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Story and Photos by Karen Keefe
Great teamwork and a time-tested recipe are the key ingredients to the success of the Village Inn’s popular fish fry, says owner Mike Carr.
The Grand Island restaurant at 1488 Ferry Road took top prize in Niagara Frontier Publications’ 2022 “Best Fish Fry” contest. Readers are polled on their favorites, and some respondents include comments on just why the restaurant tops their list.
NFP had 57 eateries receive at least one vote, and just about 400 total votes. The Village Inn netted 12% of the vote. Four-time reigning and defending champion Apple Granny of Lewiston captured 10.3% of the vote; the popular Brickyard, also in Lewiston, won 10%; and a three-time winner, The Beach House on Grand Island, earned 9.8% of the vote.
Village Inn owner Mike Carr shows off the restaurant’s classic fish fry, winner of Niagara Frontier Publications’ 2022 “Best Fish Fry” contest.
Customers who weighed in on the Village Inn’s winning fish fry had mouth-watering comments about the culinary champ in their poll answers.
Kelly H. said, “Huge portions, always freshly made. Great service and staff, even throughout the pandemic.”
Dorothy W. wrote, “Fish is flavorful, fresh, and plentiful. Fries and coleslaw are done to perfection. Service is friendly and timely.”
Carr is a friendly and witty host who greets many customers by name and welcomes guests with warmth and charm. He credits his customers and staff with the success of the restaurant.
“We are blessed with such a volume of customers that come in on a daily or weekly basis that we get to keep our food fresh – and especially our fish frys. Our fresh seafood, produce and other offerings are delivered two, three, four times a week, so we try to get as fresh as we can in Western New York,” he said.
“We’re lucky to have such a great staff that cares a lot,” Carr said. “Everyone looks out for the best for the customer and, between the dining room and the kitchen staff, it’s just a good, hard-working group. We try to keep in mind that they’re appreciated every day, and it goes a long ways.”
“Besides, keeping up with, maybe even some trends, or whatever might be selling a little better this week or that week, but it’s also just being appreciated through times we’ve had,” he said, referring to the pandemic.
The longstanding cooking staff includes 30-year employee John Lew; and Jared Carr, Jon Dudley and Mike Vallina, who have all been with the restaurant between 10 and 15 years.
“We do have a rock star status back there of guys, as well as the servers – everyone helps out. It’s a real team effort,” Carr said.
On Good Friday, the Village Inn was filled with diners, with 40 or 50 cars parked outside, and customers eager to dine in or take out the traditional fish dinner. Servers, kitchen staff and bartenders and hosts were stretched to the limit, but by all appearances, enjoying the excitement. The restaurant is a popular gathering place for Islanders, as well as devoted customers from off-Island.
Carr reflected on what it takes to put together a great staff and a great product.
“You’ve got to pay people. The bottom line is, when you have a good person, you’ve got to keep them on staff, despite the difficulties of payroll and food costs, and everything that goes into it,” he said.
“We aren’t the cheapest fish fry in town, but we have to keep our standards up, and so, we haven’t raised our prices in a few years on the fish fry, but our quality hasn’t wavered at all,” Carr said. The fish fry is $19. It comes in several varieties – Italian-breaded, panko-breaded, broiled, lemon-pepper broiled and Cajun-broiled. “Our beer-battered is our No. 1 seller. But we do sell all those, every Wednesday and Friday, and sometimes other nights of the week, as well.”
Linda R. went with the majority in writing in her poll comment, “Beer batter is scrumptious.”
Chris M’s. comment on the Village Inn fish fry was, “Fresh, crispy and delicious every time I get it.”
For James M., it is the whole package that makes him a fan: “Portion, flavor, creative sides, price, location.”
Paul Nowacki and Rosanna McKenzie of Cheektowaga enjoy a fish fry at the Village Inn. “This is one of our favorite spots,” McKenzie said.
Carr said the side dishes that come with the fish fry are plentiful, too.
“We always have the French fries and curly cues and sweet potato fries option.” The winning dish is served with coleslaw. There’s also the baked and sweet potato, which are standard every night. Also popular are potato pancakes that can be served with applesauce and/or sour cream. “But most popular is our tuna macaroni salad, because it’s become known – or synonymous – with the Village Inn as being what people really want. We might sell 30 or 40 sides of that on Friday night out of the 100 to 200 fish frys we sell that night,” Carr said.
Poll respondent Chris W. agreed. “They have a wide selection of ways to order it – panko-breaded is my preference – and their mac salad is incredible.”
In addition, there are the options of mac and cheese, German potato salad, fresh vegetables and many others.
“When we started in 1988, it was always a fish fry with skin-on haddock, and we’ve kept that tradition all along in the 34 years we’ve been doing this,” Carr said. “We do sell specials on our specials board every day, and sometimes we do buy cod, which is reasonably priced and good. We call it a fish and chips when we buy cod for a fish fry. But halibut is quite a bit more expensive, and we do run that once in a while, but it’s a little pricey.”
In addition to the popular fish fry, Carr said the beef on weck and burgers sell very well. Besides that, it is the award-winning homemade soups and delicious homemade desserts that are a big draw. Family recipes are a key to the flavorful offerings, and his late parents had a hand in getting the business off the ground. His mom, Joanne Carr, made all the pies when the restaurant was new, and his dad, Bob Carr, suggested the name the restaurant was born with.
The quaint, cozy and homelike ambiance is part of the draw when people bring their appetites to the table at the Village Inn.
“I guess simplicity,” provides the atmosphere, Carr said. “If you add too much to the walls or the natural charm of the building, then you might be taking away from that.”
Before it was the Village Inn, the restaurant was Lippens Grill, which had its own popular recipe for the fish fry. Carr said the Inn has come up with a different recipe for the tastes of today.
Just 25 years old when he opened the Village Inn, Carr lucked into what turned out to be his dream job.
“I found a PennySaver ad for a restaurant for sale and responded. Made an owner-financed deal with Ray Lippens,” he recalled. “I couldn’t get a credit card or a mortgage, but Ray took a chance on me.”
Asked what he loves most about the business, Carr replied with something his grandmother, Kay Pinner, told him: “When you like what you do, you never work a day in your life.”
Visit The Village Inn at 1488 Ferry Road, Grand Island; and online at https://villageinngrandisland.com/. The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, and from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. It is closed on Sundays.
Want to see who’s in our “Best Fish Fry” Hall of Fame?