Toney’s Grill and Seafood Market
Photography by Michael Barrett
It’s a busy day at Toney’s Grill and Seafood Market in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Owner Charles Toney stops at each table, greeting customers new and old. He radiates friendliness and boundless energy, with kind blue eyes and gray hair. He has a self-deprecating sense of humor and a creative bent that makes him instantly likeable, and that has kept him in the restaurant business for decades.
“We will be full tonight,” Toney says, scanning the dining room as he speaks. “We’ve got a biker group coming, and they’ve been eating here every year for the last ten years. I’ve also got someone coming in who is going to play some live music. When the bikers called to say they were coming back, I said we would be in our new building.”
Toney's new location opened this spring on U.S. Highway 61, and now features a large back patio where musicians perform and a back dining room with an impressive wooden bar. Toney built the bar – and the light fixtures and the sinks and the plates. “We built that bar based off a picture of my old boat - Pure Pleasure One. We just sold her last month and I like to have cried. It was tough, but I do have Pure Pleasure Two,” Toney says, laughing.
The bar spans nearly the length of the back dining room, with giant rods and reels and taxidermied fish behind it. The floor is adorned with pictures of different species of brightly colored fish, and the tables feature photographs that Toney’s wife Christin arranged into collages. It tells the story of Toney and his family, and largely focuses on one of his favorite activities - fishing in the Gulf of Mexico.
“I’ve been fishing the Gulf for 30 years, and charter fishing for five,” he says. “I take people out from Grand Isle in South Louisiana, where I have a camp. I’m just one of those people that can’t sit still. I like to work. I also like being around people, and my father had a restaurant, so I wanted to follow in his footsteps.”
Charles Toney Sr. started his Vicksburg restaurant in the early 1970s. “Both Charles and his father have really made their mark on the Vicksburg restaurant scene,” says Laura Beth Strickland, deputy director of the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Combined, the two have been serving the city for around 50 years.”
The elder Toney’s restaurant was called Toney’s Sidewalk Cafe, located in a building he purchased behind the Old Battlefield Mall. “He had a bakery and an ice cream parlor, and he decided to open up a restaurant in part because he had been a naval cook in WWII,” Toney says. “In the '80s, he opened up a seafood buffet. For years it was a buffet.”
Toney started out working with his father and eventually opened his own spot in 1986. In addition to the restaurant, there’s also a market featuring a large selection of fresh, raw seafood, located in a separate area adjacent to the main dining room. Customers browse shrimp, crawfish, crab legs, catfish, and redfish. After deciding what sort of seafood they want, they can take it home raw or the restaurant will prepare it.
“I get shipments in two, sometimes three times a week all from suppliers based on the coast,” Toney says. “Our seafood is always fresh. Our biggest problem thus far has been lack of space. We have been so much busier than I anticipated, I’ve had to order two more walk in coolers.”
As the restaurant’s name suggests, Toney’s is known first and foremost for its seafood. There’s fried shrimp, boiled crawfish (in season), grilled red snapper or redfish, soft shell crab, and even alligator on the menu. They’re also known for their smashed poboys, an idea that came to Charles several years back.
“What’s the first thing you do when you get a poboy?” he says. “You smash it down so you can eat it. We do that for you. The idea was floating around in my brain for a few years before we decided to start doing it last year, and it’s been wildly popular. I come up with all kinds of crazy things.”
He's partly alluding to his ability to make just about anything. The restaurant’s plates are hand carved wood, and the sinks used to be bathtubs and pump handles before he drilled holes into the tubs and turned them into something else. When he isn’t at the restaurant or building something he’s usually fishing off the Louisiana coast.
“Last year I was down there May to October, but this year I’m going to be in the restaurant more and have my captains running my charter fishing bookings, but I’ll still try to make it down there as often as possible,” he says.
Although Toney's creativity and attention to detail were key in building of his new restaurant, he is quick to credit his wife and dozens of community members who continuously add to the building’s decor. “I put probably $20,000 worth of fishing equipment in here, but it wasn’t just me. I had a guy the other day bring me an anchor that was a solid 60 pounds of aluminum. He could have sold it, but he brought it here for me to put on the wall. I’ve got about a half a dozen old motors that people have dropped off that haven’t made it onto the walls yet either,” he says.
The contributions of long term regulars to the new space highlight the impact Toney has had on the Vicksburg community. “It’s a good atmosphere to be in,” Toney says. “I always laugh and say that I like dogs more than people, but I like people, too.”