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East County Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017 3 years ago

East County Linger Lodge landmark reopens

New owners to focus on expanding RV resort as well.
by: Pam Eubanks Senior Editor

Ruth Hofer admired a turtle shell hanging on a wall at Linger Lodge Restaurant. The shell, along with six smaller shells around it, were there before, but she wouldn’t have noticed them.

Hofer, asset manager for the property, said a lot of similar attractions were uncovered when the restaurant’s renovation began.

Linger Lodge, the historic Old Florida establishment, reopened Dec. 7 under new ownership after a four-month renovation.

“We tried to make it look like a lodge,” Hofer said. “We tried to keep the flavor and charm of the place.”

A campground since 1945 that evolved into a restaurant and RV park, Linger Lodge has long been known for its offerings of catfish, gator bites and frog legs, as well as its fake “road kill” menu — all of which patrons can enjoy with a waterfront view of the Braden River.

The other part of its charm, however, comes from its unique display of animals and animal creations from amateur taxidermist Frank Gamsky, who owned the property from 1968 to 2005.

Squirrels wearing clothes and playing baseball and golf are on shelves near the bar, and there are plenty other such displays throughout the building, including an alligator with fake human body parts hanging out of its mouth.

Employees have cleaned and reorganized everything to help the items look more like works of art than clutter.

A “Linger Lodge Park” sign on the front wall was hidden behind the alligator and now has a prominent position in front of a community dining table, reserved for larger parties or RV park guests who want to meet and mingle.

One of the biggest changes, perhaps, is the construction of restaurant-specific restrooms that are handicap accessible. Previously, restrooms were shared with RV residents. Restaurant patrons even had to pass the RV park’s laundry facilities to get to them.

General Manager David LaRusso said the restaurant’s menu has not changed much. It is keeping its staples of fried catfish, frog legs, gator bites and fried tomatoes. However, in the coming weeks, the restaurant will roll out a few modifications to see how patrons respond. For example, there will be a new veal chop and a wild game slider platter featuring bison, duck and gator on buns.

The outdoor patio seats as many people as inside. The new owners plan to add a few tables outside the patio, as well.

LaRusso, who has served as the restaurant’s general manager since 2010, said the renovations will attract new business. Although the menu has changed and food improved since his arrival, many local patrons have avoided the establishment because he said they thought it felt “dirty.”

“It’s really a godsend for the property because it was in such disrepair,” LaRusso said of the new owners and changes. “Changing the perception has always been the hardest part. Now, there’s a visual change.”

Philipp Hartl, project manager and son of owner Franz Hartl, said the improvements were needed to give the restaurant more appeal, particularly as he prepares to upgrade the adjacent RV park — the second phase of improvements to the overall Linger Lodge property.

There will be construction of new facilities on the grounds, including a community pool, a clubhouse and another building with showers and bathrooms.

“People are looking for nature, but they still want luxury,” Hofer said. “We believe in this place. We believe it’s going to be very (successful).”

The facility improvements may change the layout of the RV park, but not its ambiance. Hartl’s team has no plans to cover up Old Florida with concrete pads, but rather hope to showcase the property’s natural setting.

Pending permitting, the site may eventually house up to 125 RVs. There are currently 100 spots.

RV park improvements will begin after season, likely sometime in April. She hopes the resort can reopen in time for start of the following season, in January 2019, and said it will depend on the length of construction.

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