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LJ’s Garden Cafe — where friendship and fun are mandatory

MAGNOLIA — In southeast Putnam County, far from the maddening crowd is the village of Magnolia and a restaurant where the term home cooking actually means ... well, home cooking.

LJ’s Garden Cafe at 114 N. Chicago St. is a booming business, popular with the local crowd and more than deserving of a once-over. But be warned; if you go there during the lunch hours, you will be making friends.

Laurie Smith is the owner of LJ’s and is up in the morning at 4 a.m.; she opens the cafe at 5 a.m. every day Tuesday through Sunday, serving up coffee and smiles for the farmers before they hit the fields. The kitchen opens up at 6 a.m. with some great breakfast items. Smith will cook and serve throughout the day and then prepare foods for the following day after closing time; about 95 percent of the food served in the restaurant is homemade. She said she’s been working in the kitchen sometimes until 10 p.m.

While the Garden Cafe has been open for just a few years, Smith brings a lot of experience into the business.

“I’ve been in the restaurant business since I was 16,” Smith said. “I started out at the Four Corners with Mel Haig. I’ve been thinking about opening my own for at least 10 years.”

Instead of the typical small cafe tables, Smith has four tables that will seat eight comfortably with a four seater near the register. With the number of people who come in during the lunch hour, you’ll likely be joined by regulars if you come in as a party of two.

“If you’re sitting by yourself, you will have guests come in with you,” Smith said. “You will make friends that you didn’t know when you came in.”

Smith is the most hard-working person you’re liable to meet. When she’s not in the cafe, she’s either volunteering her time for nearly every organization in town or tending to her duties as village president. She might also be making some of the crafts she sells at the cafe; home decorations line the wall behind the cash register as well as the upstairs room which offers a bit of privacy when the crowd downstairs overflows. There are also picnic tables outside for al fresco dining during the warm months.

Locals rave about Smith’s desserts and chicken wraps, but she’s not afraid of trying something different. Occasionally she have alligator “bites” on the menu, and lately she’s trying turtle to see if it goes over.

LJ’s is open Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday until 2 p.m. and Tuesday and Friday until 8 p.m. Tuesday nights are is a taco special while fish specials are served on Friday nights. LJ’s is closed on Mondays. Gift certificates and carry-outs are available, and the upstairs room is available for parties. The phone number for orders and reserved seating is 815-257-7051.

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