Metro-East Living

At this restaurant, it’s a fish sandwich or they’ll show you the door

Marko's Fish in Madison keeps customers coming back

Marko's Fish House in Madison has been serving the same sandwich recipe for 80 years. Marko’s started in 1928.
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Marko's Fish House in Madison has been serving the same sandwich recipe for 80 years. Marko’s started in 1928.

Marko’s Fish Restaurant inspires the kind of generational loyalty usually reserved for sports teams.

“Oh my God, it’s delicious,” says longtime customer Dot Schiller, 75, of the signature fish sandwich. Dot lives in Glen Carbon now, and still makes the trip to Marko’s in Madison once or twice a month for the fish sandwich. Sometimes she gets fries, too.

Other items are on the menu, but any adult ordering a hamburger will be told where the nearest McDonald’s is, laughs owner Branko Ostrec, 74. Kids can have hamburger, but he freely admits they shouldn’t.

“I depend on the fish,” he said.

Quality and consistency are Branko’s only concerns. He uses the same suppliers for fish and bread that his mother used. He and his wife, Kathy, took on the restaurant in 1980.

“I don’t cut corners; I always have the best,” he said. That means the cod is “fresh-frozen” and the bread is hand-cut thick and dense enough to hold up under fried fish. A St. Louis bakery makes the bread special for Marko’s, he said.

071117tvfishsandwiches (2)
Fish sandwiches from Marko’s Fish in Madison is what keeps customers coming back for more. They still use their original —and secret — breading recipe from 1928. Tim Vizer tvizer@bnd.com

Marko’s Fish Restaurant started in 1928 by his mother’s brother.

In time, Branko’s daughter Mirella, now in St. Louis, is likely to take over. “That’s the way we think it will go,” Branko said. His other daughter, Diana, is a lawyer and lives in Huntington Beach, California.

Mirella won’t be alone if she does take over. Tabitha Arnold has worked for Marko’s for 17 years, and is the quiet force behind the counter as Branko gregariously greets customers and old friends.

“When I started here, my daughter was 2,” Tabitha said. Marko’s mother would babysit the girl at her home next to the restaurant as Tabitha worked. Her daughter is now 18; her son is 12.

Tabitha makes the cole slaw and potato salad — spelled “Potatoe” on the menu behind the counter — from scratch using Branko’s mother’s recipes.

“It’s mayo and sweet relish, and people love it,” she said. Tabitha makes a giant tub of it every year for one customer’s Christmas parties.

“You have to be dedicated. It doesn’t look like much, but she knows what to do,” Branko said of Tabitha, saying that the third time a customer comes in, she’s got their order started before they speak.

“People are so stunned,” he said. “All our heart is in it. We both like people, that’s the main reason I keep plugging it. The (familiar) faces — they become almost like friends.”

Marko’s Fish Restaurant

  • Where: 820 Madison Ave., Madison, Illinois; 618-876-9212; on Facebook as “Marko’s Fish House”
  • Hours: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Fridays. Closed Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays
  • What: Cod fish sandwich, $6.50; onion rings, $2.25; french fries, potato salad and cole slaw, each $2.
  • Payment: Cash only.
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