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Thursday, Feb. 26, 2004 12:25 pm

A meeting place

Dale Collins, manager of The Grotto in Sherman

When the late Rev. Peter Mascari built The Grotto in Sherman, he envisioned a gathering place for the senior citizens who were living in the adjacent apartment building and nursing home complex. Although the building has operated as a restaurant since opening several years ago, in some ways his vision was realized.

Some local residents regularly meet for fellowship along with their bacon and eggs at this location. "The same group comes in every day. You can set your clock by it," says manager Dale Collins. They sit at the same table and the group grows from two to 12 by the time food is ordered.

The restaurant, owned by the Villa Corp., is part of a complex that includes the Villa Health Care centers of Sherman. A religious shrine located behind the building and its location in the complex explains why there has been some confusion about the restaurant, Collins says. I have to admit I've often driven by the restaurant and saw the sign and the shrine, not knowing exactly what it was.

Now I do. If a restaurant advertises the fact it serves breakfast all day, you assume it's worth bragging about. So I took the bait and wasn't disappointed. You can choose from many variations on the basic meal of bacon and eggs, but there's also corned beef hash, eggs Benedict, biscuits and gravy and pancakes. A variety of juices, coffee and milk is available.

As I was feeling somewhat health-conscious that day, I opted for a "Build Your Own" vegetarian omelet made with Egg Beaters and chose my ingredients: green peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms, and cheese. The three-egg dish was fluffy and stuffed with vegetables. It filled nearly half of my plate and was served with two slices of toast. The plate arrived at the table hot, which kept the food warm and was a nice touch. The service was quick and our coffee cup was filled regularly, which is a necessity for a late morning breakfast.

Other options include The Grotto Special Breakfast, which is two eggs any style, a choice of potato, bacon, sausage or ham, toast or biscuits and coffee for $3.79. And Sherman's Own Breakfast Shoe is two eggs on toast topped with hash browns or fries, a choice of bacon, sausage or ham, topped with sausage gravy.

Lunch options include sandwiches, soups, and salads. Interesting horseshoe variations are made with chili and hamburger, bacon and tomato, and country fried steak.

My dining companion opted for lunch and started with a cup of corn chowder. The thick, hearty soup tasted like creamed corn with chunks of potatoes and carrots. She also tried the day's special, a pork barbecue sandwich made with shredded bits of pork in a rich, tangy sauce, and served with fried onion rings. Other daily specials include home-style dishes such as liver and onions, roasted pork loin with dressing and gravy, ham and beans and cornbread, beef stew and biscuits, and chicken fried steak.

Collins, a native of Arizona, has managed the restaurant for nearly a year. Besides trying to clear up confusion about the restaurant, he also washes dishes, waits tables, and makes cream pies. He has expanded the weekend dinner menu and is considering ideas for interior decorating and possibly offering the breakfast buffet on Saturdays.

An interesting feature of the simply decorated restaurant is the sunroom section, with walls and ceiling constructed of glass, which makes the atmosphere warm and inviting. Even through a busy lunch hour, the noise level remained quiet enough to have a conversation with those at my table.

The restaurant is open for dinner only on weekends and serves breaded walleye or catfish dinner on Fridays and fried chicken dinners on Saturdays, as well as prime rib and shrimp, rib eye steak, grilled salmon and grilled chicken breast smothered in roasted bell peppers and onions. For dessert, a variety of fruit and cream pies are available. I sampled the coconut cream pie, which was a deal for $2. The large slice of creamy pudding on a crust was piled high with whipped cream and could easily be shared by two.

The Grotto is located at the intersection of Business 55 and St. John's Drive, Sherman. Phone: 217-744-0014. Hours: 7 a.m.-2 p.m. Sun.-Thu. and 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Fri.-Sat. Breakfast is served all day. A Sunday breakfast buffet is offered from 8 a.m.-1:30 p.m. The restaurant is smoke-free.

Hook, line and sinker

For those of you planning to eat fish on Fridays during Lent, the Walleye Stop is giving you two additional options. In addition to offering extended hours, the restaurant will be holding fish fries from 5 p.m.-8 p.m. every Friday through Good Friday (April 9) at the Aqua Club, located at 1 Club Area at Lake Springfield.

The popular eastside eatery is known for its homemade fried green tomatoes and has been serving up home style cooking such as fried fish, river fries, beer-battered onion rings, and butter cake for seven years.

This is the fifth year the business has held fish fries at the club. The menu will include fried walleye, buffalo, catfish, shrimp, clam strips, chicken and combo meals (walleye, clams, chicken, and shrimp). Cajun-style fish will also be available. All dinners include two side dishes with a choice of river fries, baked potato, potato salad, corn fritters, homemade macaroni and cheese, baked beans, coleslaw and corn cobettes. Prices range from $6.50 to $7.50.

Carry-out is available and orders can be placed by calling The Aqua Club at 217- 529-2431.

The restaurant's concession stand also will operate from the IGA parking lot in Riverton every Friday through Lent. Fried walleye, buffalo and other items will be available. It will operate from 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Carry-out is available and orders can be placed by calling 217-341-FISH (3474).

The restaurant will continue to offer its regular menu at its location at 1126 E. South Grand Ave. On Fridays through Lent, it will remain open until 9 p.m. For more information, call The Walleye Stop at 217-544-1904.

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