DESHLER -- Grampa’s Crossing is more than a whistle stop on U.S. 136, the road that skirts the north side of town.

The front end of a mock steam locomotive, complete with cowcatcher and working train light, is the first clue.

Then there’s the crossing arms that advertise the restaurant’s fare: pizza, steaks, liquor, burgers, seafood, ice cream, Sunday buffet and broasted chicken.

But it’s not until you walk through the door on the side of the locomotive engine and step inside that you get the feeling this is not just another highway eatery.

“It’s neat and it’s unique," said Wayne Dake, who dropped by before the restaurant opened its doors just to have a look-see.

He wasn’t alone. People have been pulling off the highway, snapping photos and talking about Grampa’s Crossing for weeks.

“It’s quite an undertaking,” said Mayor Naomi Grupe, who was putting up Christmas decorations downtown with a handful of volunteers Friday.

Grupe said she was sorry to see the business leave downtown -- now the  city has have two open storefronts -- but she’s glad there’s a new business on the highway.

“I’m just glad we have a restaurant,” said Cheryl Cazee, one of the volunteers.

When Lonnie Bell isn’t too busy rustling up meals in the kitchen, he’ll tell you all about Grampa’s Crossing and how it evolved from a downtown café and lounge into a traffic-stopping tourist attraction on the highway.

Two-and-a-half years ago, Bob Reinke, one of the brothers who own a local center pivot manufacturing company by the same family name, approached Bell with a proposition. Reinke, a railroad buff, was remodeling a building on the highway and wanted to know whether Bell wanted to lease it and operate a restaurant with a railroad theme.

Bell agreed, and in October began moving Grampa’s Crossing from downtown to the new location a stone’s throw from the town’s water tower.

“(Reinke) built the engine from scratch. It’s not a train engine. The only thing out there that’s from a train is the wheels,” Bell said.

Reinke used a big water tank for the boiler and manufactured the rest out of wrought iron and sheet metal from his shop in Hebron, Bell said. A gold-lettered plate under the light bears the business address: 5411.

“This is the only restaurant he has, and he said he’ll never do it again,” Bell said jokingly.

Reinke and Bell had a long list of electrical, plumbing and other code inspections to pass before they could serve food and alcohol. Some final touches still are needed, but business has been brisk.

They had a soft opening with a 75th birthday celebration for Alfred Effenbeck on Nov. 23, and the restaurant had a big crowd, Bell said. It can handle about 220 people.

Bell credited Reinke with doing a lot of work with the building and grounds to make it attractive. There’s an outside beer garden, plenty of parking and drive-up windows where soft-serve ice cream will be dished up in the summer.

Reinke mounted railroad tracks near the ceiling of the dining room for a model train, which he plans to run for patrons once he finds a big enough transformer. Photographs of trains, trestles and old locomotives line the walls.

The railroad theme is carried to the party room in back, where plywood wainscoting is stamped with shipping stencils from Deshler’s history as a Rock Island railroad town. There’s one to Walt Disney from the Deshler Broom Factory, a couple from flour companies, and one for mink pelts.

Bell, 58, spends long hours at the restaurant these days to ensure that everything goes right. He has about a dozen part-time employees and would like to hire more eventually.

One of his employees is his mother, Lula, who used to own the local Dairy Queen in town before it was almost blown away by a tornado in 2003. She helps out with salads and breakfasts.

A graduate of Deshler High School, Bell was a machinist for 27 years before getting into the restaurant business. He’s been in the Army and has lived in Colorado and Kearney.

“I wanted to do something different,” he said, explaining his decision to change careers. But after the past several months, he is having second thoughts.

“I wish I was still a machinist,” Bell said.

He’s kidding, of course. He wants to see Grampa’s Crossing become a family-style restaurant that everyone can enjoy.

“Personally, I think it’s very good atmosphere out here … the employees are very good and the food is excellent,” Bell said.

The menu includes special nights for baby back ribs and prime rib. But New York strip steaks and ribeyes and broasted chicken are offered daily. Prices vary from $2.75 for a burger to $16.50 for a ribeye.

Grampa’s Crossing is open from 6 a.m. to closing (that could be 2 a.m.) Monday through Saturday. A Sunday buffet is served from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Reach Algis J. Laukaitis at 402-473-7243 or alaukaitis@journalstar.com.