CALEDONIA — At Oh Dennis Saloon & Charcoal House, the grill is tucked in a somewhat unusual spot, behind the bar. Restaurant owner JoAnn DeMark explains why: Her late husband, Dennis DeMark, “wanted to greet all the customers, that’s why.”
From the restaurant’s opening in 1987 to 2012 when Dennis died, he was the face of this ever-popular restaurant, 4301 Douglas Ave., that feels like a northern Wisconsin supper club. The dark atmosphere is accented all around by colored neon-light beer signs and the three signs specially made for Oh Dennis: “Eat like a pig,” “Get sauced,” and the caveman sign that is the restaurant logo.
JoAnn explained that one originated with the boyfriend of Oh Dennis’ first bartender, Molly, whose boyfriend would sit at the bar and draw cartoons. Dennis liked the one of himself as a caveman, and about a year later had it made into his restaurant’s signature sign.
“Eat like a pig” is a sly reference to the ribs for which the restaurant is very likely best known. Coming up on three decades in business, Oh Dennis still gets its ribs from Denmark. JoAnn explained why.
“The difference is: Most (U.S. ribs) come out of hogs, and in Denmark they come from pampered pigs. It cuts down on the fat. And they’re smaller; they’re using smaller animals.”
“They’re true baby back ribs,” said General Manager Steven Gaskill. “We slow-cook them … with a house seasoning.” A small rack, about two-thirds pound, sells for $16 and the large rack, about 1½ pounds, for $24.
Gaskill said the Oh Dennis ribs may be what draws people there the first time. But he said, “We sell a lot of everything.”
JoAnn — who said, “Half of my customers call me Mrs. Oh Dennis” — had to think for a few seconds to come up with her favorite menu items. Then she named the panko-breaded perch and the ribs.
“The walleye is wonderful, too,” she added. “And the steaks.”
The Oh Dennis kitchen is so small that JoAnn, who bakes all the desserts, does that labor of love at home, and the pans are shipped to the restaurant. On average she sends about 15 to 20 pans a month of desserts such as banana pecan or walnut cake, pineapple-pecan torte, chocolate cake and chocolate chip shortcake.
“My dad was a cook in the Navy, and both my parents were great cooks,” JoAnn said. “My aunt was a pastry chef. I love baking.”
JoAnn’s son, Michael DeMark, manages the bar which has eight beers on tap. Gaskill said a popular drink is the chocolate martini which “sells really well.”
That martini’s menu description says this: “All we can tell you is it’s made with vodka and Dennis’ secret sauce.”
Oh Dennis may be one of the few restaurants that has guest books. From day one, Dennis had that practice, JoAnn said. The wait staff are still expected to take a guest book to their customers so they can leave their remarks for posterity. The family still keeps every one of those guest books, JoAnn said.
Recently five Dominican nuns in full habits dined there, JoAnn said, and “One (wrote) that the felt like they were in a romantic movie.”
When Dennis died, JoAnn said, she kept Oh Dennis open for the employees. “He was the most amazing man you will ever want to meet,” she said about her late husband.
“All the same recipes are being used.”