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As any observant Catholic knows, Fridays are all about fish. Where’d the centuries-old church statute of going meatless on Fridays come from? A popular tale says it all stemmed from a desire to boost seafood sales — that the pope who introduced the custom was looking to increase business at a fish market owned by his brother.

That origin story has never been proven, but historians have found economics likely did play a role in turning meatless Fridays into a lasting custom. In the Middle Ages, for example, it helped Europe’s seafood industry flourish, and many of the same economic forces are still at work today. (It’s supposedly the reason McDonald’s invented the Filet-o-Fish.)

In Philadelphia, where Catholics have made up close to 40 percent of the population for more than 100 years, the Friday-fish doctrine was a major boon for the many seafood houses that used to dot the city.

So much so, in fact, that Sam Mink, proprietor of the restaurant that would become Center City’s Oyster House, used to carry two photos in his wallet. One was of John F. Kennedy, and the other was Pope John XXIII.

Mink was Jewish.

In the 1960s, though, he abruptly stopped toting around the papal picture. What happened? Then-Pope Paul VI loosened the Friday restrictions, saying that if observant people did a good deed or made a sacrifice, it was fine to chow down on some meat. Most folks forgot about the good deed part of the bargain, and simply stopped abstaining, causing Mink to lose some easy business, with one exception: Lent.

During the run-up to Easter, the meatless Friday rule is still in effect, according to the Vatican. And anecdotal data from Philly-area restaurants shows a decent proportion of the area’s 1,490,000 Catholics still do observe it, though the number is probably lower than it used to be.

These days at Oyster House, Good Friday is especially busy, says third-generation owner Sam Mink (yup, named after grandpa). However, he doesn’t notice much of a surge during other weeks. “When my father was in business, all the Fridays of Lent were especially busy, ” he says.

Terry Berch McNally of Fairmount’s London Grill agrees. “It’s not like the old days when Philadelphia was a city of parishes and fish houses,” she says, “or even like in the ‘80s when I waitressed and office people were all eating fish on Fridays. But we do see a small percentage increase.” She and chef Michael McNally also keep Lent in mind when coming up for Friday specials — fish ‘n’ chips does notably well.

At PJ Whelihan’s, sales fish dishes like these tacos more than double on Fridays during Lent
At PJ Whelihan’s, sales of fish dishes like these tacos more than double on Fridays during Lent

Interestingly, even though it doesn’t specialize in seafood in any way, locally-owned chain P.J. Whelihan’s sees a much bigger overall jump.

“We definitely have an uptick in seafood sales on Fridays in Lent,” says Jim Fris, COO of the P.J.W. Restaurant Group, which owns and operates P.J. Whelihan’s. “We have eight seafood items on the menu, and sales are about two and a half times higher than normal.” P.J.’s locations switch their soups on Lenten Fridays to New England clam chowder and Maryland crab bisque, and run specials like tuna melts and Ahi tuna tacos.

At Panorama, the Italian restaurant in the Penn’s View Hotel, it’s not necessarily that more fish moves during Lent — although there is a separate Lenten menu offering many options — but that meatless dishes in general do better. “We see an uptick in housemade pasta sales,” says general manager Carlo Sena.

Of course, there could be another reason for the bump, points out Andy Farrell of City Tap House.

“We sell many types of mussels and clam dishes all year round, and definitely see an uptick in them this time of year,” he says. “But whether that’s due to religious dogma or impending bikini season, who knows.”

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...