Editor’s note: Ground Zero hits the road during July, visiting restaurants near Lincoln.
CLATONIA -- Ron Tegtmeier calls Clatonia his Mayberry, referring to the fictional town from classic TV’s “The Andy Griffith Show.”
“Everybody knows everybody here,” he said.
So when he tired of running a popular nightclub in Lincoln -- the country bar Uncle Ron’s -- he returned to the small town where he grew up and began putting his time, money and energy into a new venture.
He opened Legends of Clatonia seven months ago in downtown Clatonia (pop. 231) on Nebraska 41, building the restaurant where his father at one time operated a garage. Tegtmeier himself ran a coffeeshop, then a one-room bar, on the site before constructing what has become a tribute of sorts to his hometown.
The bar and grill is filled with photos and memorabilia from the town’s past, providing a museum type of look and feel and a reason for the eatery’s name. During our visit, my wife and I paged through yearbooks from the 1960s and 1980s from bookshelves by our table.
“It’s been a labor of love,” Tegtmeier admitted.
In creating the menu, he adamantly shunned the freezer-to-fryer concept, opting instead for made-from-scratch options. He handcuts his chicken-fried steaks. He acquired permission to use the Red Rooster recipe for the breading on the delicious fried chicken, onion rings and shrimp. A woman prepares the 10 homemade salads on what may be the best salad bar between here and Beatrice. And the desserts … two ladies from town make them. One creates the decadent cheesecakes, the other, a 93-year-old, bakes the pies. How about that?
“I just didn’t want this little town to die,” Tegtmeier said.
The food is homemade. Portions are huge (my wife’s ham steak filled her entire plate) and prices are extremely reasonable, with dinner entrees ranging from $9 to $25.
And there’s a story to just about every entrée. My two-piece chicken dinner ($11.95 with trip to salad bar), for instance, featured the Red Rooster recipe, which Tegtmeier acquired from the family who ran the popular Lincoln eatery for years, and was a favorite of mine as a kid. The breading, by the way, was perfect and chicken run-down-my chin juicy.
The ham steak is named for Max Waldo of Waldo Farms in DeWitt, who urged Tegtmeier to place pork on the menu. The meat had a nice smoky flavor to it, even cold when my wife munched on the leftovers the next day for lunch.
The menu includes a nice mix of steak, seafood, burgers and sandwiches. Friday and Saturdays, Tegtmeier makes his own prime rib. A trip to the salad bar is a must, as is a piece of homemade pie or cheesecake for dessert. The salad bar, Tegtmeier said, has become quite popular for lunch. Grade: A
Tegtmeier put a lot of thought in creating the restaurant. It features three distinctive areas -- two with booth seating.
The entrance places patrons in the lounge. Arched windows separate it from the first of two dining rooms. The main dining room is at the back, just off the kitchen and is where the salad bar is located.
The middle room handles overflow and/or large parties and is the most stunning. Most of the memorabilia and photos, much of it displayed in large wood bookcases, is found here.
The restaurant boasts tiled floors, pressed-tin ceilings and solid wood tables with leather chairs. A patio allows for outdoor dining, with umbrellas shading the tables. Tegtmeier also built a sand volleyball court.
If the sign outside looks familiar, it should. When the Watering Hole bought Legends Bar and Grill in north Lincoln, it sold the sign to Tegtmeier. It fits and sits perfectly above the front door. Grade: A
We found Legends hopping, and it was a Monday night. Tegtmeier said it’s common for the restaurant to push 200 to 250 diners on Friday and Saturday evenings.
Because it was busy, the restaurant put us in the second dining room, which we had to ourselves. But our server, Sarah, kept an eye on us, checking back frequently. The turn-around time was excellent. Our entrees arrived shortly after we finished our salads.
The restaurant is a step or two above a usual small-town bar and grill, with cloth napkins and a wine list. Grade: A.
Vegetarian and gluten-free friendly
Tegtmeier said there’s not much demand for vegetarian fare. Still, he tries to accommodate vegetarians through the salad bar, where, in addition to a lettuce salad and choice of toppings, 10 homemade items can be found. On our visit, the bar featured potato, pea, broccoli and pasta salads, and two kinds of “fluff.”
As for gluten-free dining, Tegtmeier has a gluten-free flour for the chicken, shrimp and onion rings. But he emphasizes those items are fried in the same peanut oil-filled fryer as the other menu fare. He asks gluten-free eaters to check with him prior to ordering. Grade: C+