LAKE GENEVA — The Red Geranium Restaurant is a place where people go to enjoy a good meal and to make memories.
For 35 years, the restaurant on Highway 50 near Highway 12 on Lake Geneva’s east side has been a local favorite, not only for lunch or dinner, but also for birthdays, graduations and other special occasions.
But the good times are about to end, as restaurant owner Dotty Swatek prepares to shut the doors effective Jan. 1.
“It’s hard to say goodbye,” Swatek said. “It’s been an important part of our history.”
Customers saddened to be losing the Red Geranium are distraught that the place they associate with memorable moments soon will fade into the pages of history.
Tim Dunn, a Lake Geneva native and now city alderman, recalls choosing the Red Geranium as the spot where he and his wife announced their wedding plans to family members nearly 20 years ago.
The home-shaped restaurant with the white picket fence has also been the site of many Rotary Club meetings for Dunn.
“We love the place,” he said of he and his wife. “It really saddens me — we’re losing a little bit of uniqueness.”
Swatek has signed a deal to sell the property, although she is not ready to talk about details. City officials recently said they had been approached by the Jiffy Lube company about redeveloping the site into a car-repair outlet.
Sad news for many
The idea of watching the Red Geranium succumb to the forces of time and change is difficult for those who have made the restaurant their home.
Vern Pregont, a waitress for the past 20 years, said she can scarcely think about the Jan. 1 closing without getting emotional.
“This is a heartbreak,” she said. “Where are you going to go to find a place like this?”
The building at 351 N. Edwards Blvd. was a home that had been converted into an antique store when it caught Lyle Swatek’s eye in 1985. He and his first wife, Audrey Swatek, opened the Red Geranium and quickly made it a community favorite.
Lunch and dinner crowds were treated to art exhibitions, fashion shows and other extras.
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In 1999, the Walgreens drug store chain purchased the property for a drug store that still stands. But rather than demolish the Red Geranium, Lyle Swatek physically moved the restaurant to the east and reopened at the current location, 393 N. Edwards Boulevard.
Not long after, cancer claimed the life of Audrey Swatek.
Two years later, Lyle and Dotty were married, and the new couple continued the Red Geranium together. The 150-seat establishment never missed a beat, drawing bigger and bigger crowds with its prime rib, grilled salmon, barbecue ribs and other favorites.
Troy Bartz, the longtime executive chef and general manager, said he and his staff took pride in every dish that left the kitchen. Bartz enjoyed walking around the dining room — still wearing his chef’s hat and apron — to visit with customers.
“It makes me feel good to see faces with smiles,” he said.
The restaurant employs about 25 people.
Over the years, Lyle and Dotty Swatek’s place grew as a preferred spot for private occasions of all kinds for their customers. Families and groups showed up to mark milestones ranging from anniversaries and birthdays to even an occasional funeral.
Audrey Thurow, a regular from Crystal Lake, Illinois, joined family members at the Red Geranium for her mother-in-law’s retirement party, and then again for the mother-in-law’s 75th birthday.
Other times, Thurow and her friends played a round of golf at nearby Hillmoor Golf Course, meeting afterwards at the Red Geranium.
“It was a special place,” she said. “Anything that we needed to celebrate, we chose to go there.”
The beginning of the end for the Red Geranium came on April 8, 2018, when Lyle Swatek died at the age of 90. The World War II veteran and business leader was remembered as a self-made success whose passing left a void in the community.
Dotty Swatek and her staff kept the restaurant going for more than another year. But after one last New Year’s Eve, the doors will close for good on Jan. 1. In a half-page advertisement in the Lake Geneva Regional News, Swatek wrote that continuing without her husband was difficult, and that the time had come to “celebrate the past and look to the future.”
Swatek said she hopes the Red Geranium is remembered as a place that offered high-quality dining with good service in a setting that welcomed the community.
“It was a happening,” she said. “It was the place to be.”
“We love the place. It really saddens me — we’re losing a little bit of uniqueness.” Tim Dunn, Lake Geneva alderman speaking about the Red Geranium restaurant
“We love the place. It really saddens me — we’re losing a little bit of uniqueness.”
Tim Dunn, Lake Geneva alderman speaking about the Red Geranium restaurant