Growing up in Wisconsin, I recall Saturday nights spent looking for houses that weren’t houses, taverns that weren’t taverns, and barns that weren’t barns situated in, around, and nowhere near small towns and cities. These are the inimitable supper clubs of our state. Though no two are alike, you always know one when you see it. Décor wise, they’re somewhere between turn of the century and Oingo Boingo. Food wise, at minimum you’ll find red meat, French onion soup, and salad on the menu. Tornado Club Steak House, just a block south of the Capitol Square, might just be the most unlikely location for a supper club, making it all the more recognizable as one.
When owner Henry Doane gave me the rundown of his restaurateur journey, he also provided a brief history lesson. “I grew up in Madison, and I’ve lived here most of my life. I opened the Blue Marlin in 1990 with some friends. Then a few years later, I was looking for another opportunity, and I was checking out another space. It was The Frequency—formerly Marrakech and now BarleyPop—right down the block. It’s a nice art deco façade. I was always interested in that building.
“So I contacted the landlord, took a look at that building. He kept pushing me over here. It was an old supper club; it was Crandall’s, and they left in 1990. The building was basically being run by the landlord, Larry Lichte. He called it Larry’s Place. I thought about it for a while. … Then I sort of jumped into it. At that age, I was like 32, you never think about failure. You can take those chances because you’re super confident in your abilities even when you don’t know anything.”
The first thing Henry did after purchasing the space in 1996 was uncovering the ’50s glamor hidden underneath old carpeting and bad wall paneling. Since the remodel was basically just peeling away layers, it only took two months, though Henry did make and install the winding black booths—a nice complement to the aesthetic created by beadboard, stained-glass lighting, and a giant mirror behind the bar.
“The building itself is from 1850,” says Henry. “If you took away everything, there’d be these 12-foot ceilings with tin. This space is as it is was built in 1957: the interior space for Crandall’s. The only thing they did bring from the original location were the booths that are in the Rustic Room. Those are from the ’20s.”
The menu itself is a bit of a throwback as well. Henry doesn’t believe in changing things, but rather appreciates little improvements that even the most loyal customer may not notice. Henry contends that “the biggest challenge is not to get better, but just to be the same. There’s so many different people, so many moving parts, that to make that machine do exactly the same thing every time is basically impossible.”
Henry’s devotion to his menu makes sense considering he’s a very proud preservationist. That 20-ounce bone-in ribeye is going to taste just like you remembered it, or at least pretty darn close, as Henry won’t serve a cut of meat that doesn’t reach his expectations. In the kitchen, he does as little as he can to the filet so it can speak for itself. Henry says, “It’s like a primitive Flintstone kind of thing.”
For something with a little more going on, there’s the filet au poivre, featuring a Cognac mushroom cream sauce. If it’s fish you’re craving, you’ll find walleye, salmon, and more. And since every entrée is served with a side, do yourself a favor and get the hashbrowns.
“I think the hashbrown is probably the best thing we do. It’s a technical wonder in a way. You have to cook the potatoes exactly right. We parboil them. You have to cool them, shred them properly. We use an olive oil and butter combo to fry them in the pan. It’s all timing in the pan to get the right crispiness.” In short, it’s pretty labor intensive.
The last piece of the Wisconsin supper club pie has to be the Old Fashioned. In true Henry fashion, it’s also a piece of history. “I didn’t really know about Old Fashioneds until I opened this place. It was tragic when the Hotel Washington had just burned down, but we were lucky enough to hire some of the bartenders that worked there. They worked at the Barber’s Closet; that was the cocktail bar. It was like a speakeasy. They were all very cocktail conscious. Right at the moment when we opened, there was this swing thing going on, and cigars and martinis were suddenly in fashion. They came with all that knowledge, and it was great. The Old Fashioned just came with the bartenders that we hired.” And Henry hasn’t changed it since.
At the time of this writing, Henry is actually back in the kitchen until he hires a new kitchen manager, and he’s really enjoying it. He sums it up as his “last crack in the trenches.” I kind of see it as his last way of putting a sort of final stamp on the impact he’s had in Madison. When Henry is out and about and the people he’s talking to discover he’s the owner of Tornado, their faces light up. The restaurant means so many things to so many people.
“Unfortunately, Madison is losing so many of these special places every year,” says Henry. “Institutions like the Plaza, Nick’s, those kinds of places, to me they should always be in Madison. We’re slowly losing all of these things. It’s like the character of Madison is getting taken away.”
For his part, Henry isn’t going to let Tornado slip away anytime soon. “At night, this is a magical place. People come here, and they’re kind of in a little bit of a trance when they walk in. It’s like a time warp. If you’ve ever thought about a supper club in your mind, this place is certainly it. … I’d like to try to preserve this space for as long as possible. All this new stuff doesn’t really have that patina.”