DELLS BUCKET LIST #10 - Going behind-the-scenes of DENNY'S DINER

Eating a meal next to a telephone booth that has a Superman mannequin inside, or with a life-sized gorilla riding a motorbike hanging above you from the ceiling, is not something you’ll get to experience at your average everyday restaurant. Luckily, if you want to eat breakfast or lunch while getting some fun sensory stimuli, you’ll find that the Lake Delton mainstay Denny’s Diner is the perfect place to visit - as it is anything but average.

Owned for over thirty years by Dennis and Molly Van Schoyck, what started off as a simple deli has transformed over the years into a diner that now houses an eclectic collection of items ranging from the nostalgic and historical, to the silly and absurd. The place is filled to the brim with fifties and sixties memorabilia that includes signs, toys, an authentic gas pump and a jukebox, but the real fun is searching out the many touches of whimsy throughout. Spending a recent morning with Molly and her son Chad, who is the kitchen manager; I got to hear all about the history of the diner, as well as learn how the unique décor came to be.

When I first asked Molly about her husband’s offbeat interior design skills, she told me: “Dennis just has kind of a different sense of humor in that he sees things that might be catchy.” Chad, when asking if it always has been like this, mentioned: “It just kind of changed into what it is now, and it’s probably gonna stay like this forever.”
While the vast array of retro décor plays a large part in why the diner is such a popular place among visitors and locals alike, it’s the tasty food that brings them back as well. Famous for their cinnamon rolls, Molly told me how Dennis was taught by his friend Tom Harper (who owned Harp’s restaurant in downtown Dells many years ago), the same method that has been used for the past three decades: “He’s the one that gave my husband the recipe for the cinnamon rolls. Taught him how to make them, and gave him the secret ingredients that go in them.”

Along with the cinnamon rolls, Chad mentioned that they also make homemade bread every day, along with a vast variety of other tasty items: “Everything here is homemade. Everything from the Canadian bacon, the Eggs Benedict, the corn beef hash. We make our own barbeque sauce and our own hot sauce. We make it all. Pretty much everything from scratch.”

Word of mouth and return business is what keeps the place hopping with up to 400 customers a day during the busy season. After getting a tour of the surprisingly small kitchen, I had to ask Chad how they can handle that much business with only two cooks: “Sometimes it’s a lot harder than you can imagine. We’ll have a waiting line down the sidewalk, and this is all we got. But, even from our little room, we put out a lot of stuff.”

With so many customers coming through every day, I asked Molly who were some of the ones that stood out over the years. I learned that besides the occasional celebrity like Tom “Luke Duke” Wopat from The Dukes of Hazard, or members of the music groups The Oak Ridge Boys and Cheap Trick, that often it’s some of the returning customers that amaze her with their memory of changes in the diner. She told me that for years they had a small toy bear riding back & forth along a string that is strung across the room, and that a couple years ago the bear fell off and they replaced it with a duck: “People that come in will always ask - What happened to the bear?”

I embarrassingly know of that duck firsthand because being I stand over six feet tall, I’ve knocked into it virtually every time I come for breakfast after a night on the town – even after promising myself I won’t let it happen again. Molly laughed as she told me:  “You can tell them a hundred times not to stand there, but they’ll stand right under it…we have to pick it up five to six times a day!” And wouldn’t you know, even after she told me this, I knocked into it once again before leaving.

Before leaving, I had to ask about the sign at the entrance that states they are in no way affiliated with the chain restaurant that’s similarly named. Molly said that when they first came to town the chain wanted them to change their name, but since they were friends with owners of the other Denny’s Diner, they let that demand go. Chad told me: “They just said put a disclaimer on the door – we were HAPPY to do that!”

Denny’s Diner is currently open every day of the year besides Christmas for breakfast and lunch, with plans for possible dinner service in the future. For more information call: 608-254-7647

- Chris Dearman

*** I'd like to say thanks to Molly and Chad for taking the time to tell me about the diner and its history. I'd also like to thank Danielle Rodwell for taking pictures of me. For more pictures, please visit the Dells Bucket List Facebook page here .