Gabriel Shuman drove past the former R.J. Gator's often this summer, wondering when it would reopen.
The restaurant had been his hangout for 21/2 years. Its staff affectionately called him "Man in Little Shirts."
Shuman, a landscaper and irrigation specialist, was elated when the restaurant opened Aug. 10 as Gators Hometown Grill & Bar.
Ten of its staff are back, as are the most popular menu items and many new ones. The restaurant has a surf theme.
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"It's a chillin' place to hang out," Shuman said as he enjoyed a beer and a steak burrito recently at the restaurant's bar. "I liked the environment and the people."
R.J. Gator's opened in Cornelius in May 2002. The Florida chain went bankrupt in 2008. An investment group that had operated the local franchise since 2006 pulled out earlier this year, said Stephanie Radhuber, the location's longtime general manager.
"But the staff was like family and didn't want it closed," she said.
The new owners, businessmen Rance Johnson and Peter Gjurai, previously ran karaoke and trivia nights there.
Radhuber said a quarter of the menu at Gators Hometown Grill & Bar consists of popular fare from the old menu, such as the Tsunami grouper sandwich, coconut rum barbecued ribs and Gator Tail Pie, which has an Oreo cookie crust, butter pecan ice cream with toasted sliced almonds, whipped cream and chocolate and caramel syrups.
New selections include the surf-themed Hang-10 Burger, with 15 topping choices; and the Island Fireballs appetizer (hushpuppies with crab, shrimp and jalapeño pepper). Also new are the fish tacos, called "Tiki Tacos."
Patrons of the 250-seat restaurant will recognize William McArther, Justin Frasure and Teddi Kierstead, one of Lake Norman's best-known bartenders.
Gators Hometown Grill & Bar: 19707 Liverpool Parkway; 704-895-7811; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 11 a.m. until the last patron leaves on Fridays and Saturdays.