A Publication of WTVP

At Gator’z, customers gobble up the fare

by Phil Luciano |
gatorz sign

The popular restaurant is the only business in tiny LaRose, but it’s a traffic generator

In opening Gator’z Pub & Grill, Deb and Curt Walin didn’t just start a business.

They started a business district.

Welcome to LaRose, population 98, and the one-stop commercial strip known as Gator’z.

“There’s nothing else,” said Mayor Jonathon Price, chuckling. “Well, the post office.”

LaRose is a spot in the road — and not a very wide spot — along Illinois Route 89. It sits amid the crop fields of Marshall County, home to but 11,663 residents. The county seat is Lacon (population 1,878), while the big city is Henry with a whopping 2,320 residents.

Which is to say that around these parts, there’s no such thing as a customer base. Further, LaRose hasn’t had any commercial trade since the grain elevator shut down three years ago.

“There’s not much here,” Deb Walin said.

For the couple, it took a lot of confidence to open a business, especially in the fickle restaurant trade, when you’re the only game in town and thus have to become a destination spot. So far, the plan is working, much to the delight of LaRose.

“It’s great for us,” the mayor said. “They’ve done a lot of work on the building.”

And how. The Walins bought a dilapidated building — the first floor had fallen into the basement — and turned it into a slick, modern pub. As one new customer recently gushed, “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear I was in Peoria Heights or the Chicago suburbs!”

Cozy in the kitchen

Deb, 63, and Curt, 64, have dabbled in the restaurant trade before. They wed in 1997, and 10 years later started their first Gator’z in her native Varna, four miles south of LaRose. Curt, a welder by trade, got the nickname “Gator” in his home state of Florida, though neither will say exactly why.

Deb and Curt Walin , owners of Gator’z Pub & Grill (Photo by Jeff Oesch)
Deb and Curt Walin , owners of Gator’z Pub & Grill (Photo by Jeff Oesch)

“It was from driving crazy,” she said with a smile.

Deb cooked up a menu by trial and error, based on what they enjoy.

“I like to eat,” she said with a grin. “We like food.”

They ran the business until 2007, when they moved to Florida to take care of an ailing relative. Two years ago, they decided to move back to Varna, in part to look after another relative. The couple wondered if maybe they could give it another go with a bar and grill.

From Florida, they spotted an online ad for a shuttered shop in LaRose, which at the time had no businesses. Years ago, Smiley’s had enjoyed a long run as a supper club, renowned for ribs and packing ‘em in from miles around. But by 2021, Smiley’s had become a distant memory, its former building boarded up and falling down.

Across the street sat the place under consideration by the Walins. Built in 1871 as a grocery, the structure last had functioned in 2011 as an office. A decade passed and the taxes became delinquent. Having seen only exterior photos of the structure, the Walins wondered about the wisdom of launching the lone business in a small town. Then again, the tax-sale price was too low to resist: $642.

And so they packed up their belongings and headed back to central Illinois. When they got to the new property, they soon found out the bargain price wasn’t totally a bargain.

“You get what you pay for,” Deb said. “When we opened the door, there was no floor or anything.

“We could’ve just walked away.”

They almost did. But Curt, a handy fellow who still welds, saw the shambles as an opportunity. The building’s bones were solid, and the rest just needed a little – OK, a lot – of TLC.

“We thought, ‘We can do this,’” Curt said. “I didn’t want somebody else’s problems if we took over another place.”

He paused, then added with a smile, “Now if something goes wrong, you can blame only me.”

The mess just before renovations at Gator'z in 2021 (Photo courtesy of Deb Walin)
The mess just before renovations at Gator’z in 2021 (Photo courtesy of Deb Walin)
Gator’z Pub & Grill, as sleek as just about any trendy big-city bar (Photo courtesy of Deb Walin)
Gator’z Pub & Grill, as sleek as just about any trendy big-city bar (Photo courtesy of Deb Walin)

Winning fans

Among the newcomers, there’s no blaming, just raving. The pub pops with shiny wood and gleaming metal, boasting a look that curiously, in an old ag town, seems almost urban and industrial. Even more impressive, most of the fixtures came from auctions or salvage, such as four sharp light fixtures he somehow got for just a buck apiece.

‘It’s like a hidden treasure … People aren’t really expecting this’ — Barkeep Melissa Lane

Meantime, LaRose residents have lent a hand. Some, including the mayor, helped with various jobs, such as hauling dirt out of the basement to clear space. Others contributed vintage village photos to honor the community’s history, a nice touch before the front door opened in May 2022.

“We didn’t want to be like anyplace around,” Deb said.

Mission accomplished, said barkeep Melissa Lane, 28, of Washburn. For one, the well-stocked bar includes 17 beers.

“Most places around here, you see only Budweiser and Busch Light,” Lane said with a laugh.

For another, the menu is extensive, including plenty of comfort food like meatloaf and pot pies. All pizzas are homemade and can involve non-traditional ingredients such as artichokes, ricotta cheese and alfredo sauce. Innovation even invades the burger selection, such as the Bacon Me Crazy: a half-pound of beef accompanied by bacon jam, bacon mayo and six slices of bacon.

Customers — many expecting to find a shot-and-a-beer joint — have been impressed. Jane and Russ Yount regularly drive 20 minutes from Benson to get to Gator’z.

“They have some of the best pizzas,” he said.

Others drive in from Roanoke, Lake Wildwood, Wenona and beyond.

“It’s like a hidden treasure,” said Lane, one of seven employees at Gator’z. “People aren’t really expecting this. There isn’t anything like this around here.”

The Walins are heartened by the positive reaction, especially from local residents who’d been bypassed by business for so long.

“They’re excited to have something happening in LaRose,” Deb said.

Phil Luciano

Phil Luciano

is a senior writer/columnist for Peoria Magazine and content contributor to public television station WTVP. He can be reached at [email protected]