With an eclectic menu, a comfortable atmosphere and Winnebago’s first bar in more than 100 years, Toni’s of Winnebago stands out to locals and travelers alike. Join owner Michelle Princer as she reflects on the restaurant’s 20 years in business.
Michelle Princer has tended to a garden her whole life. So when it comes to fresh, farm-to-table cuisine, she’s a natural at creating tasty, visually stunning dishes.
“I grew up on a dairy farm, so that’s where my work ethic comes from,” she says. “I then worked at an Italian restaurant for about 13 years – starting out as a waitress, moving up to manager – and somewhere in that deal is when I decided to go to culinary school and become a restaurant owner.”
She accomplished her goal in 1998 when she opened Toni’s of Winnebago, 508 N. Elida St., Winnebago, Ill. The restaurant doubled as the city’s first bar in more than 100 years.
When reflecting on her 20 years in business, Princer feels grateful.
“We need to have a party,” she chuckles. “You know, when we first started out, the windows were plastered with these ice cream signs and we had this horrible red and yellow carpet. We’ve changed so much – we’ve painted, added eclectic artwork – and we’ve become a destination restaurant. With Rt. 20 being out here, we have the Chicago-to-Galena traffic, so we always end up with people stopping in for lunch who want something other than fast food.”
The menu is diverse, ranging from Italian dishes to barbecue ribs. Head chef Anuar Ojeda oversees the day-to-day cooking, while Princer handles the catering. Together, their collaborative efforts result in creative new dishes.
“I’m inspired by local items,” Ojeda says. “I have a passion for cooking and creating new things. I like to think of what I have, and then bring a new flavor to an old product without disturbing its profile. That’s how I work with my specials. We use our specials to try new things and figure out what to add to the menu.”
Both chefs rave about the winter pasta. A signature dish, winter pasta is one of two dishes that have been on the menu for all 20 years. Sautéed garlic, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, prosciutto and shrimp rest on a bed of penne.
“We call it winter pasta because most of its ingredients can be stored year-round,” Princer says. “Butternut squash ravioli is our other dish that’s always been on the menu. I once went on a trip to Napa Valley for a bread-making class and was inspired to come back and duplicate what I learned.”
She’s open to suggestions when it comes to menu additions. For example, “Bill’s Onion Rings” is named after a regular customer who once asked politely for onion rings.
Princer thought it was a great idea.
“Over the years, people have said, ‘Oh, how come you don’t have a Cobb salad?’ And I thought, ‘Well, let’s add it to the menu,’” she says. “Things evolve – some things work and some things don’t. I try to really pay attention to what people are saying.”
Princer believes her younger employees are the future of the restaurant and the broader industry.
“Twenty years ago, I had this kid who didn’t even know the difference between powdered sugar and granulated sugar, and now she’s making American farm-to-table products in Africa,” Princer says. “She learned that from catering with me. You just never know who you have working for you.”