66 years of the 'best fish anywhere'

Only three people can list the ingredients of the Costa Mesa-Newport Harbor Lions Club's secret fish batter recipe.

President Mike Scheafer is one of them, and he claims that the directions will probably accompany him to his grave. The 59-year-old Costa Mesa resident created some wiggle room, though, when he admitted that he might share the coveted information with his oldest son, Matt, who is a fellow club member.

Dinners — for $10 they include the famed fish, French fries and coleslaw — will be offered at the Lions Club's 66th annual Fish Fry and Carnival from Friday to Sunday.

"It's the best fish anywhere," said Scheafer, who over the years has inherited the title Mr. Fish Fry. "Even people who don't like fish like our fish."

Local foodies can also devour hot dogs and hamburgers, grilled by Estancia High School's baseball team, while a group from Banning Ranch prepares corn on the cob.

"As much as it disappoints me to say, there are things other than fish to eat," he joked.

Scheafer said the club was established in 1927 and soon put together a hamburger festival, which lasted through the '30s. In the '40s, Heinz Kaiser, who lived in Costa Mesa for many years and was the namesake of Kaiser Elementary School, came up with the undisclosed piscatorial concoction.

The club has been selling fish dinners ever since.

The switch was "extremely successful," Scheafer explained, "because no one else in the area had ever done anything like it."


A small-town camaraderie

In the past six-plus decades, the fish fry has faced many changes, including a new venue at Fairview Park, the discontinuation of a long-standing parade and the introduction of beer in 2012.

What continues to this date, though, is a sense of camaraderie palpable among the nearly 15,000 visitors. For those who have grown up in the area, the fish fry is a highly anticipated ritual.

"There's a sense of reconnecting with old friends and high school chums," Scheafer said. "I see them once a year and it's at the fish fry. This is definitely a small-town community type of event."

Scheafer notes the decline in Lions Club membership — something he called typical of service clubs nationwide — and says the fish fry provides people an opportunity to inquire about getting involved.

"There's not been a tremendous amount of growth, but we have had some success," he said.

Also on tap this year are carnival rides, live musical performances and a pageant for babies, ages 6 to 24 months. Trophies are awarded based on the babies' cuteness quotient and personalities and how they act.

The grand prize will be an iPad, replacing the usual automobile because of the cost involved, Scheafer said. Participants can buy a meal or raffle ticket to be eligible.

Scheafer's participation with the Lions Club began as a young boy when his father would man a soda pop booth. He recalled, with a chuckle, tending to packs of girls and "never being at a loss for dates."

He joined the club full-time upon a close friend's request. To date, Lions Club membership is by invitation only.

"My favorite part is the Monday after it's over, because we're done," Scheafer quipped about the fish fry. He added that his current position merits thinking a year ahead, starting the day after the event concludes.

Over the course of fish fry history, the Lions Club has raised more than $2 million, all of which has been poured back into the community through soup kitchens or local chapters of the Boys and Girls Clubs and Save Our Youth.

The group's collaboration with the city of Costa Mesa also includes a 60th-anniversary celebration for which Friday night has been stamped City of Costa Mesa Night. The first 100 children who arrive dressed in clothes embossed with names of youth athletic groups or the city will get a free carnival ride, while adults will earn a free raffle ticket.


'As much beer as they want'

This weekend will also mark the first time the Costa Mesa Community Run has happened simultaneously with the fish fry. The early-morning races will end in the Expo area, which leads to the main site.

All proceeds will benefit Costa Mesa's public schools, according to Karen Barloon, president of the run. More than $65,000 has been raised for the schools over the past six years

Students from Estancia and Costa Mesa high schools will volunteer from start to finish and run alongside staff.

"Raising funds for city schools is a priority, and raising community spirit is also paramount," Barloon said. "We believe good schools make good neighbors, and good neighbors make good schools."

But numbers for the Community Run are down from past years, Barloon said, despite an impressive lineup of sponsors: the water and sanitation districts, Conference and Visitors Bureau, PBS, Newport-Mesa Unified School District and the city of Costa Mesa.

While more than 800 runners have taken part in the fun in recent memory, "It may be too much community for the weekend — the Pilot Cup, fish fry, St. John the Baptist carnival, CDM Scenic 5K and the Community Run," she said.

Scheafer, who by his own admission is not much of a runner, plans to support the athletes in every possible way.

"I've heard that people who like to run like to drink beer after," he said, laughing. "As long as they're not driving, they can have as much beer as they want at the fish fry."

If You Go

What: 66th annual Fish Fry and Carnival

Where: Fairview Park, 2501 Placentia Ave., Costa Mesa

When: 6 to 10 p.m. Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. The 6th annual 2K, 5K and 10K Costa Mesa Community Run begins at 8 a.m. Sunday; registration starts at 6:30 a.m.

Cost: Admission is free; fish dinners cost $10

Information: http://www.cmnhlions.com

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