Toby’s Supper Club is a Wisconsin original.
From the neon beer signs on dark wood-paneled walls to the cold relish plate on the table, Toby’s is authentic as it gets. On Friday nights, devoted diners stack two deep at the oval bar, ordering Old Fashioneds and waiting more than an hour for fish fry.
“10 to 15 years ago, we would serve maybe 300, 330 on a busy night,” said Chris Wilson, son of owner Roxanne Peterson and an employee off and on for 28 years. “Now we’re at 400, 420, 430, and we haven’t added any waitresses, we haven’t added any cooks, we haven’t gotten any bigger.
“That’s the reason it’s busy.”
Toby’s, located on Stoughton Road just south of the Beltline, has been around in one form or another since the 1930s. According to a 2007 interview with Peterson, when her father expanded the restaurant in 1972, the family found “newspapers with headlines of Prohibition being lifted, Ringling Brothers Circus posters, two sealed, full Prohibition gin bottles and an original Toby’s menu.”
The perch plate, it said, was 35 cents; lobster cost $1.75.
The hourlong wait notwithstanding, Friday night fish fry at Toby’s remains a highly entertaining, thoroughly Midwestern experience. Stop first at the bar and order an Old Fashioned (make mine a bourbon press, $3.50). A bartender provides the menu, and before long a waitress will come by to take your order.
Just before your food is ready, that same waitress will find you and direct the way to a table loaded with sweet coleslaw or salad (mild, creamy blue cheese dressing is 75 cents extra — definitely get it), plastic-wrapped crunchy breadsticks, thawed-out dinner rolls, that relish plate (including raw scallion), a bowl of pickles and a little basket of butter packets and cream.
All of this is included with your fish fry, which like every dinner comes with a cake of crispy onion-studded hashbrowns ($2.50) — optionally topped with a Kraft single (50 cents) — a foil-wrapped baked potato ($2.50) or classic medium-thick French fries ($2.50).
As for the fish itself, lake perch ($13.95) was lightly breaded and expertly fried, the catfish ($9.95) fat and flaky. There is baby pike ($12.95), “famous” cod ($9.95/two pieces, $11.95/three) and, on other weeknights, blue gill ($14.95).
Toby’s hasn’t changed its menu in decades, with the exception of a few additions: a garlic pesto shrimp special on Saturdays, the occasional rib-eye steak. Peterson’s sister Rhonda Frank’s “comfort food” Wednesday night specials have developed a following, notably her barbecue ribs (next available Jan. 30).
“We have them every six weeks on Wednesday night, and it’s as out of control as Friday night,” Wilson said.
On a Monday night, come early to play Wheel of Fortune with the regulars at the bar — it’s guys against gals — and try the Toby’s Special for a dollar cheaper than usual. A juicy 6 oz. top sirloin, cooked perfectly medium rare, seems like a steal at $10.95 if one doesn’t think about the provenance of the beef.
“UW Provisions have been cutting our steaks for 50 years,” said Wilson. “That’s another trend, hey, Wisconsin beef — what does that mean?”
Portions of fried chicken ($11.95) and the thick Toby’s burger ($6.25) are more than generous, enough for two meals at least. The cooks have a light hand with seasoning, save on the tangy, ample corned beef Reuben ($6.95), a fantastic version of the classic.
Toby’s is the kind of place that inspires near instant nostalgic affection. Service can be perfunctory. Waits are often long. The food is nothing new.
But part of Toby’s appeal is that it doesn’t try to be anything it’s not. It feels real.
“We’re like in a time warp sometimes,” Wilson said, adding that the restaurant still does not have a computer. “People don’t like change — that goes for the people that work here, and the customers (too).
“It’s a place to come and drink and catch a buzz and eat dinner. That’s just what it is.”