Destroyed by a fire in 2010, the Gun Club returns, with a new location in Roscoe, and a hopeful outlook on its new life. Meet the dynamic owners and discover why they’re determined to bring back this local favorite.
Cynthia Dajka was a corporate event planner in Chicago for many years, commuting from the home she shares with husband Frank in Rockton, Ill.
“I retired, and at the end of two years, after I had cleaned out every closet in the house – some of them twice – Frank told me, ‘It’s time for you to do something else,’” she says. “With my experience in planning events, I had always wanted to run a restaurant. So I thought about it and said, ‘I want to own The Gun Club.’”
The Dajkas had been customers at the Beloit-area restaurant for years. “We were introduced to The Gun Club by another couple,” says Dajka. “The first time we went there, we ran into her parents, who were very well-traveled. Her mother just gushed about the place. She kept saying, ‘This is my favorite restaurant in the whole world.’ At the time, I wondered how that could be, with all of the wonderful places she’d visited. But after I had done some traveling for my job, I understood what she meant.”
The restaurant was chock-full of antiques, especially old guns. “It had such a rich history and wonderful ambiance,” says Dajka. “I’m a big antique lover. It had everything I wanted – great atmosphere, fantastic food and service, an incredible warmth that just drew us in.”
The owners were ready to retire, but wanted to be certain to pass the business on to someone who would appreciate its distinct character. The Dajkas took over as proprietors of The Gun Club on Jan. 2, 2002, changing some of the décor, bringing in their own antiques, updating equipment in the kitchen, adding dishes to the menu – making the place their own. The bar hosted live music on weekends, and, Dajka says, patrons would come in early for cocktails, go to the dining room, and return to the bar for music and camaraderie, staying until the wee hours.
Then, on Aug. 7, 2010, the couple received a horrifying call at 6 a.m.: The Gun Club was on fire. The building was almost a total loss. “The fire was devastating,” Dajka says. “We lost our livelihood, our staff lost their jobs, Beloit lost a landmark.”
At first, the couple intended to rebuild, on the same spot, in the exact footprint. “We were naïve, because we thought we’d pick up the pieces quickly and start over right away,” Dajka says. “But the insurance company took a very long time with the claim. We finally had to hire legal services to push for settlement, and we realized that when it did come through, the money wouldn’t come close to making us whole. We went through a stage where we considered not reopening.”
Then, in March 2011, Dajka says, a realtor knocked on their door. “He said, ‘Have I got a deal for you,’” she says. “It was just out of the blue. He explained that The Rusty Putter was up for sale, and that we would be able to negotiate a good deal. The space is so completely different, that at first, we said, ‘Absolutely not.’ A week later, Frank said, ‘It wouldn’t hurt to take a look.’”
The building, at 5506 Clayton Circle in Roscoe, Ill., is new and fairly contemporary. “It’s bigger, not as warm or old,” says Dajka. “But we decided it was a better option than not opening at all. We missed it so. I felt bad for Beloit and our loyal customers. We thought Beloit deserved to have it back, but it just wasn’t possible. We toyed with the idea of a different name but decided against it.”
The Gun Club of Roscoe opened for business on Sept. 29, with a hybrid menu of old Gun Club and Rusty Putter items, and a mix of staff. “Most are Rusty Putter employees,” says Dajka. “We have a few people from the old Gun Club, but most had moved on. They had to work.”
Redecorating is a work in progress, but the Dajkas have removed all of the golf memorabilia, repainted, switched out artwork and put in window treatments. While the space doesn’t lend itself to antiques, a few items are making their way in.
“The original Gun Club bar featured a beautiful teak elephant that was rescued by firemen,” says Dajka. “That’s being restored, and we’ll bring it into the bar, along with a big brass bucket that was also rescued. The firemen were able to rescue all of the barstools, and we hope to get those in. We lost all of the antique guns, but a customer loaned us one. ‘You can’t have The Gun Club with no guns,’ he said. We’ve had others offer, too, but right now, we’re focused on the big things.”
That includes installing a broiler in the kitchen for preparing steaks, and switching out the china plates for steak plates, to keep them warm. “We want the same taste and cooking techniques back,” says Dajka.
Getting the same taste is a challenge, because the recipes were lost in the fire.
“The chefs carried the recipes around on crumpled papers in the apron pockets,” Dajka says. “When the writing would get too hard to read, they recopied them and stuffed them back in their pockets. I finally gathered them all up, entered them into the computer, printed them out and put them in protective sleeves in binders for them, which we kept in the kitchen. Of course, they still used the ones from their pockets.”
Dajka never took a binder home, and the digital files existed only on the restaurant computer’s hard drive, which was destroyed. But she’s been consulting with her previous head chef, who’s helped her to re-create many of the recipes. Her current head chef was her previous sous chef. The menu is coming along.
“Rusty Putter customers have asked for a few things to be left on the menu, which we’ve done,” Dajka says. “But the majority are Gun Club items, like our Pecan Chicken and Scallops Casino.”
One addition is pizza, a popular item for Rusty Putter patrons. “I had every intention of closing the pizza oven, but the staff kept telling me how good the pizza was,” says Dajka. “We finally tried it, and it is really good. So the pizza oven stays.”
They’ll bring back the loyalty program, and the menu will change one more time, when they add crab legs and lobster. “Former Gun Club patrons expect the same menu,” she says. “The final version will be a bit different. We had left some items on the old Gun Club menu, just because they’d been there, but now I can leave those behind. It’s close, but it’s not 100 percent yet.”
Customer favorites are the 6-ounce filet, The Gun Club Ribeye and the prime rib. “Our salmon is popular, and we sell a lot of scallops,” says Dajka. “My current favorite is the center cut sirloin, priced at $18. But you really can’t beat the Gun Club Ribeye.” The most expensive entrée runs about $30.
Dajka and her staff make all of the desserts, including the Gun Club bread pudding, a menu staple. “I have a signature chocolate cake, and I make a variety of cheesecakes. I made pumpkin through Thanksgiving, and now, I’ve got a caramel pecan topped with a chocolate genache.”
The new space, including a party room, accommodates 30 to 40 more diners than the former Gun Club. “And there’s a lot more space between the tables, so it’s easier for the servers to move around,” says Dajka. “And the dining room here is much quieter.”
They’ll be adding more draft beer in the bar, and they’re working on developing a wine list. “We’ve brought back live entertainment on Friday and Saturday, featuring some of the same musicians who played at the old Gun Club, and we’ll eventually bring back Blues Thursday,” says Dajka.
The Gun Club of Roscoe operates Tuesday through Saturday, with the lounge opening at 4:30 p.m. and the kitchen starting at 5 p.m. “We haven’t officially announced our return, but people have found us,” says Dajka. “We’re working toward a Grand Opening in January.”
It’s been a tough road, and the Dajkas still have a lot of work ahead, but they’re excited about the Gun Club’s rebirth. “We’re here because we’re dedicated to our customers, dedicated to bringing back the wonderful food, great service and warm atmosphere,” says Dajka.
“Even though it will be different, we’re striving to bring back special touches, to be a place where people come in early, have drinks, go to dinner and come back to listen to music and have fun.” ❚