $7 baked fish sandwich. “Fried might be even better, if your stomach can take it and you don’t mind the extra calories.”
Lou Monaghan, whose twin girls go to St. Bernard School and has been the fish fry chair for more than three years, was excited to report that their biggest change this year is “bigger fishes!” Lou is responsible for every aspect of the fish fry, including ordering food supplies and organizing the volunteers, which can number up to 45 at an event.
The volunteers usually have a connection to the school, as 100 percent of the proceeds go toward school programs. The students show their gratitude by helping out after school hours—you will see St. Bernard students running the dessert table (all of the desserts are donated by the school families), delivering takeout orders to nearby apartment buildings or cleaning up after the event.
While the lunch crowd had more of a grab-and-go attitude, dinners at the St. Bernard fish fry are all about socializing and community. Parents kick back while the kids help run the event. Parishioners and community members and folks from all over Pittsburgh get to know each other while waiting in line or chatting at the large circular tables. It’s a flurry of activity, with callers stopping in to pick up their food, people crossing from the condiments table to the bar (yes, they do have alcohol available for a suggested donation price), and a pianist playing in the background to add to the ambiance.
You aren’t doing Lent the right way if you haven’t been to St. Bernard’s fish fry. Seriously, you need to go.